Peace in Afghanistan appears to be on the minds of many. If the recent concert by the regional powers surrounding Afghanistan – Russia, Iran, India, China and Pakistan – is anything to go by, it seems that the interest to have a breakthrough in the decades-long Afghan conundrum is something that each country wishes to pursue, albeit for its own reasons.
Although it is unclear as to which country had put its brains behind this recent ‘meeting of six’ – Russia, China or Pakistan who had met previously in Moscow in December 2016 to discuss peace in Afghanistan – it is acknowledged that breaking the stalemate in Afghanistan is being seen as vital for accomplishing distinct national goals. India, Iran and Afghanistan – who were later added to the Russian-Chinese-Pakistani discussions – also have their respective concerns to meet via a secured, stabilized and peaceful Afghan polity. In these circumstances, given that peace in Afghanistan is being sought not for its own sake but for what can be achieved through it, it will be interesting to see if this cohort of regional powers actually manages to achieve what it has apparently set out for. That it could become a non-starter given the variegated stakes and interests of those involved remains a solid possibility, especially as the history of such international and regional groupings on Afghanistan has not been encouraging. That this ‘meeting of six’ could also successfully undertake what the Russian Envoy to Afghanistan has described as the ‘long journey’ towards peace in Afghanistan is also among the possibilities.
Much like all the prior groupings on Afghanistan – and the potential future ones – each of these ‘coming together’ happens in the backdrop of rehashed domestic, bilateral, regional and international priorities. Given the sheer variety of interests and the interest-holders involved, there is little wonder that such concerts often fade out before they produce any cohesive symphony – that is concrete, sustainable results. This multi-lateral grouping, however, is expected to present itself as an exception or so do reports emanating particularly from Russia want us to believe.
One of the reasons for this Russian optimism is its recent ‘victory’ in Syria. Having been on the receiving end of international criticism and sanctions on account of its ‘annexation’ of Crimea, the already waning might of the successor of former Soviet Union was prevented from becoming an unstoppable free-fall courtesy the so-called ‘truce’ that it has managed to pull off in the Syrian crisis. Notwithstanding the quality of this ‘truce’ and the ostensible cost at which it came, this event has catapulted the Russians back into the orbit of internationally important players, giving them a reason to believe that they might be able to deliver a repeat performance in the case of Afghanistan as well.
National motivations – or more specifically the interests of the ‘deep state’ – have also played their role in ensuring the perennial presence of Pakistan on the scene. Much like the ‘necessary evil’, the role of Pakistan in the Afghan crisis both as a (potential) accelerator and an (actual) decelerator in the peace process is acknowledged. Therefore, its involvement in the current round of new talks and the purported eagerness to discuss peace in Afghanistan speaks of nothing new. In fact, according to reports, the present round of talks on Afghanistan – the most recent history of which can be traced to the talks between Russia, China and Pakistan – is being touted as the genius of Pakistan.
Right from the beginning of the ‘Global War On Terror’ – which had Pakistan declared a ‘frontline state’ in this international fight – Pakistan has worked to convince the US administration as also the other NATO powers involved of the need to engage the ‘Taliban’. As analysed earlier, it was the former President of Pakistan Gen Pervez Musharraf who could make this conversation go, resulting ultimately in the emergence of the distinction between ‘good and bad Taliban’. While there were indeed some stubborn naysayers to peace talks within the Taliban, it would not be exaggerated to suggest that this distinction between the ‘good and bad’ was a schism born out of the strategic imperatives of Pakistan in particular.
Playing the same card with the ultimate intention of inserting (chosen) Taliban into the mainstream of Afghan politics for meeting its own strategic needs, Pakistan, it is said, was able to convince the Russians and the Chinese of the ‘benefit’ of this distinction. There has thus been a clever internationalization of its domestic beliefs with the ultimate effect being its acceptance by Russia and China alike. Where China has been open about playing host to Taliban’s delegation as precursor to the Quadrilateral Coordination Group’s talks, Russians have made no bones about their recognition of Taliban as an ‘Afghan-centric movement’.
The success of this strategy was certainly not the doing of the Pakistani machinations alone. Internationally, the dwindling American interest in battles in near abroad under the Trump administration and an increasing possibility of application of sanctions/restrictions on Pakistan has managed to (i) get Russia and Pakistan closer (for instance, note Druzhba 2016); (ii) put pressure on Pakistan to act and deliver.
The massive China-Pakistan Corridor Project (CPEC) is another compelling variable for Pakistan in the equation. Given the enormity of economics involved – which, if used correctly, could create positive impact for Pakistan on many fronts – the threat to CPEC emanating especially from groups that it believes operate from Afghanistan have made stability in its neighbour across the Durand Line look more promising. And, when this probable peace can be achieved without ceding much strategic space, and in fact is largely in sync with its broader strategic priorities to counteract India, then why not?
For India, the stakes in this peace process is much different. To begin with, apart from Heart of Asia and RECCA (to name a few), India despite its role in Afghanistan as a developmental partner and beyond has not been given much priority in the Afghan peace process. Therefore, the invitation to include it in the peace process after being (most recently) snubbed by the Ashraf Ghani government (initially) and the Quadrilateral Coordination Group could be seen to assuage its hurt. However, since the intention to work on the distinction between ‘good and bad’ Taliban looks all evident in this meeting of six, it is quite unlikely that the Indian apprehension about the role of Taliban in Afghan political mainstream will gain much traction. In fact, its unyielding stance on it could sideline it further given that US, Iran and even Afghanistan have demonstrated openness to work on such distinctions.
For the Chinese who have often kept their distance from intervening – politically and security wise – in matters concerning Afghanistan finds itself ‘involved’ in the peace talks for direct and indirect reasons. Directly, and which is in fact animated by a collection of concerns are the Chinese interest – (i) to keep its investments in CPEC secured; (ii) to keep the ‘restive’ region of Xinjiang under check particularly as it is known that the entities promoting unrest in this Chinese region find refuge and have ties with extremist outfits in Afghanistan; (iii) a safer and stable Afghanistan is important to the realization of its larger goals under the One Road, One Belt project.
Indirectly, China through Pakistan has evidently got a handle on one of the key stakeholders in the ensuing Afghan conundrum and the envisaged peace process – Taliban. While their own investment in Afghanistan, economically, is miniscule compared to that of India, China realizes that a friend’s friend can also be its friend, and given the increasing weight of the Chinese in the international equations, Taliban too recognizes that China poses no direct challenge to its essence, ideology or existence so long as there is no spill-over into the Chinese territory. The Chinese thus have a toggle switch that can alternate between pressurizing Pakistan to perform and not perform for its own interest.
However, having said so, as M.K. Bhadrakumar notes, one also needs to be cognizant of the fact that the Russian interest in consolidating its control over the Central Asian Republics through a stable Afghanistan can stand in the way of the Chinese dealings with the CIS states for its OBOR project. Therefore, to what extent the Chinese would be willing to work under the Russian command on Afghanistan is difficult to foretell.
For Iran, its active role in the Afghan conflict – as a direct and indirect party especially since 1979 – and the changes in the regional and international dynamics particularly in the last two years have governed its participation in the peace process. Unenthusiastic about the US intervention in Afghanistan from the very beginning, Iran too was kept at a great distance from the negotiations that took place on bringing peace to its neighbouring country. Having been avoided for long, the recent invitation it received to join the regional gathering on Afghanistan was thus, an outcome of changed dynamics at many levels. To begin with, it was the Russian call to invite Iranians on board; a decision that definitely had the impressions of the collaborated success in Syria on it. Secondly, the lifting of sanctions on Iran – notwithstanding the threat of rescindment that looms over it – has inserted this country back into the international equations as a legitimate actor. Also, Iran’s evident contact with Taliban and the support that it has extended to other militias within Afghanistan have made its participation in the peace process appear imperative.
The Central Asian nations, according to the press release issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry, will be the next to join this regional, multilateral forum for the direct impact that the Afghan conflict has on them and their respective stakes involved. The involvement of the US, which the Russians have indicated they are open to once the Americans have a concrete policy on Afghanistan, too could become a possibility in the near future.
Inspired by their own national interests than motivated by the desire to restore peace and stability in Afghanistan per se, the current peace process involving the regional powers appears to be little different from the previous initiatives in its essence. Its structure is certainly different and so is its premise, but it is still a loose concert of countries around Afghanistan with too many divergent views present on the same table. Working in a highly different international and regional context (than say what it was two years ago), this act of ‘bringing together’ might just materialize since the grievances of being ‘left out’ might not be there to voice. However, it will still be incredibly difficult to make many actors see eye to eye given their different, and often contradictory, interests involved.