Afghanistan after the American departure?

A crucial conference supposed to be held in Turkey later this month under the auspices of the UN has been postponed till the end of Ramadhan due the Taliban’s refusal to attend this proposed parleys in the wake of the US President Joe Biden’s announcement for the withdrawal of all the American forces from Afghanistan before this year’s the 20th anniversary of the 9/11. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has announced that the conference would be rescheduled and convened as the holy month ends. The conference was to be attended by foreign ministers of Pakistan, Russia, China, Iran, India, Qatar, US and Turkey and is part of the four-point proposal the Biden administration is advancing to strike a peace deal. The Afghan government delegation will also join the conference but the Taliban, after Biden’s announcement to delay troop withdrawal, have refused to be a part of the process. However, it is believed that the insurgent groups are open to negotiations with the US and Afghan government. When this conference going to be convened can be discussed at some other time. At the moment, the most important issue is whether the withdrawal of American and its allied forces will lead to likelihood of peace in Afghanistan? A lot will depend on the peace process.

It is expected that despite the Taliban’s hardline stance they may attend the conference. In this regard, Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has urged the Taliban to participate in the proposed conference to be held in Turkey. But even if they do so, the prospects of a peace deal in the next few months appear thin. This is distressing for Pakistan and other immediate neighbours of Afghanistan. Amidst this ambiguity, the role of other regional players particularly Russia and China has become far more important. China’s growing relations with different countries of the Gulf region and central Asian nations along with deep partnership with Pakistan offers much promising strength to Beijing’s role in Afghanistan. The unrest in Afghanistan may not affect the US and its Western allies much compared to countries like China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran. Hence, it is natural that these countries would push for a political settlement. They can offer the Taliban financial and other incentives for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Afghanistan in return for expecting the Taliban to change their style of governance and work with other political players in the country for the larger interest. However, that seems a distant dream yet to be realized!

Pakistan’s foreign policy is associated with regional realities. In a strategically vibrant neighbourhood, Pakistan is well placed to cultivate its ties with key countries in order to efficiently chase its national interests. Pakistan is doing well to avoid the label of being in any one camp and it is significant that it is recognised as a regional player enjoying good terms with major powers such as China, Russia and the US. Pakistan has genuine policy interests in Afghanistan. However, the real challenge for Islamabad is to translate this improved relationship into tangible projects.

The exit of the US and NATO forces after two decades of military intervention underscores the end of unipolarity in international politics on one hand while also displays the limits to the use of force on the other hand. If the American response to the 9/11 with the pronouncement of the President Bush about unilateral attack on Afghanistan as display of the American exceptionalism, “because they are America” as in the words of the President G.W. Bush, yet the American withdrawal from Afghanistan also displays, what the US President Nixon once stated that “it is difficult for America to conceive all the plans and execute all the programmes”. However, the US will be important in any Taliban strategy to win political recognition and diplomatic clout. The Taliban, if they come in power after the withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan, they will also need the American and western economic assistance for stabilizing the war-torn country.

While announcing the withdrawal of the American forces from Afghanistan, the US President Joe Biden mentioned the emerging challenges from China as one of the reasons for the military exit from Afghanistan. Certainly, Biden’s reference was to the Indo-Pacific and growing divergence of interests with China in East Asia. China apparently seems to be a great beneficiary of the American exit from Afghanistan. Being Pakistan’s “all-weather friend” China has the leverage in Afghanistan and it can play important and decisive role in reconstruction of Afghanistan. China has also signaled to extend Belt and Road Initiative to Afghanistan while connecting it with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) making Afghanistan as part of CPEC.

If the US is a remote power, China is Afghanistan’s neighbour which cannot be ignored in the contemporary dynamics of regional and international politics. Since the last few years, China with the help of Pakistan, is cultivating its relationship with Afghanistan and has engaged itself with both Taliban and Kabul administration. Both see China as valuable partner in the pursuit of their divergent interests. However, Pakistan’s role in this regard is crucial because Pakistan’s profound understanding of the Afghan imbroglio can help China in supervising various Afghan factions get closer in running the country and putting it on the track of political stability which will lead to economic development of this war-torn country.

Iran’s stakes and interests are high in Afghanistan especially in the post-American withdrawal period. Iran has contributed immensely in the war against Taliban since 1996 and supported the anti-Taliban forces commonly known as the Northern Alliance. Iran’s regional influence has increased significantly over the last two decades and Tehran seems to be willing to play a decisive role in Afghanistan’s future. It is quite important to mention here that the Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif told the Raisina Dialogue in Delhi last week that a return to the 1990s and the restoration of the Taliban’s regime in Afghanistan are simply not acceptable. India can exploit this situation of divergence of interests between Pakistan and Iran over the Afghanistan issue keeping in view the Pakistan-Saudi equation. However, responsibility falls on China particularly and generally Russia to manage any confrontation between Pakistan and Iran in Afghanistan because both are Afghanistan’s neighbours. Keeping in view the current role of Qatar and Turkey into the Afghanistan peace process one cannot be ignorant of the fact that they would not be interested in retaining their clout which they have cultivated during this critical phase of the Afghan peace process.

Last but not least is role of the local actors in Afghanistan. They are not merely cat’s paw of regional powers rather they are fundamental actors in Afghanistan knowing it clearly how to exploit the external powers for their own objectives in Afghanistan. Keeping in view ethnic and sectarian differences prevailing among various factions of the Afghan society, the restoration of peace and mutually-agreed governance-system is extremely challenging to establish in Afghanistan. Pakistan needs a very cautious and calculative approach to peace process in Afghanistan before putting her weight in favour of any single group, community or faction in Afghanistan. It is very essential for Pakistan to promote regional stability while securing its interests.

 

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