21 Sep 2020
By Dr Zahid Shahab Ahmed, Abbas Farasoo and Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh
US representative Zalmay Khalilzad (left) and Taliban representative Abdul Ghani Baradar (right) sign the peace agreement in Doha, Qatar on February 29, 2020
Source: Nick-D, https://bit.ly/3knJHLb

While the involvement of external actors in the Afghan conflict is not new, such external influence has increased since 2001. Too many players with divergent interests pose a challenge to the success of a peace deal in Afghanistan.

In February 2020, the US and the Taliban signed a peace deal in Qatar, raising hopes that nearly 18 years of war in Afghanistan would soon come to an end. A key feature of the agreement is that the US will completely withdraw its troops within fourteen months of the deal if the Taliban upholds its commitments. The deal also includes a prisoner swap involving 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 Afghan National Security Forces prisoners. Despite some initial disagreements, the Afghan government has released 4,080 Taliban prisoners, though it stopped this process due to the intensified violence in recent months.

External actors and peace processes

Although most of the regional players, such as Russia, Iran, China, and Pakistan, want the US to leave Afghanistan, none of them have a clear plan to settle the conflict or handle the crisis after US withdrawal. Since 2012, a variety of international and regional actors have been engaged in peace diplomacy and intra-Afghan peace dialogues. These dialogues have been facilitated by Qatar, Germany, Pakistan, Russia, and China, but have often excluded key actors such as the Afghan government, India, and Iran.

As far as South Asian actors are concerned, there is a historic struggle for influence between India and Pakistan. Historically, the governments in Afghanistan have had a close relationship with India, other than the period under the control of the Taliban. Pakistan, therefore, has supported the Taliban against the Afghan government, which it perceives as pro-India. When it comes to the peace process in Afghanistan, Pakistan supports a peace settlement that allows the Taliban to have greater influence in Kabul. Islamabad has supported the dialogues hosted by other actors and has also hosted dialogues involving the Taliban. The first round of talks involving the Taliban and Afghan government delegations was facilitated by Islamabad in 2015 in Murree. But Pakistan has also been holding one-on-one discussions with the Taliban. A Taliban delegation was hosted at the Foreign Office of Pakistan in October 2019 to support the US–Taliban dialogue process.

Before 2001, Iran did not have a good relationship with the Taliban because of the organisation’s close relationship to Saudi Arabia, and its anti-Shi’a policy. However, insecure with the US’ military presence in Afghanistan since 2001, Iran has tactfully established links with the Taliban, with the two parties having a shared goal of defeating the US in Afghanistan. Since the rise of Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) in Afghanistan in 2015, Iran’s relationship with the Taliban has become an open secret. Iran has supported the Taliban, mainly in the western part of the country, to fight against  IS-K. Iran does not wish to see a Sunni “Islamic Emirate” on its eastern flank following the US withdrawal. Yet Iran has had no formal role in Afghanistan’s peace talks. Noting Iran’s troubled relationship with the US, it is not surprising that Washington has not extended an invitation to Tehran.

At the same time, China has enhanced its role in relation to Afghanistan, both domestically and on the regional stage. China has been very explicit about its concerns over Xinjiang separatism, making it a primary consideration in its relations with Afghanistan and the Central Asian states. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, led by China and Russia, aims to address the three evils of terrorism, separatism and extremism. Furthermore, peace and security in Afghanistan is crucial for the realization of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) through which Beijing aims to connect with Central Asia and the world. As a result, China has sought to enhance its influence in Afghanistan. China also hosted a meeting between Afghan officials and members of the old Taliban government in Urumqi in 2015, and, since 2014, has repeatedly invited Taliban delegations to visit China.

Russia has also developed ties with the Taliban in recent years and repeatedly invited them to Moscow, even before the US reached an agreement with them in Doha, and has supported some Taliban groups in the north against IS-K since 2015. According to US intelligence reports, Russia has paid the Taliban to kill US soldiers in Afghanistan, though this has been denied vehemently by Russia. For Moscow, it is essential to avoid another civil war in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal. Chaos in Afghanistan is seen as paving the way for other international extremist groups such as IS-K to threaten Russia’s soft southern borders through Central Asia. Russia has been pressing both the Afghan government and the Taliban to reach an agreement. Although Pakistan and China held intra-Afghan dialogues in 2015, the two nations have since then backed Moscow’s initiatives, such as the  November 2018 dialogue involving the Taliban and Afghan leaders (though not the Afghan government) in Moscow.

Proxy dynamics and peace settlement

The recent peace deal between the US and the Taliban was received with a sense of relief by most regional actors. The deal is also reassuring for the Taliban as it suggests that they have gained advantage points over the US and the Afghan government. Desperate to reach a deal with the Taliban, the US did not bring the Afghan government on board. The US continues to put pressure on the Taliban and the Afghan government to ensure that the peace deal is upheld.

In its efforts to put greater pressure on the Afghan government to meet its demands, the Taliban has increased the intensity of its attacks.  On 22 June 2020, Afghanistan’s National Security Council said that the Taliban had carried out 422 attacks in 32 provinces killing 291 members of Afghan security forces in a week. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA)  announced that in the first six months of 2020, “more than 800 civilians were killed and injured in deliberate attacks,” which includes 18 attacks on religious leaders.  UNAMA claimed that almost half of the attacks were carried out by the Taliban. It looks like the Taliban is using violence to warn the Afghan government that further escalation will follow if the government does not commit to the peace agreement.

Another challenge to the peace deal has been the India–Pakistan rivalry. Pakistan, as a key supporter of the Taliban, is supportive of the peace deal, while India seems sceptical about it because the deal gives an upper hand to Pakistan and its proxy, the Taliban. From the Indian perspective, the exclusion of the Afghan government from the process means it was guided by the US with Pakistan’s cooperation. India wants to be part of the process, however, it has not been part of US–China­–Russia trilateral dialogue nor part of the 6+2 (Afghanistan’s neighbours plus US and Russia). The US has urged India to engage with the Taliban, but so far, New Delhi has refused this proposal. For Pakistan, India playing a prominent role in Afghanistan is not acceptable and this disagreement between the biggest players in South Asia could negatively influence the peace deal.

The US might have thought the Afghan government’s involvement in the dialogue with the Taliban would derail the process, however, the deal seems to have produced signs of instability, with increased levels of violence. Taliban is using violence to pressure Kabul to meet their demands, especially the release of Taliban prisoners. The intensity of this violence might undermine the peace process, and thus create more mistrust among local and regional actors. The divergence of views among regional actors and a lack of consensus might negatively influence the Afghan peace process, and the continuation of violence could provide pretexts for disagreements and increased distrust.

Inclusive national dialogues, involving state and non-state actors, is vital in conflict and post-conflict situations. In proxy wars (conflicts), an understanding of the key issues among regional actors who have higher stakes in the conflict is crucial for the success of a peace process. There has been no civil society engagement in the intra-Afghan peace process, but what is more alarming is that the US has been exerting pressure on the Taliban and the government to accept a deal in which the government was not involved. During the past two decades, Afghanistan has changed enormously, it has a more vibrant civil society, media freedom, and greater women’s rights, and those positive transformations must also be considered in peace dialogues.

Dr Zahid Shahab Ahmed is a Research Fellow at Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalization, Deakin University. He is the author of Regionalism and Regional Security in South Asia: The Case of SAARC. He tweets at @DrZahidShahab.

Abbas Farasoo is a PhD candidate at Deakin University, Australia.

Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh researches Middle East & Central Asian Politics at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (Deakin University), and is the convenor of Middle East Studies Forum. His latest publication is with Kylie Baxter, Middle East Politics and International Relations: Crisis Zone (2018). He tweets at @S_Akbarzadeh.

Note: This article is an outcome of a Deakin University project on “Assessing the impact of external actors in the Syria and Afghan proxy wars,” funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York (grant number: G-18-55949).

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and can be republished with attribution.