Youth release balloons and pigeons to celebrate the reduction in violence, Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Feb. 28, 2020
The reactions of the major regional states surrounding Afghanistan over the US-Taliban peace agreement in Doha Saturday reveal fault lines that are useful pointers in the Afghan peace process.
A sardonic remark by the Indian foreign minister S. Jaishankar and an exceptionally anti-US outburst by the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif apart, there is general acceptance that peace in Afghanistan is indivisible.
The US diplomacy has been successful in carrying the regional states along even without striking any “grand bargain” with them — except, of course, Pakistan.
Unsurprisingly, the most euphoric reaction has come from Islamabad (here). It closely follows the US’ projection (here) that the Doha pact offers a “historic opportunity”, which Afghan parties should “seize”. Pakistan is in a self-congratulatory mood, claiming that its stance on the Afghan problem stands vindicated. There is much optimism that the Afghan peace process has gained traction.
Pakistan is basking in the sunshine of its centrality in the Afghan problem. In substantive terms, its decades-long policy to project power into Afghanistan is reaching the homestretch and its “strategic asset” is now assured of a leadership role in Kabul. The “peace dividends” — the revival of the relations with the US, in particular — promise to be a game changer for Pakistan’s standing as a regional power.
At another corner stands Iran, which is seemingly rejecting the peace agreement. The Iranian foreign ministry statement has 3 principal elements to it.
One, it underscores that “lasting peace” can be realised through the upcoming intra-Afghan talks, but it also ought to take into account the interests of neighbouring countries. Two, Tehran suspects the US intentions. Tehran regards the American moves as “an effort to legitimise the presence of its troops in Afghanistan, and is opposed to such moves.” Three, Iran realises that Afghanistan is in transition.
Tehran’s principal worry is that the US intends to keep a strong presence in Afghanistan and might use it to destabilise Iran. However, Tehran will not torpedo the peace process. It will try to leverage its influence with Afghanistan factions to safeguard its interests in a final settlement.
The bottom line is the recent disclosure by the Taliban that the US negotiators at Doha brought in Taliban-Iran relations as a pre-condition. Clearly, anti-Iran rhetoric apart, the Trump administration does not expect Iran to undermine the peace process.
The Indian statement stops short of expressing an outright welcome for the US-Taliban deal, but pledged to go along with something that “the entire political spectrum in Afghanistan, including the Government, the democratic polity and civil society, has welcomed.” Delhi will “continue to extend all support to the Government and people of Afghanistan in realising their aspirations.”
Unsurprisingly, Delhi feels acutely distressed. Its entire Afghan policy was predicted on its exceptionally close ties with the Afghan security agencies and had Pakistan in focus. India finds itself like a beached whale. The zero-sum mindset vis-a-vis Pakistan creates own anxieties about a likely government in Kabul that is friendly toward Pakistan.
Washington expects India to tag along. President Trump, in fact, claimed during his recent visit to India that Delhi and Washington are on the same page. It was a brilliant ploy to tie up PM Modi’s hands and ensure he’d rein in the hardliners in the Indian establishment.
But a bad taste lingers in the mouth. Delhi would still hope and pray that Ghani’s caravan remains in power. The sardonic remark by Jaishankar echoes this secret wish.
Modi’s best option is to take Trump’s advice and normalise relations with Pakistan. But the BJP thrives on demonising Pakistan both for electoral gains as well as for advancing the Hindutva ideology, which precludes the scope for any dialogue with Pakistan.
Sooner or later, however, Delhi will come to terms with the reality of Taliban being the ruling elite in Afghanistan.
Russia’s predicament is somewhat different. Moscow is the only major regional capital to remain silent on the US-Taliban pact. But Russia has kept contacts with the Taliban and has largely normalised the relations with Pakistan.
Russia even hosted intra-Afghan forums that included Taliban. Thus, Russia has no reason to oppose the peace process aimed at mainstreaming the Taliban.
Having said that, Russia is seething with discontent that it has been marginalised when something of such momentous importance is taking place on the planet.
Quite obviously, the US is determined that Russia, a “revisionist power”, should be kept at arm’s length from the Afghan peace process lest it made it a turf of contestation.
Of course, Russia shares Iran’s opposition to US military presence in Afghanistan. (India differs from Russia and Iran on this aspect.) Russia is also anxiously watching the US intentions.
The Russian and Iranian positions are broadly similar in this regard. Having said that, like Iran, Russia too is cautious about confronting the US. Their ploy will be to instead systematically discredit the US’ image and standing among Afghans without undercutting the peace process.
The remarks (twice) by the foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing on Monday are unequivocally supportive of the US-Taliban deal in all aspects. Beijing is quietly pleased with its role as “a supporter, mediator and facilitator of the Afghan peace and reconciliation process.”
Beijing hopes has expressed the willingness to play a “constructive role” in the period ahead. Two templates of the Chinese statement draw particular attention.
First, the statement is in harmony concurs with the Pakistani view regarding a “responsible withdrawal” of US troops (as FM Qureshi put it.) The Chinese statement is explicit:
“Foreign troops should withdraw in an orderly and responsible way so that the situation in Afghanistan will experience a steady transition with no security vacuum for terrorist forces to seize upon and expand themselves. Meanwhile, the international community should continue to support and engage in the Afghan peace and reconstruction process.”
Second, the statement underscores China’s interest in continued cooperation and coordination with the US: “China stands ready to work with the international community and continue to offer our support and assistance to the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan.”
Indeed, China is in an enviable situation. The US took its help; Pakistan is its “iron brother”; Taliban is a friendly interlocutor; all Afghan factions are positive toward China’s role. Above all, China’s capacity to contribute to Afghan reconstruction cannot be matched by any other regional state or even the US and EU put together.
Having said that, it is not as if China is unaware that the road to peace can be long and winding. The China Military Online featured on Monday an insightful commentary on Monday on the pitfalls ahead, in particular, the grim reality that for Trump, his re-election bid is his compass to navigate the peace process.
The commentary, makes a shrewd observation that if Washington puts too much pressure on Afghan government, “the latter may well seek help from the Democrats like [US House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi on the excuse of “human rights” and other topics in order to protect its own interests, thus counterbalancing the Taliban through Washington. Actually, Pelosi squeezed time to meet with… Ghani on the sideline of the 56th Munich Security Conference in Germany in mid-February.”
The commentary titled Will US-Taliban peace deal bring lasting peace to Afghanistan? is here.