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How will regional actors approach Afghanistan peace talks?

Middle East scholar addresses questions surrounding U.S. withdrawal and the interests of neighbors in the process.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

In light of the increasing speculation about whether President Biden will withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Responsible Statecraft asked Fatemeh Aman, non-resident senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, and writer on Iranian, Afghan, and other Middle Eastern affairs for over 20 years, to answer several questions relevant to the administration's impending decisions. Her response follows:

President Joe Biden has inherited many challenges in the foreign policy field, and Afghanistan is a major one. The Afghanistan war, the longest in U.S. history, will reach its 20th anniversary later this year and there is still little prospect of a feasible solution that leads to a lasting peace.

Much of the complexity of the situation is Afghanistan results from its intricate tribal structure and rivalries in the region. Therefore, a lasting peace may not be possible without active participation of those rival neighbors. The Biden administration is pushing for a solution and its patience, apparent by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s letter to Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani, is not unlimited. 

In his letter, Secretary Blinken’s tone was unmistakably firm: “We are considering the full withdrawal of our forces by May 1, as we consider other options. Even with the continuation of financial assistance from the United States to your forces after an American military withdrawal, I am concerned the security situation will worsen and that the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains.”  

He stated the importance of the active involvement of Afghanistan’s neighbors, regional players, and the United Nation-sponsored meeting with foreign ministers of Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia, and China. He also called for a meeting in Turkey between the Afghan government and the Taliban. In addition, Blinken proposed a 90-day reduction-in-violence to prevent the Taliban’s annual spring offensive, and the creation of a transitional government formed by both sides.

Q) How do the government and military (if there is a divergence) in Pakistan think about the U.S. just up and leaving Afghanistan by May 1? 

A) Pakistan’s foreign policies, when it comes to Afghanistan and India, have been consistent. The military and the civilian government do not differ in their approaches. Pakistan’s help was essential in bringing the Taliban to the table and signing the U.S.-Taliban “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan” on February 29, 2020 in Doha. A government in Afghanistan that is friendly to Pakistan is a good outcome for Islamabad.  

It remains to be seen, however, how things would change should India become active in the formation of the next Afghan government. Although other participants in the process, China and Turkey, could balance India’s presence,

the truth is that Pakistan’s desire is not the Taliban’s dominance in Afghanistan. A government that does not let Afghanistan become a haven for terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda is somehow a better outcome for Pakistan.

Q) There is the assumption by many Afghans that if Pakistan wanted, the Taliban would lay down their weapons or that the Taliban is Pakistan’s puppet. Is there some truth to that?

A) There are certainly strong links between the Taliban and Pakistan. However, the Taliban is not Pakistan’s puppet. They refused to recognize the Durand line [a 2,430-kilometer border drawn in 1893 by Britain that separates the two countries but cuts through Pashtun tribal and Baluch regions] as the Pakistani-Afghan border when in power in the 1990s, and this, despite multi-dimensional support that the Taliban received from Pakistan. 

Also, one should not forget that ousting the Taliban from power in 2001 would have not been possible without Pakistan’s support. That said, it does not mean that Pakistan and others have not pursued the two-fold strategy of supporting some militant groups and fighting others. The countries in the region should have learned by now that extremist proxies do not stay loyal forever and they are difficult to control.

Q) If the neighbors are now reconciled to a delay, what will they want the United States to do between now and another 6 months?

A) I think by now all parties understand that there is no other alternative but to reach a deal. Formation of a new government will be extremely hard and challenging given the fact that rivals need to become partners.  

Reminding Ghani’s government of the May 1 deadline was aimed at making him understand the seriousness of the issue. But the question is how to make the Taliban also understand the seriousness of the moment. The notion that the Taliban may keep promises and understand deadlines stems from the impression that the Taliban may have some respect for international law and obligations.  

One of the promises the Taliban made in the agreement with Washington, was to sever ties with foreign terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and deny them any base from which they could carry out attacks on the United States or its allies.  However, according to the Department of Treasury, the Taliban and al-Qaeda have “maintained a strong relationship and continued to meet regularly.”  Unfortunately, the Taliban has less to lose than the government. 

I think what the neighbors desire at this point is for the United States to stay engaged but not dictate. The more participants in the talks, the better. Bringing in Turkey was a good idea since Turkey enjoys good relations with both of Afghanistan’s neighbors. The United Nations institutions could be supported and given more authority. Trying to protect some achievements of civil society in Afghanistan would be a must.  

I think by now, all factions and parties in Afghanistan have understood that the United States is not taking the government away from Ghani to give to them. This is a good thing along with the fact that everybody understands that since the Biden administration is not facing challenges, such as election any time soon, its Afghanistan approach won’t be as subject to the fickle winds of domestic political opinion as might otherwise be the case. 

Q) Is a situation like Najib’s outcome possible?

A)  Back then the government of Muhammed Najibullah Ahmadzai held on to power (mostly in Kabul) until the spring of 1992, three years after the Soviets left. That was in major part due to financial help that his government was receiving from the Soviets. Only weeks after Najib’s government fell, a bloody civil war broke with numerous factions involved. 

Today’s situation, despite similarities, is quite different from back then. Back then, almost all opponents perhaps preferred civil war over Soviet occupation. Today, neither Russia nor the United States, or any country, wants a civil war. 

Q) How does Iran (and the IRGC, if there is a divergence), view the situation?

A) Iran has had a unified foreign policy with regard to South Asia as a whole and Afghanistan in particular. There is an obvious distinct approach between the Biden administration and the previous one regarding Afghanistan. Iran has noted that, and I think they would participate actively in renewed international negotiations. Things could change once a new conservative IRGC-aligned government comes to power after the June election, as seems likely. We may hear more anti-American slogans, but I don’t expect a dramatic shift in Iran’s policies toward cooperation on Afghan peace talks. 

So generally, there has been a unified approach toward Afghanistan.  Even after the incident of the Taliban’s attack on the Iranian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif and killing of diplomats in 1998, when the possibility of a retaliatory raid into Afghanistan was discussed, there was a consensus between the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, reformist president Mohammad Khatami, and the IRGC to avoid a military action.

I’m also actually very cautiously optimistic that if and when Washington and Tehran return to compliance with the nuclear deal and possibly indicate a mutual willingness to engage in follow-on talks, Iran may play a more constructive role in Afghanistan. Indeed, the involvement of both Iran and the United States in these multilateral negotiations could offer a precedent for talks on other regional issues.

Q) Back to the multilateral upcoming meetings on the Afghan peace process, do you think it could be another Bonn-like conference [the Bonn Agreement in 2001 set the foundation for state-building efforts in Afghanistan]?

A) Not really. Back then there was enthusiasm to rebuild Afghanistan. The Taliban had been ousted, and a new government was being formed. There was international interest in preventing the Taliban from coming back to power. This time, it is more a desperate last resort. There is no doubt that leaving Afghanistan and letting the government deal with the Taliban, could result in the group’s return to power. The Taliban is now an important part of the game and cannot be ignored. Back then there was excitement to rebuild the country and even make it a successful model for conflict-torn places around the world. This time it is not and there is no consensus among parties.  A positive factor, however, is that Iran is included in the talks, in contrast with the Trump administration’s approach of excluding Iran, and Iran has helped in the past.

Afghan Nation Army soldiers assigned to 1st Kandak, 2nd Brigade, 203rd Corps, stationed at Afghan National Army Base, Khair Kut Garrison, Paktika Province, Afghanistan, move through the village of Panagir, May 22, 2013. (Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Mark A. Moore II - 2/10 Security Forces Assistance Brigade)
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