Mark S. Cogan & Dr. Stephen Nagy
After more than two months of negotiations, the Afghan peace process has resumed in Doha, Qatar, with the Afghan government and the Taliban having finalized a set of procedures and principles that will govern the process going forward. With the business of finite details out of the way, the second stage of the peace process will focus on the creation of a political path to a nationwide ceasefire, and ultimately a lasting political settlement. The peace talks take on a growing sense of urgency as fighting in the country continues—a development that strains the integrity of the U.S.-Taliban agreement that was signed in February 2020. The Trump administration’s post-election pull-back of U.S. troops further destabilizes the chances for a sustainable agreement, as the Taliban may just outwait the U.S. until troops are not a significant leverage in any negotiation process
On the ground, violence has increased across most of Afghanistan’s provinces. In November, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR) reported to Congress in a quarterly report that violence increased 50 percent in the third quarter of 2020 compared to previous years, with 2,561 civilian casualties and 875 deaths.
As the “Afghan-only” peace process resumes, there are a number of concerns for international actors, including the United States, China, as well as from neighboring Pakistan and India. While some concerns from India and Pakistan are the byproducts of a regional rivalry, others are reflective of lingering uncertainties over the possible outcome of the Doha talks—a process that cannot ultimately be completely influenced by outside actors. This is especially salient in how the Afghan peace process may impact the U.S. and China’s ongoing presence in the tattered state, with obvious implications for deepening Sino-U.S. great power competition.
The United States
The United States has the most to lose and the most to fear, having been involved in Afghanistan since 2001. The country has spent over $1 trillion on war funding and a staggering $6.4 trillion in post-September 11 war efforts. It has been reported that some Taliban now see an end to its long war with the West, having claimed a second “superpower scalp.” The incoming Biden administration has been placed in an uncomfortable and precarious situation, as the departing Trump administration has accelerated the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan—without expecting any equivalent moves from the Taliban—from 8,600 to 4,500, and now to 2,500 before Biden’s inauguration.
The fear for the United States is the prospect of perpetual war, as the Trump administration’s deal has sent the Taliban mixed signals. Ultimately, they now have the opportunity to renege on their commitments or simply wait until the United States pulls out completely. While most Afghans clearly do not want the presence of American forces in the country indefinitely, most expected the withdrawal to come at a more opportune time or in coordination with the acceptance of a political settlement. With these uncertainties in mind, concern in the United States should fall on whether Afghanistan could become an international safe haven for terrorist groups such as Islamic State. As a part of the deal signed with the United States last year, the Taliban “will take the following steps to prevent any group or individual, including al Qaeda, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.” While the strength of al Qaeda appears to be limited to about 600 fighters within Afghanistan, the Taliban, which number as many as 85,000, could try for a military victory if negotiations were to fail and U.S troops withdrawn.
While extremism remains a core concern for the U.S., Washington also sees Afghanistan through the lens of U.S.-China great power competition. A settlement that results in the ejection of the U.S. from Afghanistan would create a geopolitical vacuum that China would be happy to fill, complicating U.S. efforts to advance a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region. It could also lead to the U.S. being denied access to Afghanistan’s rich natural resources. While the latter could be tolerated economically, Afghanistan falling into the Beijing’s geopolitical orbit would be much less palatable, especially after investing so much blood and treasure over past two decades in Afghanistan.
China’s strategic interests in Afghanistan are fourfold: enhancing its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), domestic and international security, resource acquisition and development, and economic integration. Integrating Afghanistan into the BRI would help to open up new markets in a country with vast resource and human potential. A successful Afghan peace settlement may open the doors to such a possibility, especially if the U.S.’s presence in the country is significantly downgraded in any settlement.
Furthermore, through the BRI Beijing aims to reshape regional integration such that its economy is re-oriented away from its east coast and toward its southern regions, positioning the Chinese economy as a hub in a regional network of trade flows. A peaceful and stable Afghanistan would be a critical link in that project.
For Beijing, Afghanistan’s instability is also tangentially connected to security concerns in China’s periphery. Specifically, China sees itself as beset by what it calls “internal security” problems associated with the Turkic-speaking Uighur Muslims from northwestern Xinjiang province. Falling under the so-called three evils of extremism, separatism, and terrorism, Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in China’s far Western provinces, including Xinjiang, have been targeted by Beijing in terms of culture, identity, political and religious freedoms, and human rights. As a result Uighur Muslims have begun to make their way into Afghanistan using fake passports and are becoming absorbed into jihadist movements in Central Asia, fighting alongside the Taliban and al Qaeda.
China’s aims in Afghanistan, while dominated by economic interests, cannot afford to ignore the consequences of an emboldened population, fed by a huge source of internationally-verified documentation of abuse, from seeking violent forms of retribution in Western Xinjiang and beyond. The radicalization of the Uighurs would surely exacerbate political differences between Beijing and the minority group, who see themselves as natives to Xinjiang province or to what they commonly refer to as East Turkestan.
Thus, China’s interests in Afghanistan are both economic and political. The country is willing to offer an unlimited supply of cheap credit to the new Afghan government, which would surely have Taliban influence, in exchange for contracts to build a massive highway network through the mountainous Wakhan Corridor, which would facilitate access to untapped Afghan mineral wealth. China is also interested in expanding the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Beijing is interested in mitigating regional insecurities—Afghanistan in particular—because doing so will accelerate BRI projects. Yet China’s interests in Afghanistan are balanced on what seem to be contradictory claims, that their “internal” security problem with the Uighur minority will not experience blowback in an environment that will be more favorable to the Taliban, who have expressed support for the Uighur Muslims’ cause.
When the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, visited Pakistan in September 2020, he expressed his gratitude for the role Islamabad has played during the reconciliation process. Pakistan, while not a party in the ongoing talks in Doha, is still a critical actor, sharing a 2,600-kilometer border with Afghanistan. It also shares a complicated relationship with Kabul and Washington. The 2019 Country Report on Terrorism for Pakistan accused Islamabad of providing a “safe harbor” for regional terrorist groups, including the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network (HQN), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the latter two of which have conducted numerous attacks into neighboring India. When deputy Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar visited Pakistan in late December, he was met with criticism from India, who cited several released videos that claim that Baradar told a group of men that the Taliban makes all decisions relative to the peace talks only after consultation with clerics and leadership in Pakistan. Taliban leader Mullah Fazal Akhund was also filmed greeting Taliban fighters in Pakistan. For the Pakistani leadership, fears are divided between these groups it has harbored and its renewed but fragile relationship with Washington. Many have accused Pakistan of backing the Taliban’s efforts in Afghanistan out of fear that its rival India could gain an upper hand. These divided loyalties are reminiscent of the 1990s, when Islamabad favored Taliban rule in Afghanistan, providing resources and training to founder Mullah Omar, and giving full recognition to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as it was then called. Pakistan cannot hope for a strong relationship with the United States under the incoming Biden administration intact while balancing a favorable relationship with the Taliban. It is Pakistan’s hope (and fear) that they will be able to be architects of a new regime in Afghanistan, one that will be sensitive to Pakistan’s strategic interests and not provide safe haven for anti-Pakistan militant groups to launch cross-border attacks from Afghan territory.
Finally, India’s contributions to the peace process are both economic and political in nature. New Delhi has become a prominent investor in Afghan infrastructure development, as well as supporting governance and ICT initiatives. However, India’s fears are glaringly obvious—that it benefits the most from the political status quo. Any changes to the current arrangement would mean difficulties in neighboring Kashmir and unsettle regional security in favor of Pakistan. India also wants, with as much certainty as possible, to work toward a regional consensus that is centered on the growing bilateral relationship between itself and Kabul. India is also concerned with the pace of U.S. troop withdrawals, which benefit the Taliban—in turn benefitting China. Concerns over India’s future relationship with Afghanistan have prompted it to open up to bilateral talks, which are now essential if New Delhi wants to preserve its economic and political objectives going forward.
As the peace process resumes, regional rivalries will again be tested by whatever political solution can be achieved by the Afghan talks. The United States and India have the most to lose in the political settlement, one where the Taliban clearly have the upper hand. China and Pakistan benefit the most by some changes to the status quo, although both have lingering vulnerabilities to extremism. In the interim, the pending U.S. troop withdrawal gives the Taliban additional leverage over the government of Afghanistan, which remains trapped by a reality that has brought the country only perpetual war and suffering—and now the possibility of peace. Both roads, all sides fear, will be guided by the Taliban.
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