Amidst much expectation, the ministerial meeting this month in Dushanbe, Tajikistan of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the session of the SCO contact group with Afghanistan has left a trail of disappointment. The peace process is not making the expected headway, despite the intra-Afghan dialogue having resumed at Doha.
However, the withdrawal of US and NATO forces is already beginning to be felt. The regional opinion is that the dominating US role may have ended and US capacity to charter the peace process in directions that suits its interests have been palpably diminished. But appearances can be deceptive when it comes to the Hindu Kush.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and the apparent US retrenchment, so to speak, has animated the regional states to take initiatives. Formats other than the Doha process are being discussed. Everyone seems to want to boost the political process. Tehran recently hosted a conference for the representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban. Tehran hopes to convene another such event in a near future.
In the wake of the SCO ministerial in Dushanbe, China has also made an offer to be a facilitator for intra-Afghan dialogue “at any time.” Then, there is the Troika mechanism (Russia, US and China – plus Pakistan) which is a Russian initiative. Unlike the pathways cut by Tehran and Beijing, the Troika hopes to build on the Doha process.
As Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov puts it, “We think there’s no need to come up with any new agreements to do this. We just need to implement what has already been approved by, above all, the Afghan government and the Taliban.”
After the SCO meetings in Dushanbe and a one-day international conference on regional connectivity that followed at Tashkent, Lavrov disclosed that the Troika has “discussed, in particular, the candidacies of India and Iran. I believe this would boost this format’s capabilities. We’ll see how it goes from here.”
Of course, Iran is credited with influence over both the Taliban and the Afghan government as well as among the Shia communities in Afghanistan, especially the Hazaras.
But it is unclear whether Iran will share a table with the US at this point in time to settle a regional conflict that has huge bearing on its own regional policies and would have implications for a long-term US involvement in Afghanistan with all its impact on Iran’s national security.
Iran’s stance has been that US interference has been the root cause of the turmoil in Afghanistan. Iran has alleged that the US has been responsible for the appearance of the Islamic State in Afghanistan as a unique instrument of Washington’s regional agenda focused on the containment of the US, China and Iran. Tehran suspects that Washington will pit the Islamic State against Iran from the Afghan springboard.
As for India, it has been a fellow traveller of the US bandwagon in Afghanistan all along, and it has a closed mind regarding the Taliban’s credentials as an autonomous Afghan entity. India is also deeply sceptical about Pakistani intentions, which it suspects is still projecting power into Afghanistan through the Taliban.
India enjoys excellent relations with the Afghan government headed by President Ashraf Ghani, and has been a consistent contributor to the Afghan economy by rendering assistance (estimated to exceed USD3 billion so far) and giving vital help to that country’s “capacity building” in all spheres, including security.
Unsurprisingly, short of putting boots on the ground, India has taken a firm stand about the “legitimacy aspect” of the Taliban, which more or less corresponds to what Ghani has been saying, namely, that the Taliban’s mainstreaming ought to be through a constitutional, democratic process, and anything else will be an imposition on the nation that will be a recipe for chaos, as there are large sections of Afghan opinion that militate against the Taliban and deeply resent Pakistan’s role.
No doubt, any expansion of the Troika with the induction of Iran and India – especially India – would radically transform the Afghan peace process, the cohesion of the Russia-led mechanism, and the standing of the US within it. The US likely proposed India’s induction – and, perhaps Iran’s too, as Washington is eager to jump-start an engagement with Tehran on regional politics.
Clearly, the US is determined to be involved in Afghanistan and the troop withdrawal will only mean a rebooting of policies with greater emphasis on strengthening ties with the Ghani government.
This is where the latest US initiative to create a new regional axis involving Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan merits close attention. The representatives of the four countries issued a joint statement on Friday agreeing to establish a Quadrilateral Diplomatic Platform with focus on infrastructure development predicated on their mutual consensus that “peace and connectivity are mutually reinforcing.”
The new platform closely resembles the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (better known as the QUAD), which is an alliance of the US, Japan, India, and Australia that has been dubbed as the prelude to the creation of an “Asian NATO” to confront China and Russia.
Are we witnessing the tip of the iceberg – a QUAD-II in the making as a counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which the US perceives as Beijing’s hugely consequential geopolitical tool in Afghanistan and Central Asia? Conceivably, the proposed QUAD-II meshes with the new Global Infrastructure Initiative that the Group of Seven (G7) leaders meeting in Cornwall, England, on 11–13 June agreed on. This is one thing.
Second, fault lines have appeared lately in the Sino–Pakistani relationship with China taking a public stance demanding that the Taliban ought to formally break its ties with all terrorist groups as a pre-condition for intra-Afghan peace talks. A window of opportunity is opening for Washington to leverage the traditionally western-oriented Pakistani elites and wean Islamabad away from the tight embrace of Beijing. This is another thing.
Most important, the US has lost face regionally in the inconclusive Afghan war. A QUAD-II is just the vehicle needed to launch a renewed bid to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. A regional axis is badly needed to provide the platform for Washington to stage a comeback in the geopolitics of Central Asia and Afghanistan, which is vital to its strategy to encircle China and Russia globally.
This time around, the US will bypass the UN Security Council. A NATO comeback will be at the invitation of the sovereign Afghan government. The proposed QUAD-II as a charioteer of Western interests, of course, needs no UN mandate.
Washington apparently kept Russia and China guessing and sprang a nasty surprise on Friday. Coincidence or not, the Moscow daily Kommersant disclosed on Saturday that President Vladimir Putin had offered US counterpart Joe Biden at the Geneva Summit on 16 June the use of Russian military bases in Central Asia for information gathering from Afghanistan, and that Russia and the US coordinate on Afghanistan and put Russia’s bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to “practical use.” But the stunning disclosure is unlikely to embarrass Washington, as the Deep State is behind the QUAD-II strategy.
Massive manoeuvring is going on behind the scenes. Shades of Halford Mackinder’s Heartland theory is felt everywhere. Importantly, the Russian foreign ministry spokesperson hit out on Russian state TV Sunday night in an accusatory tone that “it is impossible to understand the logic of what the United States was doing there” (in Afghanistan), refusing to be accountable to the UN throughout the entire 20-year war “despite the reminders, despite the calls, despite its commitments.” Moscow is worried like hell as to what the US is up to in Central Asia.