The New Take on the Afghan Conflict Settlement

Vladimir Terehov (NEO) : In mid-January Islamabad and Kabul saw the talks between foreign affairs representatives of four states – the United States, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan (the so-called Quadrilateral Coordination Group) who were tasked with a mission to develop a road map that would be able to put an end to the war in Afghanistan, which has been raging for over 15 years now. The Kabul round of negotiations concluded with the adoption of a joint statement urging the Taliban to cease its hostile activities and become engaged in negotiations with the official government of Afghanistan. Now the above mentioned representatives are to return to Islamabad to carry on their discussions on February 6.

Afghanistan_Flag_NEOWhile referring to Afghanistan, experts usually underline the proactive stance taken by China that is aimed at achieving reconciliation in this country, since its primarily geopolitical rival seems unable to solve the Afghan problem on its own. There’s a number of reasons why Beijing decided to stop watching the US helplessly drowning in the Afghan swamp, and the most important of these is the fact that Afghanistan is a potential link in the Great Silk Road project, that cannot join it without achieving reconciliation. Additionally, there’s no forgetting that Islamic Afghanistan shares a common border with a potentially explosive Islamic region in China – the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

There’s no doubt that China’s officials are concerned with the fate of the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas pipeline, the construction of which depends on the situation in Afghanistan. If built, this pipeline can solve the majority of energy security issues in the western provinces of China, so there’s little wonder that in late December 2015, all four member states of the project announced in Turkmenistan that they were going to proceed with the TAPI implementation.

While the attention of geopolitical analysts has been concentrated on the naval face-off between the US and China, there’s no forgetting that Afghanistan has been dominated by Washington for a long time and it’s situated in the immediate vicinity of China’s western borders. Therefore, it should be noted that Washington bore in mind this geographical feature of Afghanistan, when announced its “war on terror” back in 2001. Even back then the US already started to perceive China as its main geopolitical rival.

The US paid a staggering cost for being able to occupy a position near China’s borders, and it perhaps will be forced to pay even more to ensure that its bases remain in Afghanistan, since the amount of resistance to the ongoing presence of the US military in this country has been on the rise recently. Meanwhile, the scale of this presence is being reduced, leaving some 10,000 American soldiers to “defend” its positions, which, along with the fact that Afghan government troops are simply unfit for battle, means there could be no military solution to the Afghan problem.

In this regard, analysts point out that the meetings of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group are being held against the background of an unprecedented rise of military activity among Taliban forces. It is possible that the Taliban commanders are carefully observing the international community’s maneuvering around the Afghan problem, trying to increase the significance of their invisible presence in the negotiation process, where the fate of their movement is being decided.

In the 15 years that have followed the US invasion, Afghanistan has become a kind of “black hole” that absorbs all kinds of financial “matter.” Additionally, the level of drug production in this Central Asian state has increased 40 times since the day the first US soldier set foot on its soil. This means that there’s huge financial revenues going somewhere, but it is still unclear into whom’s pockets it is going.

It’s curious that the phenomenon of political “black holes” is not unique. Earlier the US used Vietnam in this capacity, and most recently, observers have found features of such black holes in Ukraine and Syria.

The current official status of the US military presence in Afghanistan is reduced to the assistance American soldiers are providing Kabul in its struggle against the Taliban. Ever since the first closed-door talks with the leadership of the Taliban, Barack Obama has started to fulfill his campaign promise that he would withdraw the US military from Afghanistan, but he tried to achieve this without “losing face.”

Such negotiations were held by the Afghan government on its own, but they abruptly ended with the death of the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar. And now we are being told that there’s a split within the movement ever since his death.

But the main reason for the failure of all attempts to reach an agreement with the Taliban leaders is the absence of any signs that US troops will leave the country any time soon, and the Taliban refuses to stop fighting a guerrilla war without the utter and complete withdrawal of US forces.

It should be noted that Russia hasn’t been represented during the negotiations, despite being no stranger to the Afghan problem. A working group of the Russian Federation could be extremely useful at negotiations, but, apparently, the idea of the sitting US government to “show Russia its place” in the region prevails over common sense.

At the same time the absence of major European players during negotiations seems justified. Their involvement in the Afghan conflict was provoked by NATO commitments, with the overwhelming majority of the EU population opposed the idea of going to war in Afghanistan. Therefore, Europeans were pleased to get out of Afghanistan as fast as they could.

Japan is being gradually transformed into a serious regional and international player, but it has little experience in this capacity to make a change in Afghanistan. A recent tour of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe around the countries of Central Asia was introductory in its nature, so no real contribution to the peace cause in Afghanistan can be expected from Japan.

It’s also curious that India has been absent during negotiations, while its elites seem  convinced that their country is the direct successor to “British India”, when there was no Pakistan whatsoever and Afghanistan was within the scope of its interests. However, India’s current interests in Afghanistan are the direct result of their complicated relations with Islamabad. India fears that Pakistan could transform Afghanistan into its own “backyard,” putting it to good use in its confrontation with India. Similar suspicions exist in Kabul, which in turn encourages the development of Afghan-Indian relations.

In the context of continuing tensions between India and Pakistan, if one is to invite India’s representatives to the talks, this would guarantee an end to all progress before the negotiations could even start.

There’s a new hope between Islamabad and New Delhi that bilateral relations could be improved, especially after Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Pakistan. But all the progress achieved has been jeopardized by an assault on the Indian air base Pathankot (located 40 kilometers from the border with Pakistan). The difficulty here is to give an answer as to which attacks are extremist in their nature and which are false flags? Or to what extent civilian authorities control the security services (as well as the armed forces)?

Finally, there’s growing evidence suggesting that the main players in the Afghan game are beginning to realize that the ongoing armed clashes are getting too expensive for them. This was the primary reason to make attempts to put an end to the military phase of the Afghan game on a more or less acceptable condition for all parties.

Thus, the results of negotiations in Afghanistan will be an important signal regarding the state of relations between the two global powers – China and the US. Therefore, we should observe closely the work of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”. 

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