The same politics: Talks about talks in Afghanistan

LT GEN John William Nicholson, the US general nominated to head US and Nato troops in Afghanistan, last week conceded that the security situation in the country is deteriorating. That might be the only point on which stakeholders in Afghanistan’s future are able to agree. As different actors pursue different agendas in the country, it seems increasingly unlikely that they will reach a consensus on how to stabilise Afghanistan. There may be a new general headed to Afghanistan, but he’s still up against old politics.

The Afghan Taliban have made significant gains over the past year, despite revelations about Mullah Omar’s death in 2013, and the reluctant acceptance by most fighters of Mullah Mansour’s leadership. In October, the Long War Journal counted 36 of Afghanistan’s 398 districts to be under Taliban control, while another 35 districts were contested. More districts have fallen in recent weeks. The Taliban continue to take advantage of the weaknesses of the Afghan security forces, the drawdown of international troops, and the boost in their numbers from militants fleeing military operations in Fata.

Rather than US, Nato or Afghan security forces, the Taliban seem most concerned about the challenge posed by IS-affiliated militants in Afghanistan. These are primarily defectors who opposed Mansour’s leadership, but there are growing signs that they will harden into a functional ‘province’ of the Iraq- and Syria-based militant Islamic State group. The US last month said that IS is now financing its affiliates in Afghanistan, and cash quickly buys ideology.

Fighting between the Taliban and IS affiliates has led thousands to be displaced and threatens to make any dialogue process stillborn. If Kabul was unclear about who to negotiate with in the era of Mullah Omar, it will certainly be left wondering now.

And yet, talks about talks persist. The Quadrilateral Coordination Group comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the US is scheduled to meet for the third time at the end of this week. Media reports suggest that they are debating how to structure future talks. What they should do is iron out the competing agendas that obstruct prospects for stability in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan no doubt wants to resolve the conflict. But political infighting within the government extends to disagreements about how to engage the Taliban, what concessions to make and what role to permit Pakistan in a reconciliation process. There’s also some glee within the Afghan intelligence apparatus at the ‘reverse blowback’ — cross-border attacks by Afghanistan-based militants against Pakistan-based targets. This reversal of historical trends is heightening tensions, and preventing a joint crackdown.

The US, meanwhile, plans to focus on transnational militant groups — IS and Al Qaeda remnants that could target American interests beyond Afghanistan. Never mind that these are not Kabul’s top priority. And never mind that the Haqqani network is the main cause of casualties for US troops in Afghanistan. Nicholson confirmed last week (probably in an attempt to pacify Pakistani interlocutors) that the US will not target the group.

China’s agenda is more transparent: no safe havens in the region where Uighur militants could be radicalised and trained. China’s involvement will help keep Afgha¬nistan and Pakistan in line as gifts of investment and infrastructure development are unlikely to survive an uptick of militancy in western China. But it also threatens to make the reconciliation process about a single-point agenda rather than a comprehensive solution.

Pakistan has repeatedly said it wants to halt the reverse blowback, and that it supports a negotiated peace. The old notion that strong Taliban representation in Kabul will safeguard Pakistan’s interests along its western border persists. Never mind that the Taliban in recent years have clearly demonstrated they are not puppets on the intelligence agencies’ strings. For Pakistan, Afghanis¬tan is also a convenient scapegoat for problems at home, ranging from failings in national security to the endurance of militant groups.

These are the competing positions of stakeholders that are invested in a solution to the Afghan conflict. Add in Iran (with its concerns about an Afghan refugee influx and an IS threat directly across its border), Saudi Arabia (with its sectarian calculations), and India (with its efforts to maintain a foothold in the Afghan theatre), and the matter seems as intractable as ever.

In his comments to the US Senate last week, Nicholson betrayed a resignation about the security situation in Afghanistan. “This is Afghanistan,” he said. “There will always be some level of violence in Afghanistan.” The belief that the country deserves — or is capable of — no better emboldens the status quo and lifts the burden of stabilising Afghanistan from competing stakeholders, ascribing it instead to fate or historical trajectory. As long as such fatalism reigns, peace cannot come to Afghanistan — or the region.

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