Consensus on Afghanistan: More than just a ‘Great Game’

Salman Rafi Sheikh, May 5, 2019

Chinese Special Envoy Deng Xijun (L), Russian Presidential Representative Zamir Kabulov (C) & US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad (R) met in Moscow on April 26, 2019 for the second round of trilateral consultation on Afghanistan.

The April 26, 2019 meeting between Special Representatives of the US, China and Russia in Moscow has turned out to be a true watershed event. It is a big leap towards ending the almost 18 year-old US war in Afghanistan.

The Big-Power consensus on ending the US-Afghan war is unprecedented, in that, these powers, namely, the US and Russia, and the US and China, are otherwise at odds with each other on multiple fronts, ranging from strategic and economic to the bi-lateral.

The consensus also addresses most of the concerns that have been raised from time to time about the peace process and the withdrawal of US/NATO forces from Afghanistan.

First and foremost, as the joint statement shows, there is a broad agreement among the three powers on making the Afghan peace negotiations a truly intra-Afghan one through the inclusion of the government in Kabul.

Secondly, there is also consensus on a responsible and measured withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, shunning the possibility of a withdrawal without any deal and consequently, throwing Afghanistan into another era of conflict. There is thus a lot of optimism.

However, for some, the consensus is nothing more than a contemporary manifestation of the ‘New Great Game’ being played in Afghanistan in which the big-powers would share ‘slices’ of Afghanistan among themselves.

More than being a manifestation of a ‘New Great Game’, the consensus signifies the regionalization of the issue that has been defying solution for the last 18 years.

China’s involvement is primarily a result of the fact that it is Afghanistan’s biggest foreign investor. Russia’s interests stem primarily from its concerns about the unending conflict and how it has exacerbated the situation arising from the emergence of IS-K, which can penetrate Central Asia. China shares this concern, as Pakistan and Iran do.

Big-powers, therefore, see the ending of the conflict in Afghanistan as a prerequisite to prevent religious-extremism from spreading in Afghanistan and beyond; hence the emphasis on resolving the conflict within Afghanistan through an inclusive and comprehensive dialogue.

Joint Statement

The Joint Statement issued at the end of the Moscow tri-lateral states that “the three sides support an inclusive Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, peace process and are ready to provide necessary assistance. The three sides encourage the Afghan Taliban to participate in peace talks with a broad, representative, Afghan delegation that includes the government, as soon as possible.”

“The three powers see this as a necessary and logical step to fighting their common enemy i.e., IS-K and al-Qaeda.”

“The three powers take note of the Afghan Taliban’s commitment to: fighting ISIS and cutting ties with Al-Qaeda, ETIM, and other international terrorist groups; and ensuring the areas they control will not be used to threaten any other country.”

“They call upon them (the Afghan Taliban) to prevent terrorist recruiting, training, and fundraising, and expel any known terrorists.”

Therefore, this is not a ‘New Great Game’ but a greater regionalization of the issue, as a result of shared concerns about IS-K and such other outfits. This is evident from the fact that the three sides have agreed not to confine the mediatory role to themselves but to extend it to other regional states i.e., Pakistan, Iran and even India, although the joint statement doesn’t mention any particular state(s).

The Taliban have certainly taken note of this development and have refused to agree to the call for a “cease-fire.” But more importantly, regional countries, such as Iran, which see in US military presence a threat to their own security, have more than one reason to extend their support to the tri-lateral consensus.

Pakistan and India

As far as the positions of Pakistan and India vis-à-vis the Afghan end-game are concerned, the trilateral consensus would face a major challenge in terms of reconciling their conflicting positions, especially India’s position vis-à-vis the Taliban.

But if we look at the consensus closely, it seems to satisfy the concerns of both Pakistan and India. Pakistan can feel relaxed that the Taliban are inevitably going to be part of whatever setup comes next. For India, the trilateral consensus unequivocally emphasizes its position, which is that there should be intra-Afghan talks.

Of course, India would still be concerned that the consensus has shed no light on Afghanistan’s now twice-postponed Presidential election, which India has repeatedly said must be held before entering into any deal with the Taliban.

But these concerns are hardly going to make an impact on the end-game since countries like India and Pakistan are going to play only second fiddle to what the big-powers do, notwithstanding the fact that small-powers can still manipulate through Kabul and the Taliban.

However, the question “will the desire to manipulate overpower the desire to end the conflict?” remains.

But for now, there is little doubt that the consensus voices, in one way or the other, the interests of all the actors involved in the Afghan war, including those from within and without Afghanistan.

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