Afghan Taliban militants celebrate a ceasefire on the outskirts of Jalalabad on June 16, 2018, the second day of Eid. Photo: AFP

After the Taliban’s six days of talks with a US delegation in Doha late last month, Moscow on Tuesday opened a two-day Taliban interaction with about 40 Afghan opposition leaders. What is intriguing is that President Ashraf Ghani’s High Peace Council – tasked with Taliban engagement – was not invited to either of these two meetings.

Ghani meanwhile has repeatedly called for talks with the Taliban. The Taliban, for their part, do not recognize Ghani’s government, calling it a puppet of the US.

The fact that the same format is to be followed in the second US-Taliban meeting in Doha starting on February 25 further undermines Ghani’s authority, raising questions about Afghan peace and stability.

While the Taliban seem happy to ride on President Donald Trump’s tactics aimed at distracting attention from investigations into alleged Russian meddling in his election campaign or seeking to fulfill his election promise to yank US soldiers out and say good riddance to the Afghan misadventure that has cost 2,500 American lives and a trillion dollars, most regional interlocutors and even the US intelligence chiefs and Senate are warning of any such “precipitous withdrawal” triggering resurgence of al-Qaeda and Islamic State and its dangerous implications for neighbors like Russia, China and India, especially in terms of cross-border conflicts.

Moscow hosted a similar meeting last November to which delegates from the Afghan High Peace Council, the Taliban and officials from a dozen other countries were invited. The Taliban refused to speak to the Council members. For this week’s meeting, not only has Moscow not invited the High Peace Council, its invitees include former Afghan national security adviser Hanif Atmar, who will be running against Ghani in presidential elections this July. 

Others include the powerful former governor of Balkh province, Atta Muhammad Nur, and former Afghan president Hamid Karzai – both anti-Ghani. In Doha as well, Zalmay Khalilzad – former US ambassador to Afghanistan (2001-2003) and now special representative for Afghanistan political reconciliation – held a series of informal meetings with Taliban representatives ending in December.

All this has propelled Afghanistan’s neighbors into a spin, and their responses have gained traction over time. 

India, for instance, has carried out quiet yet proactive diplomacy with several top Pashtun, Hazara and Tajik leaders, including Hamid Karzai. India’s participation in the Moscow meeting last November marked an inflection point as it finally abandoned its longtime hard stance of not recognizing the binaries of “radical” and “moderate” Taliban. This was because India has serious stakes in peace and stability in Afghanistan, where it has built a new parliament building, the Afghan-India Friendship Dam (formerly Salma Dam), a highway to Iran, a children’s hospital and schools, and initiated scholarship, food assistance and other projects with a total value of US$2 billion, with projects worth another billion promised and in the making.  

New Delhi has also been engaging key international stakeholders such as the US, Russia, Iran and the Central Asian republics. Among other things, India has conveyed to the US its discomfiture with installing any “interim” government including the Taliban and the need to support existing political and constitutional structures, especially holding presidential elections in time in July. 

To address exigencies of any hasty compromise and exit by the Trump administration, New Delhi is currently exploring dialogue with Beijing, which is another major stakeholder in Afghan peace and stability. Starting from the informal Wuhan summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping last April, the two have begun joint ventures in Afghanistan but have not yet broached joint management of peace and suability in post-US Afghanistan. But both share memories of the last Taliban regime in Kabul and know what a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan may mean for their respective volatile regions – Kashmir and Xinjiang.

China, without doubt, is seen as the most capable player among Afghanistan’s neighbors. It was also among the few states to have maintained off-and-on relations with last Taliban regime (1996-2001). There are references to the meeting between China’s ambassador to Pakistan, Lu Shulin, in December 2000 with Mullah Omar in Kandahar. 

More recently, in May 2015 The New York Times published a report headlined “Taliban and Afghan peace officials have secret talks in China,” though Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujaheed denied it, saying they did send delegations to neighboring nations including China. Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, a former Taliban foreign minister, believes China can play a significant role in peace talks, and stakeholders including India, Iran, Russia, and even the US have echoed a similar sentiment about Beijing.

As regards Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan is known for his refrain asking the US for years to engage with the Taliban directly. Pakistan is facilitating their dialogue and the formal US-Taliban talks late last month were originally to be held in Islamabad, where Zalmay Khalilzad stayed put for several days before moving to Doha. The Taliban had refused to go to Islamabad unless the US placed withdrawal of foreign troops on the agenda for negotiations, which finally made the US to shift the talks to Doha and also hold talks with junior representatives. 

Most of Ghani’s supporters are suspicious of Pakistan’s role and have relied far too much on the Trump regime. Indeed last week, feeling left out of the US-Taliban deliberations in Doha, Ghani wrote a letter to Trump promising reduced the costs of keeping US forces in Afghanistan, alluding to how American impatience could lead to a renaissance in power by the Taliban, who have already been steadily gaining ground. 

It is estimated that more than 15 million people – half of the Afghan population – today lives in areas controlled by the Taliban or where the extremists have a strong grip and regularly launch violent attacks. According to official statistics released last week, more than 45,000 members of the Afghan security forces have been killed since 2014. The spate of engagement by major players has surely bolstered its image at home and its spirits. But the Trump administration seems determined to bring this 17-year-long war to a close even at the cost of betraying its Afghan allies without any promise of any enduring peace. 

The US, for instance, has already made major concessions by directly engaging the Taliban leadership and promising the withdrawal of foreign troops in a staggered manner in return for the Taliban promising to hold their ceasefire and not to host any foreign terrorists. The Taliban as yet have shown no signs to accepting either of these conditions. Trump’s team seems in tight spot, aiming to do its part with or without any reciprocity from the Taliban side. The US even seems willing to delay presidential elections in Afghanistan, instead forming a transitional government including the Taliban. 

This calls for regional players – led by Russia, China and India ideally working through their Shanghai Cooperation Organization – to begin working on exigencies that may flow from Trump’s singular determination to pull out a large part of America’s troop contingent following his whimsical timeline with no connection to ground realities.

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Swaran Singh

Dr Swaran Singh is professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; adjunct senior fellow at The Charhar Institute, Beijing; senior fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka, Colombo; and visiting professor, Research Institute for Indian Ocean Economies, Kunming (China).

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