In search of a regional consensus on Afghanistan

In search of a regional consensus on Afghanistan

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, is holding separate bilateral meetings in Beijing, Islamabad, Kabul, and New Delhi. (AFP)

In recent months, there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity intended to kickstart formal talks with the Taliban. And yet there are still many reasons to be skeptical about the prospects for peace in Afghanistan. 
These reasons largely boil down to the Taliban. The insurgents are performing well on the battlefield and have little incentive to stop fighting. They have also categorically refused to talk to Kabul until American troops are heading for the exits. In effect, the Taliban want to write Afghan officials out of their own reconciliation process, and that’s no way to wage peace.
However, recent days have amplified another obstacle to peace — one that ironically emanates not from the Taliban, but from the nations trying to help bring the insurgents to the table. This obstacle is the lack of a regional consensus on how to pursue and conclude peace.
There’s no shortage of countries enlisted in the effort to launch a reconciliation process in Afghanistan. They include China, Pakistan, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states, several Central Asian states, and, increasingly, India. 
This broad-based buy-in makes sense, given that these countries all share an interest in peace. Ending the war would eliminate a key source of regional instability. It would remove the spillover effects of an ongoing war, such as refugee flows and a robust drug trade. No more war would also be a big blow to Daesh, which has exploited the conflict to carve out a bastion and remain a resilient threat in Afghanistan. These are all desired outcomes for the many countries trying to convince the Taliban to stop fighting. Indeed, the nations involved in Afghan reconciliation efforts largely see eye-to-eye on these issues of war, refugees, drugs, and terrorism. And that’s a good thing.
The problem is that many of the countries trying to bring the Taliban to the table simply don’t get along. These are not merely nations that bicker with each other; rather, they are sharp competitors and hardened foes. It’s as if some of the world’s nastiest bilateral and regional rivals have all lined up to play a role in the Afghan reconciliation effort. Unfortunately, an overarching shared interest in finding a way to end the war could be eclipsed by bitter rivalries and ugly feuds, further complicating efforts to launch a peace process.

The problem is that many of the countries trying to bring the Taliban to the table simply don’t get along.

Michael Kugelman

Consider developments in recent days. News has emerged that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have opposed any talks with the Taliban in Qatar, where meetings scheduled for earlier this month were canceled. The Saudis and their Gulf allies don’t want to engage with the Qataris due to the latter’s close ties to Iran. And yet, given that the Taliban’s political office — which has been a key participant in reconciliation discussions over the last few months — is based in Qatar, there’s good reason to believe the insurgents will continue to push for that country to host meetings. 
The Saudi Arabia-Iran spat is not the only rivalry to cast a shadow over the fledgling Afghan reconciliation effort. There is also Afghanistan and Pakistan, Pakistan and India, and Russia, China, and Iran — three of America’s biggest rivals.
Little wonder, then, that when it comes to considering the best means and ends toward peace in Afghanistan, there are disconnects galore. There’s really little regional consensus on the best way forward. 
Hang-ups over where to host talks are merely the tip of the iceberg. There’s also the issue of who should be involved. Afghanistan and the US may welcome a formal Indian role in reconciliation, but Islamabad — a critical player, given the influence it enjoys over the Taliban — will not allow it. Saudi Arabia won’t want an Iranian role. 
Further afield, there are disagreements on endgames. Islamabad may want a more powerful Taliban role in any post-war set-up than Kabul or Washington — and certainly New Delhi — would be willing to tolerate. Washington will want to maintain military bases in Afghanistan: An arrangement to which Moscow and Tehran, among others, will be allergic.
Ideally, regional players would meet as a group more frequently to chart a way forward. But the new normal appears to be separate tracks rather than a single, inclusive effort. Witness the Moscow-hosted meetings with the Taliban several weeks back, or the more recent US-led dialogue with the insurgents in Abu Dhabi. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, is holding separate bilateral meetings in Beijing, Islamabad, Kabul, and New Delhi. 
Ultimately, the divergent views of regional players accentuate a basic truth: The best path to peace is for Kabul and Taliban leaders to drown out the din of all the outside actors jockeying for influence in a reconciliation process, and to hunker down and work out a deal on their own.
If only it were that easy.
• Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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