By Mujib Mashal
Aug. 8, 2019
Six days into negotiations that many expect will deliver a preliminary deal to end nearly two decades of United States military presence in Afghanistan, the last stretch is proving to be a difficult balancing act.
Most of the American and Taliban negotiators were stuck in talks late into the night Thursday in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar — but others, including the delegation leaders, were on the road in a region in turmoil, visiting other nations that could have some sway in the outcome.
For both sides, the challenge is to craft a face-saving resolution for all the vested interests that also sets a path for stability in Afghanistan.
At the table in Doha, Qatar’s capital, negotiators were working to address the needs of a Taliban trying to transition to peace and an American administration seeking a withdrawal that could aid a bid for a second term in office.
But just as crucial in completing the pact are the concerns of regional powers. Their clashes with one another, and their tensions with the United States, are complicating an endgame already filled with suspicion and uncertainty.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the envoy leading the American delegation, left for New Delhi three days into the talks after the Indian government unilaterally revoked autonomy from the part of restive Kashmir that it controls. The bold move immediately escalated tensions with Pakistan, which claims part of the disputed territory and has fought two major wars with India over it.
Both countries have considerable influence over Afghanistan. The leadership of the Taliban wages their insurgency from sanctuaries in Pakistan, whose powerful military has long been accused of supporting the militants. India, on the other hand, has remained staunchly anti-Taliban, throwing its support behind the Afghan government.
The Trump administration, at first through pressure and more recently through friendlier words, has tried to get Pakistan to help with the endgame. But just as American officials seemed optimistic, India’s move in Kashmir has cast a shadow.
Pakistani officials warned that India’s actions in Kashmir would harm the Afghan peace process. On Thursday, apparently following American diplomatic efforts, Pakistani officials seemed to walk back that line, insisting they would continue to help in the peace efforts.
Most countries in the region, even if not publicly, were aligned with the Americans in their fight against Al Qaeda after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, seeing a common threat in the group’s having a safe haven in Afghanistan.
But in recent years, as friction between the United States and other countries has escalated as result of conflicts like Syria, a consensus over the American military presence has broken down.
Mr. Khalilzad, the American envoy, has repeatedly visited China and Russia for talks. But escalating tensions between the Trump administration and Iran, which shares a long border with Afghanistan and has growing influence over the Taliban, has kept Tehran out of the conversation.
For many regional powers, “their best-case outcome was their side wins and their second-best outcome was the other side doesn’t win — which is a recipe for sustaining the war,” said Jarrett Blanc, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.
Mr. Blanc, a former diplomat who was involved in the Obama administration’s negotiations with the Taliban, said a “heightened fear of the implications of the U.S. withdrawal” may have softened the stance of regional players to allow them to accept a settlement in which their side doesn’t win.
But the Americans’ hard-line stance toward Iran has made Tehran’s position on Afghanistan far less sure. “The U.S. and Iran have a fair degree of overlapping interests in Afghanistan,” Mr. Blanc said. “But it is easier to imagine Iranian decision makers saying ‘We don’t care, we will suffer some loss in Afghanistan in order to poke the United States in the eye.’”
After a quick stop in New Delhi, Mr. Khalilzad travelled to Europe to brief NATO allies. At the peak of the war, more than three dozen nations helped the United States military in Afghanistan, making up one of the largest coalitions in history.
The talks now going on in Doha, the latest of eight rounds in less than a year, are intended to produce an American agreement with the Taliban that will pave the way for direct negotiations between the insurgents and other Afghans over a shared political future.
But completing this preliminary agreement means coordinating with many partners, and then rolling out the deal in a way that, factors in many interests — including those of the host, Qatar, which has done heavy lifting for the United States at the same time it has been isolated by a Saudi blockade.
It’s not just the Americans who are engaged in shuttle diplomacy.
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban deputy chief who is leading the talks for the insurgents, has been on the road as well in recent months, visiting Iran, Russia, China and Indonesia.
On Thursday, he was in the former Soviet state of Uzbekistan, which has decent relations with both Russia and the United States.
For much of the past decade, Mullah Baradar was in a Pakistani prison, essentially being punished for making contacts with the Afghan government to seek a peaceful resolution to the war at a time when the powerful Pakistani military establishment did not agree.
With the Taliban having gone through consecutive leadership changes in recent years, the American special envoy identified Mullah Baradar as someone who still had the weight to negotiate on behalf of the insurgents and unite them around a deal.
It took a strong push by the United States to get him out of prison, where he was said to have been tortured, and arrange his paperwork and travel to Qatar to lead the talks.
But seeing Mullah Baradar jet-setting around the region in traditional white Afghan clothes and striped black turban is an odd sight for many Afghans, who consider his embrace by diplomats as giving legitimacy to a movement that inflicts violence every day.
In Indonesia, Mullah Baradar strolled through a garden shoulder to shoulder with the country’s vice president. In Uzbekistan, he was seen hugging the country’s foreign minister before sitting down for talks. When the cameras come on, the rest of the Taliban delegates, also in turbans, often walk so close together, taking steps in near-unison that they look like a squad in practiced formation.
How the Taliban emerge from these negotiations — how their leadership is viewed by both their fighters and by the countries who have helped their insurgency — largely falls on Mullah Baradar.
Borhan Osman, the senior analyst for Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group, said the negotiations have been slowed in part by the Taliban’s need to ensure that their relative unity and cohesiveness, protected in the face of 18 years of military pressure, doesn’t fracture now.
“The important thing for Taliban leaders is obtaining a deal they can sell to the rank and file,” Mr. Osman said.
Fahim Abed contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Salman Masood from Islamabad, Pakistan
Source: The New York Times