Taliban's cancellation of talks and potential US pullout from Afghanistan could leave Pakistan in precarious position

In what seemed like yet another hurdle in the Afghanistan negotiations, the Taliban was reported to have called off talks with the US, citing differences in the agenda among other things. The cancellation seemed to be centred around the issue of Afghan officials being included in the talks, while other issues included the question of a ceasefire and prisoner exchange. The Reuters report added another interesting detail. Quoting a Taliban "source", it said that "Both sides have agreed not to meet in Qatar".

There is no doubt that in the spaghetti soup that is the Taliban negotiations, the only surety was that the whole process would be fraught with difficulties. A primary and consistent objection from the Taliban has been to sitting down for formal talks with the Kabul government that it characterises as a "puppet" regime. It's not that Afghan officials are not in touch with one or other Taliban leader. That's something that has been going on for years. Besides, most are well acquainted with each other, which marks another one of the oddities about the Afghan "war". Apparently, they have no issues talking with the puppet master — which is at present, the US and the countries broadly grouped as "the West".

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

The US, and indeed most other countries including India, have insisted quite reasonably that Kabul should be part of talks, a position that recognises two points — first, that President Ashraf Ghani heads a legitimate government, a position that is hotly opposed by the Taliban. Arising from this is the second position, that talks between Afghans are the only valid way that a peace can be negotiated. That second position is mouthed conveniently by everyone involved, but is a farce on the ground.

The reality is that the whole Afghanistan imbroglio is a function of regional — and extra-regional — positioning. As wise heads have often said, an Afghan can be rented, never bought. And the Taliban fulfils that more than anyone else, dancing to the tune of Pakistan primarily, as well as all those who are allied with it, single or otherwise. Pakistan, itself increasingly a rentier state, also tends to sway to the needs of those countries who provide the big bucks.

Evidence of some of those  "influencers" was apparent in recent weeks in two separate categories of meetings. The first was the Taliban's own visits to various countries, particularly over the past few months. Most recent was a visit to Iran in the New Year, that followed an earlier visit by Iranian National Security Council head Ali Shamkhani to Kabul to announce its entry into the list of formal negotiations. That move would certainly have alarmed US officials. Prior to that, Taliban representatives held meetings with Afghan officials in  Saudi Arabia in order to discuss prisoner exchange and other matters. The Saudis have long been in cahoots with the Taliban, and its previous incarnation, the mujahideen.

A new influencer has stepped in over the past year. In mid-October, The Financial Times reported that China had met Taliban officials several times over 2018. Beijing, that had been careful to remain one step removed from direct negotiations, had clearly changed its mind when frontman Pakistan could not or would not deliver the goods. In November, the Taliban had a set of highly-publicised meetings hosted by Russia, where members of the Afghan High Peace Council were present, showcasing the reemerging influence of Moscow.

Then there is Turkey, that has long been a player in the Afghan medley since the 1990s. The Taliban even quite literally crossed a Rubicon of sorts with a visit to Uzbekistan to discuss among other issues, transport and power lines that make Dushanbe indispensable to Afghanistan. The second line of meetings was held by Pakistan's foreign minister, who visited five countries in four days, making the rounds of the same capitals, and spending the most time in 'briefing' Beijing.

This list of countries doesn't include those involved in other ways like intelligence collection for counter-terrorism or simply for information. But these capitals are the primary seekers of "spheres of influence" at a time when it looks like the US is going to cut and run. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does international politics. If the talks in Qatar have been cancelled, it's highly likely that the group led by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is pushing for its own agenda in ensuring that talks are again held in UAE instead, in a repeat move that shifted the location of talks in December last year.

In all possibility, talks could also have been sabotaged by any of these "influencers", but here’s the thing: All talks and negotiations have to — absolutely have to — go through Rawalpindi.

In mid-2018, powerful Kandahar police chief Abdul Raziq gave an assurance that 50 percent of the Quetta shura were on board for negotiations, an input that was probably instrumental in kicking off negotiations with various US officials. By October, Raziq himself was killed in a vicious suicide attack. This is no isolated incident. Taliban leaders like Abdul Ghani Berader, who was imprisoned for 11 years, and probably Mullah Akhtar Mansoor — who dared to talk directly to Iran — have all suffered severe torture or were simply killed when they refused to toe Pakistan's line. Since most Taliban leaders also have their families in Pakistan, their ability to refuse the ISI's demands is obviously limited.

The key is to find just who is paying Pakistan this time around.

The strongest likelihood is the newly-adventurous Saudi regime, the interests of which coincide with those of Pakistan, while its purse funds its economy. Islamabad is (as yet) far from being a pushover. Any move that upsets its own strategic calculus will find little traction. To push this analysis further is the question as to whether China — friend to both Riyadh and Islamabad — supports these manoeuvres. This seems unlikely.

A Saudi brand of Talibanism in Afghanistan would be detrimental in the extreme to Beijing. Then are other influencers like Turkey who — together with Pakistan — have offered to host talks in March. Turkey has interests entirely similar to Pakistan, and is more likely to win Chinese approval. With so many suitors, both the Taliban and Islamabad may imagine that the decision lies with them alone. That's dangerous thinking.

Other influencers are rapidly gaining strength, which will only increase if the US actually does pull out, even partially. In such a climate, Pakistan could be the biggest loser. It would be back to the 1990s, when terrorism spilled over into the country, making it the single most dangerous place on earth. If Imran Khan wants to achieve his entirely laudable ambitions for his own country, it's time he sat his generals down for a talk and advised them that it's time to wake up and smell the coffee.

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Updated Date: Jan 10, 2019 14:30:49 IST

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