Written by admin on Monday, January 7th, 2019

Selected by Olivier Immig & Jan van Heugten

The power play in Afghanistan
SOURCE: The Express Tribune
Monday, January 7, 2019

The second round of Afghan peace talks will soon be held in Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan is instrumental in brokering these talks seeking a political solution to the Afghan war. The first round was hosted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The fact that another round is now scheduled in Jeddah shows there was forward movement in parleys at Abu Dhabi.

Saudi Arabia, which has remained at the periphery as far as the Afghan peace process is concerned, has now assumed the centre stage, something that is seen with suspicion by countries such as Iran, Russia, Qatar and even Turkey. Their suspicion stems from fears that the Afghan peace deal negotiated by Saudi Arabia may advance the US interest in the region at the expense of other countries.

That is why Iran has also opened the channel of communications with the Taliban. In fact, Tehran has been talking to the Taliban for months but only acknowledged it publicly now in a calculated move to send a message that Saudi Arabia is not the only player in Afghanistan.

Pakistan is mindful of the competing interests of these regional countries in Afghanistan. That was the reason that soon after the Abu Dhabi talks, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi rushed to Iran, Russia, Qatar and China. The purpose was to assure Tehran, Moscow, Doha and Beijing that there was no shift in Pakistan’s approach on Afghanistan.

For many years Islamabad has been pushing for a regional consensus on Afghanistan. Interestingly, many officials privately admit that Pakistan has more convergence with Russia, Iran and China on Afghanistan than with the US. Pakistan, like Russia, Iran and China, is also skeptical of the ultimate objective of the US in Afghanistan. Washington has its own list of grievances often accusing Islamabad of double play. That has been the primary reason that both countries despite being ostensible allies have failed to find a common ground on Afghanistan. But the scenario has changed after Saudi Arabia got involved in peace efforts pushing Pakistan away from the regional approach.

Yet, Islamabad is still striving for taking key regional stakeholders on board for any political solution on Afghanistan. It is, however, facing a tricky situation because of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Both these countries have extended financial assistance to the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan at a time when Pakistan was in real danger of getting bankrupt. So the PTI government is apparently under compulsion to follow what Saudis have been saying.

The latest push for a peace deal may be aimed at giving an ‘honourable exit’ to the US, which has already lost the war, but Tehran and Moscow fear the US through Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Pakistan is pushing the Taliban to accept permanent US bases as part of the final deal. This is where the actual problem lies. Russia, Iran and even China are concerned that permanent presence of the US military in Afghanistan will be destabilising for the region.

In this backdrop, Pakistan’s work is really cut out. On the one hand, it has to return the favour to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for their “generous financial support” but at the same time take into account the larger implications of any peace deal that does not have the backing of key regional countries.

This means despite renewed optimism, the road to peace is bumpy and fraught with dangers. It is not only the intra-Afghan dialogue which is essential for any political settlement but also players sitting outside Afghanistan have to come on the same page.

But who would bring Tehran and Riyadh or Washington and Moscow on the same page given their divergent strategic interests? And don’t forget the Indo-Pak angle in this power play in Afghanistan.


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