Permanent peace has evaded Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001. From the 2007 Norwegian initiative by senior diplomat Alf Arne Ramslien to Qatar’s allowing the Afghan Taliban to set up a political office in Doha in 2013, there have been several efforts, but each lost steam due to a trust deficit among regional actors.

The latest such forum – the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QGC) – recently met in Oman, even as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expressed Washington’s willingness to negotiate. To discuss the prospects of the Afghan Taliban joining talks in the future, Dawn caught up with senior journalist Tahir Khan, who monitors developments in Afghanistan, and asked him whether regional players would change their stance in view of the rise of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan.

Q: Will the Afghan Taliban come to the negotiating table?

A: At the moment, there are no signs of any formal talks being held with the Afghan Taliban, since they want to negotiate directly with the US; they have said this publicly. The Americans, however, don’t want that.

For the Afghan Taliban, the top priority is the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. They say they want a timeframe for when, if at all, America intends to leave Afghanistan.

The impression that the Afghan Taliban’s condition for holding talks is the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan is wrong. They claim that since the US toppled their government, the Americans are a party to the war. They have not reached the stage where they might hold talks with the Afghan government. That would be in future.

The office in Qatar was opened in 2013 after two-and-a-half years of discussions with the US and the Afghan government. But the amount of attention that initiative got made the then Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, nervous; he immediately raised objections and even recalled the Afghan envoy from Doha, after which the office ultimately closed. The Afghan government is very weak, and the Americans do not want to annoy it. If the US gets involved directly – as the Taliban wish – the Afghan government’s position is compromised.

The Taliban even have objections to initiatives such as QCG. Normally, they do not issue political statements, but in Feb 2016, when they were asked to come for talks within two months, they formally reacted to this and said they did not accept the QCG as they were not informed about its objectives.

Q: Do you think Pakistan would be able to convince Afghan Taliban to agree to talk?

A: Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban has weakened because of mistrust and due to its faulty policies, which have mostly remained directionless. Pakistan can talk to the Afghan Taliban or encourage them, but it can no longer influence them. Many Taliban military leaders, such as Ibrahim Sadr, have left Pakistan, as have leaders from the south.

According to my information, Akhtar Mansour had told all Taliban that whoever could find space for themselves in Afghanistan, especially fighting personnel, should leave Pakistan.

At present, the Afghan Taliban have a lot of space, which has even been confirmed by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (Sigar) report. It states that the Taliban have expanded their control inside Afghanistan over the past six months.

In April, Afghan Taliban normally announce their spring offensive. More space means more Afghan Taliban can be accommodated in Taliban-controlled areas and, if they can keep these areas during the winters, they can recruit more people.

Q: There are several parties to the Afghan conflict and each has its own priorities. When all sides come to the table, which side stands to gain the most?

A: It is Kabul that stands to gain the most from talks, since they could put an end to a conflict that has been raging for about 40 years. Secondly, those countries that are directly affected by the situation in Afghanistan will benefit, like Pakistan, Iran, the Central Asian states and even Russia.

The Afghan Taliban have recently increased their contacts with Russia, and even though Afghanistan and Russia do not share a border, Tajikistan does. Moscow is helping Tajikistan with border management because it feels that it could face destabilisation through Central Asia, especially after the emergence of the IS.

Last but not the least, the Americans will benefit greatly; they have been spending billions and facing scores of casualties in one of the longest wars they have ever been involved with.

Q: Given China’s role in the QCG, don’t you think other regional actors, who have been involved in the conflict over the years, should be taken on board?

A: In Dec 2016, a trilateral meeting was held in Moscow which was attended by Pakistan, China and Russia. This dialogue process first started in April 2013, when President Obama had announced that the US would withdraw most of its troops from Afghanistan.

The second meeting was held in Pakistan in November of the same year and another was scheduled to be held in Russia, but Moscow did not call a meeting for the next three years – maybe they wanted to see how things would turn out.

When the US did not withdraw troops and following the emergence of IS, Russia agreed to hold the meeting in Moscow. Another meeting of six nations – Pakistan, Russia, Iran, China, Afghanistan and India – was held, which announced that the next summit would feature a dozen countries. However, the US stayed away from this process on the pretext that they had not been consulted in advance.

I think this was just an excuse – they were worried about Russian diplomacy, so they encouraged the Afghan government to start their ‘Kabul Process’. The first meeting of this process was held in June 2017, attended by around 25 to 30 countries, and the next will be held in Jan 2018.

It is good that such processes are held under the patronage of Kabul, but in my opinion, these 30 countries cannot do anything for peace in Afghanistan.

The Russians kept quiet about this development for some time, but then hosted the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s (SCO) Afghanistan Contact Group – including Pakistan and Afghanistan – in Moscow after a pause of seven years.

China also has a stake – their topmost priority is economic. In 2014, China appointed a special envoy for Afghanistan for the first time. Then, the head of the Chinese army and its foreign minister have visited Afghanistan and also provided weapons, enhancing Beijing’s political role in Afghanistan.

Iran, too, is affected by the conflict, and after the rise of IS, its contacts with the Afghan Taliban have also increased. Both sides have softened their tones, despite the obvious sectarian differences. According to my information, Iran has even given space to the Afghan Taliban – but not the top leadership – in Sunni areas.

Published in Dawn, November 14th, 2017