Groucho Marx once said, ‘Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.’ Perhaps American policy makers took this seriously when making American foreign policy towards Afghanistan. Finally divorcing these words, America is now desperately seeking a dignified exit from Afghanistan and for this reason has involved Arab states in the Afghan peace process.
Historically, all conflicts have been resolved through political settlements. Such settlements involve negotiations, dialogues and peace talks amongst major but relevant stakeholders to achieve a meaningful peace process. For good reasons, Afghanistan has often been labelled as a graveyard for big powers. The English came to conquer it but tasted crushing defeat. The Soviet Union did so during cold war, only to be met with its own disintegration. After said disintegration, during the 1990s, the Taliban consolidated their rule almost all over Afghanistan.
The answer to this is that America cannot leave Afghanistan in this state without holding dialogues with major stake holders in Afghanistan, particularly the Taliban.
America invaded Afghanistan under President Bush. Since then and it has been more than one and half decade that America has not been able to achieve its targets in Afghanistan. In its policy circles, the debates regarding American withdrawal from Afghanistan was started under the Obama administration. But the central inquiry is if America can afford to leave Afghanistan in a chaotic state and if it does leave, who gains control of the country and under what circumstances, following certain repercussions. The answer to this is that America cannot leave Afghanistan in this state without holding dialogues with major stake holders in Afghanistan, particularly the Taliban. In similar light, America has started peace talks with Taliban through Arab states. It is worth noting that Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) were the only countries who recognized the Taliban in 1996. The role of facilitators in the process is being played by Arab states particularly Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE.
To start with, the role of Qatar is important in the Afghanistan peace process because of two chief reasons. In the first place, when America invaded Afghanistan many of the Taliban went to Qatar and merged there with the Pashtun diaspora. Secondly, both Taliban and Qataris belong to the Sunni faction of Islam that resulted in mutual trust between the two. Before 2010, both the Afghan and American governments faced difficulties in starting talks with the Taliban because they could not access Taliban leadership at the time. In the same year, there was formed a grand Jarga aimed at finding Taliban leadership and convincing them to participate in the Afghan talks.
The fundamental purpose of the grand Jarga was to ensure the Taliban leadership that they would be secure in a foreign country so that the peace process would begin. It should be noted that in addition to Afghan and American governments, Pakistan and China were also facilitating the reconciliation process. In that scenario, it was proposed that the Afghan government would open an office inside Afghanistan by ensuring Taliban their security, but the offer was rejected by the Taliban leadership because of trust deficit between the concerned parties. Saudi Arabia and Turkey were two other alternatives because of their good repute among the Taliban but the latter selected Qatar because it was considered more secure and trustworthy. It is pertinent to mention here that Qatar did not recognize the Taliban regime during 1990s, but nevertheless had friendly relations. According to the Taliban, Saudi Arabia and Turkey had aligned themselves with the Afghan government hence their impartiality could not be trusted. Thus, with the consent of America, an office was set up in Qatar in 2013 for Taliban in order to begin peace talks.
The fundamental purpose of the grand Jarga was to ensure the Taliban leadership that they would be secure in a foreign country so that the peace process would begin.
The reconciliation process started in 2011 and the first major round of peace talks between Taliban and US began therewith. Under the Obama administration, America wanted to pull out of Afghanistan and for this purpose; American officials initiated talks with some Afghan leaders in the absence of the Taliban. During the same time, the Taliban and American leadership met in order to start negotiations. But these talks did not prove to be successful because America stated that it would not withdraw from Afghanistan until negotiations reached fruition as it had reservations that the Taliban would regain control of Afghanistan; because of a huge amount of weapons in the country. Furthermore, America wanted the Taliban to break all relations with Al Qaeda and also to show deference to the Afghan government.
On the other hand, the Taliban wanted the release of their leaders from Guantanamo Bay. Initially, it seemed that America and Afghan governments had hopes that they would be successful in transforming the Taliban from a militant to a political organization for peace and stability in Afghanistan. At the same time, both Afghanistan and America wanted to reduce the influence of Pakistan over Taliban. But this phase of talks could not be materialized because of Osama Bin Laden’s assassination in 2011.
In the next phase, Taliban once again demanded the release of their leadership which was denied, resulting in the suspension of talks. In June 2013, with the establishment of the Taliban office in Doha, the third phase of talks was started. During these talks, the Afghan government raised concerns over the Taliban’s flag and its name which read as the ‘Embassy of Taliban in Doha’; which was not accepted by the former. This again resulted in the suspension of peace talks as Taliban offices in Doha were thereafter officially closed. At the end of 2013, Taliban’s numerical strength increased in Doha from 5 to 20 which showed that Taliban were serious in peace talks, which was taken positively by the American government.
In 2016, another phase of the peace talks began under the banner of the Doha Dialogue of peace and security in Afghanistan. In this phase, the Taliban participated in the peace negotiations. It was organized by the Nobel Peace Prizewinning Pugwash Conferences on Sciences and World Affairs. The conference was attended by key Taliban leaders but was boycotted by the Afghan government. The Taliban leaders put forward some demands but due to the absence of Afghan officials, the talks remained merely symbolic in nature.
In 2017, a crisis occurred among Arab states in which Qatar was blamed by Saudi Arabia and Emirates for facilitating terrorist organizations. Qatar was also blamed for aiding the Taliban. The Qatari officials rejected these allegations and claimed that they facilitated and gave permission to Taliban to open their office in Qatar on America’s request. In July 2017, it was revealed by UAE’s ambassador to America that the Taliban’s office would be set up in UAE which created distrust among and with the Qatari officials resulting in the suspension of talks.
As far as Saudi Arabia and UAE are concerned, the role of both countries has been critical in the peace process. Both countries recognized Taliban in the 1990s and both share a majority of the Sunni faction of Islam.
In February and March of 2019, another round of peace talks had begun between Taliban and America in Doha, Qatar. This time, the American special representative to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad played an important role in the Afghan peace process. At the end of February 2019, Khalilzad met with Mullah Baradar while also conducting a round of dialogues in Doha, Qatar. These talks are presently also being facilitated by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and UAE aimed at peace and stability in Afghanistan. It is pertinent to mention here that the role of Pakistan, Russia and China is of great importance in the process, especially in recent months.
As far as Saudi Arabia and UAE are concerned, the role of both countries has been critical in the peace process. Both countries recognized Taliban in the 1990s and both share a majority of the Sunni faction of Islam. Throughout the Afghan peace process, both countries offered backdoor diplomatic efforts in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table at American request. In recent Doha talks of 2019, both Saudi Arabia and UAE played a significant role in the Afghan peace talks which was recognized by the American special representative Zalmay Khalilzad.
Now once again, another phase of talks is planned in Doha which is expected to bring a meaningful breakthrough in the static state of affairs. The confluence of Arab and Pakhtun tribalism is a rational political hope for America in its quest for a dignified exit from Afghanistan.
Khaqan Ahmad has done M.Phil in International Relations from the National Defense University, Islamabad. His areas of expertise are Indo-Pacific region, Middle East, European Affairs, International Political economy, Foreign Policy of USA, China and Russia, Philosophy, Theories of IR and Artificial Intelligence. Currently, he is working as a Research Associate at the CSCR.