The three deadly attacks in Afghanistan on January 11 took the lives of nearly 70 people including five diplomats of the United Arab Emirates at a time when there was a traditional lull in the fighting in winter. But the attacks on the parliament staff in capital Kabul and Helmand, which were claimed by the Taliban and the officials blamed the Taliban for the third in Kandahar, could be seen as Taliban’s tactics to penetrate into highly secured areas and to expose the fragile security. The attacks could also be seen as an attempt by them to mount pressure on the Afghan government and the international community just ahead of the inauguration of Donald Trump who will face the Afghan crisis as one of his foreign policy challenges.
Donald Trump will have several options: either to maintain the status quo, send more troops or to reduce the current level of nearly 9,000 American troops, who are part of about 15,000 foreign troops. President Obama, who has left the Afghan problem for Trump, had admitted last month that foreign troops could not eliminate the Taliban. The attacks shattered Afghanistan and the regions soon after senior Chinese, Pakistani and Russian diplomats gathered in Moscow to offer support for the reconciliation between Kabul and the Taliban, besides showing concerns at the emerging threat of the IS from the Afghan soil. The rippling effects of the December 27 trilateral consultation continue to unravel the government and policymakers in Afghanistan.
The Afghanistan President’s Deputy Spokesman, Dawa Khan Menapal, told the American Mashaal Radio after the Moscow meeting that Kabul will not accept any decision without its input and advised the countries to deal with the Afghan government tactfully. He was refereeing to the joint statement issued at the conclusion of the meeting in which Russia and China confirmed their “flexible approach to delisting Afghan individuals from the UN sanctions lists as their contribution to the efforts aimed at launching peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban.” The Taliban’s Qatar-based political office, however, quickly welcomed the proposal of delisting their members as a “positive step forward in bringing peace and security to Afghanistan.” No one denied the fact that the Afghan government should have been invited to the dialogue but the question is as to why there was hue and cry this time at the trilateral consultations as the member countries had met twice in Beijing and Islamabad in April and November 2013. The beleaguered Afghan rulers will have to understand that regional countries, which are directly affected due to the instability in Afghanistan, will not remain silent spectators to the threats. Like many others, the trilateral expressed “particular concern regarding the increased activities of the extremist groups including the IS affiliates in the country.” The IS dangers and continuation of the senseless war could be genuine concerns for China, Pakistan and Russia as well as Iran and Central Asia, but they will have to address the growing suspicion among Afghans who would doubt the grouping as a “New Great Game.” The three countries should not make Afghanistan a scapegoat for their strategic ambitions.
Moscow’s decision to suspend the process of de-listing Hizb-e-Islami chief Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s from the UN Security Council’s black list, was not received well in the war-shattered country as Kabul has formally asked for the removal of international sanctions against him. Afghans are surprised at Russia’s decision on Hekmatyar at a time when it has joined with China to help remove names of the Taliban leaders from the UN. Although Pakistani officials admit the long-awaited Moscow consultations were held as Russia was “enthusiastic” this time, they also call it a “success of Pakistan’s diplomacy at a time when the US is uncertain.” There is no doubt this process could create incentives for the Afghan government to improve relations with Pakistan as the process underlines centrality of the countries on the Afghan issue. It is also important that Pakistan and China are now part of both the Quadrilateral Coordination Group as well as the other group involving Russia. But it would not be easy for Pakistan to remove the deep suspicion within Afghanistan but it will have to seriously address the concerns of the Afghans. Pakistan’s political and new military leaders are now sending positive signals to Afghanistan, but it will be assessed if there is any forward movement for reconciliation.
The positive aspect of Moscow meetings was the agreement to “proceed with consultations in an expanded format and would welcome the participation of Afghanistan.” As there are no sign of an end to the war in Afghanistan, the involvement of other countries in the region like Iran would also be helpful. Officials have already stated that the trilateral process could be quadrilateral with the inclusion of Iran. It is also important for Afghanistan to give an opportunity for the China, Pakistan and Russia trilateral process as it would be a naive approach to doubt its intention when the three major players want to play an active role to push for political process. The role of China and Russia could be seen significant in the reconciliation as they have interaction with the Taliban’s political office and could encourage them to come to the table. The Taliban representatives in Qatar have already hinted at accepting both the countries as guarantor in case the peace negotiations are started. Afghanistan has not yet taken a decision whether it would join the trilateral process and it is believed it could take a decision whatever has been told by the US. Kabul must take advantage of the offer by Russia and China to help in lifting of sanctions on the Taliban that could be one of the major confidence-building measures to encourage the Taliban join the peace process.
The Taliban time to time came up with certain conditions like unfreezing their assets, lifting of sanctions on their leaders, releasing prisoners and reopening of their offices in Qatar. Pakistani diplomats also agree with the notion that Kabul will have to take certain measures to bring the Taliban to the table. Although preconditions are not seen helpful for the peace process, some CBMs could pave the way for the reconciliation with the Taliban which is not a big issue if the objective is to put a stop to the war in Afghanistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 18th, 2017.