A high-level delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the senior leader of the Taliban and their chief negotiator at the Doha talks, held consultations in Tehran and Moscow January from 26 to 29 amid growing uncertainty over the Afghan peace process.
A commentary by the US government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) said on Thursday that the fate of the nearly year-old US-Taliban agreement in Doha was in the balance.
It said the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani was “eager to exploit the growing fractures between the Taliban and Washington and is pushing at the very least to disrupt the agreement.”
The radio service added, “Sensing an opportunity to advance their interests, Afghan officials are now pushing to keep a US counterterrorism force beyond the May deadline for complete withdrawal. [US President Joe] Biden has long advocated keeping a counterterrorism force in Afghanistan as a deterrent against possible terrorist threats.”
Indeed, if a reason is needed for extended US troop deployment to Afghanistan, the outgoing Trump administration might just have provided one, with the Treasury Department notifying the Pentagon via a memo dated January 4 that:
- “As of 2020, al-Qaeda is gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under the Taliban’s protection”;
- “Al-Qaeda capitalizes on its relationship with the Taliban through its network of mentors and advisers who are embedded with the Taliban, providing advice, guidance, and financial support”;
- “Senior Haqqani Network figures have discussed forming a new joint unit of armed fighters in cooperation with and funded by al-Qaeda.”
The Doha agreement of February last year envisaged that the US would completely withdraw its troops by May 2021 but this would be conditional on the Taliban severing their links with al-Qaeda. In principle, that conditionality is now becoming a deal-breaker.
The Taliban feel cheated and have reacted in indignation, saying, “Some circles are seeking the extension of this imposed war on the Afghan nation in pursuit of their interests and malicious objectives.” The Taliban suspect – with good reason – that the US is shifting the goalposts on the basis of intelligence inputs by Afghan intelligence.
Indeed, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken hinted at his first press conference in Washington after assuming office that a policy review on Afghanistan may be in the cards, since “one of the things that we need to understand is exactly what is in the agreements that were reached between the United States and the Taliban to make sure that we fully understand the commitments that the Taliban has made as well as any commitments that we’ve made.”
On Thursday, Blinken called Ghani and “shared that the United States is reviewing the February 2020 US-Taliban agreement and whether the Taliban are living up to their commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups, to reduce violence in Afghanistan, and to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and other stakeholders.”
The Biden administration is distancing itself from the explicit commitment to a total withdrawal of US troops by May, as per the Doha pact. Therefore, the timing of Mullah Baradar’s journey to Tehran can be put in perspective as a frantic attempt by the Taliban to shore up regional support.
Interestingly, Baradar reportedly said at his meeting in Tehran on Wednesday with the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, “We do not trust the United States an inch, and will fight any party that serves as its mercenary.”
Baradar assured Shamkhani that the Taliban are open to the participation of all ethnic groups in shaping the future of Afghanistan and that the Taliban will maintain the security of the Afghan-Iran border. These are of course Tehran’s core concerns.
However, Shamkhani’s remarks were noncommittal – although he voiced criticism of the US intentions. Shamkhani underscored that Iran is totally opposed to a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. He also stressed the importance of power-sharing and an inclusive peace settlement.
Despite the US-Iran tensions, Tehran attaches the highest importance to the stabilization of Afghanistan and will not play the role of a spoiler of efforts for a negotiated settlement. Fundamentally, Iran assesses that the US is a much diminished power and is no longer in a position to impose its will or act unilaterally in regional conflicts.
A prominent Iranian expert on Afghanistan and Pakistan issues, Pir Mohammad Mollazehi, recently referred to a behind-the-scenes agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban to mobilize local radical Islamic forces in Afghanistan who have fought in Iraq and Syria, to pit them against Russia, China and Iran. But he assessed that the Biden team will not allow any such full-fledged takeover of power by the Taliban and may have plans to engage with Russia and China, or even Iran.
As he put it, Biden will also try to distribute power in a future set-up in Kabul among the three main currents – Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban – and if that happens, there will be a new government in which all factions will have a share in power. Curiously, Tehran is sanguine that Pakistan is also inclined to encourage the Taliban to share power in Kabul.
From Tehran, the Taliban delegation proceeded to Moscow and held talks with Russian officials on January 28. A Russian Foreign Ministry press release said, “The Russian side spoke out in favor of launching substantive and constructive intra-Afghan talks as soon as possible so as to put an end to the bloody civil war and create an effective national government in Afghanistan.”
Again, despite the tensions in Russian-American relations, Moscow has so far refrained from undermining the US diplomacy vis-à-vis the Taliban. At the weekly Foreign Ministry press briefing in Moscow on December 16, spokeswoman Maria Zakharova specifically addressed this aspect, saying:
“In recent years the Russian Federation and the US have established a constructive dialogue on the peaceful settlement in Afghanistan. Our special envoys have stayed in touch, and since 2019, together with our Chinese and Pakistani partners, we have set up the format of expanded ‘troika’ that has proven effective in promoting a peaceful settlement in the intra-Afghan conflict.
“We hope that once the new US president takes office, the Russian-American contacts for achieving peace in Afghanistan will continue as soon as possible, along with the efforts to neutralize the threats of terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking emanating from that country.”
In principle, Russia remains supportive of the United States’ insistence that the Taliban should jettison their links with all terrorist groups (which include militants from Chechnya and Central Asia) and agree to a ceasefire so that peace talks can take place in a conducive atmosphere.
China’s position also cannot be any different, given its concerns over the presence of Uighur militants on Afghan soil. And this will continue to be so despite the Biden administration’s adversarial mindset toward Russia and China.
All in all, if the Biden administration keeps its word to forge “a collective strategy to support a stable, sovereign, democratic, and secure future for Afghanistan” – as Blinken promised Ghani on Thursday – its efforts to get the Taliban to the negotiating table to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and other stakeholders will have international backing.
The point is, no one wants the present scale of violence to continue in Afghanistan. Put differently, the Taliban once again face the specter of international isolation, as happened in the 1990s, although the Ghani government itself is extremely unpopular with a bad reputation as a cabal of self-seeking corrupt people devoid of any political base or legitimacy.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.