The US is focusing on the ‘Sunni track’ to open its route back into Afghanistan.
In the downstream of the Taliban entering Kabul City on 15 August, the US has opened three urgent diplomatic tracks. The first track has focused on repairing the fault lines and hairline cracks that have appeared in the transatlantic alliance involving European partners, some of whom openly questioned the wisdom of President Biden’s April decision to withdraw the American troops summarily, which only, in their opinion, brought the roof crashing down.
There has been some success here with NATO, predictably enough, rallying behind the US. NATO works on consensus principle but that consensus is invariably dictated from Washington via a pliant secretary-general of the alliance. Clearly, in the present case too, the alliance largely heeded Washington’s road map and dissenting voices have become muted. How far the European states genuinely feel confident about the US leadership in Afghanistan is of course anybody’s guess.
The NATO statement of 20 August regarding Afghanistan is politically important for the Biden Administration in the context of the rising domestic criticism in America, spearheaded by assorted elements including the Republicans, the inveterate war lobby – the ‘military-industrial complex’, ‘Deep State’, Christian evangelists, and others – and powerful sections of the media, such as the New York Times or Fox News.
The second diplomatic track that Washington will keep open is about shoring up the sagging confidence and loss of morale of the two quasi-allies in the region surrounding Afghanistan – India and Uzbekistan. This is a relatively minor track insofar as the capacity of these two countries to the south and north of Afghanistan to influence the events in Afghanistan may be severely limited.
But the Biden Administration is reassuring itself that it can continue to count on them as quiescent partners who may have a sense of disquiet about the events in Afghanistan but will not embarrass the US at this point in time when Washington’s Afghan policy is in a state of meltdown, leave alone jump the ship.
The above two diplomatic tracks are essentially window dressing in character. They are not significant in their impact on the emergent ground realities in Afghanistan – at least, for now.
However, there is a third track, which is surging ahead, focused on the ‘operational’ part of the Biden Administration’s current approach to the Afghan situation. This track involves the countries of the Persian Gulf region – Afghanistan’s ‘near abroad’ – which are in one way or another already partnering with the US in weathering the storm that broke out in Kabul a week ago.
The US envisages a key role by the Persian Gulf allies in tackling the current Afghan situation from a practical point of view. These allies fall into two categories.
The UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait are helping Washington to pick up the debris (‘collateral damage’) that resulted from the abrupt fall of the US-backed Ashraf Ghani government. The US State Department euphemistically calls this ‘humanitarian efforts’ – facilitating the safe transit of US citizens, embassy personnel, and foreign nationals evacuated from Kabul to third countries.
The importance of this gracious Sunni Arab offer to help cannot be underestimated, as the Biden Administration attaches the highest priority to the safety and security of US citizens overseas, including American diplomats and service members in Afghanistan, given the optics of the dynamic situation in Kabul Airport playing out in news cycles in the US.
Qatar performs a dual role by facilitating the safe transit of US citizens, Embassy Kabul personnel, and the so-called ‘at-risk Afghans’ through Doha while also notionally still hosting the intra-Afghan talks, which are moribund but not quite dead yet and may be resuscitated if future exigencies warrant it.
Similarly, the UAE, as desired by Washington, has promptly given political asylum to the ousted president Ghani and his family – something that the US itself cannot do lest it alienate the Taliban. (This harks back to the role the client states Panama and Egypt once played when the Shah of Iran went into exile following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.)
The UAE may have calculated already that it has nothing to lose by way of alienating the Taliban with which it has had indifferent ties through the past several years. Interestingly, the UAE and Saudi Arabia scrambled to close down their embassy in Kabul no sooner than the Taliban entered the city. Besides, the UAE has been the watering hole for the corrupt Afghan elites and warlords to launder money and acquire properties.
As regards Turkey and Saudi Arabia, they fall in an altogether separate category in the US calculus. Turkey, of course, is a major NATO ally and is performing a stellar role as the Praetorian Guard of the Kabul Airport perimeters, a role that President Recep Erdogan keenly sought to perform as part of his maneuvering to improve relations with President Biden, as well as to position itself to assume a larger-than-life role in the shape of things to come in Afghanistan.
Turkey has inherited from Uzbekistan the mentorship of the ethnic Uzbek interests in the Amu Darya region as part of its grand ambitions to claim the mantle of leadership of the Turkic world stretching from Xinjiang to the Caspian. No doubt, Turkey will seek an operational role in helping the US to navigate the way forward from the politico-military tangle in Afghanistan. The notorious Afghan Uzbeki warlord Rashid Dostum has been on the payroll of Turkish intelligence for over two decades dating back to the second half of the 1990s when Tashkent summarily dumped him.
Surely, Turkey plans to leverage this Afghan Uzbeki connection if an inclusive government takes shape in Kabul that is representative of various ethnic groups. On the other hand, Turkey would also make sure that it has one foot inside any anti-Taliban resistance as well in the coming period, since Dostum still has a militia under his command who is assured of a senior position in any non-Pashtun military line-up confronting the Taliban.
On 18 August, in a highly significant symbolic and strategic move, within seventy-two hours of the Taliban exiling Ghani – who, incidentally, had enjoyed exceptionally warm ties with the Saudi leadership – the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken put through a call to his Saudi counterpart Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud.
According to the taciturn US readout, the two officials “discussed Afghanistan and ways the international community can support the Afghan people. They also discussed other shared regional priorities.” The Saudi readout, unsurprisingly, gave a hyped-up version.
It said, “During the call, the two ministers reviewed the strategic relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States of America and ways to strengthen them in all common areas. The contact also discussed the most important developments, foremost of which are the developments in Afghanistan, and developments in the region.”
This is manna from the heavens for the Saudi regime – that the Biden Administration is rebooting Washington-Riyadh ties and giving it a cutting edge, burying all that hatchet over the gruesome killing of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
When it comes to Saudi Arabia, it is all smoke and mirrors, as it always has been in regard to its role in Afghanistan. In the past several years, Saudi-Taliban relations have virtually broken down. The halcyon days of then-Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki darting in and out of Afghanistan to mentor al-Qaeda and the Taliban have become a distant memory that neither the Taliban nor the Saudis cherish anymore.
Meanwhile, the cooling off in Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia consequent upon its refusal to send a military contingent for the war in Yemen also meant that Islamabad no longer seeks a Faustian deal with Saudi Arabia on the Afghan question. Equally, in the broader regional alignments, Pakistan also has eagerly sought to improve relations with Iran, which is no longer a rival regional power in the Afghan theater.