Does Qatar hold more sway over the Afghan Taliban than any other country like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or the UAE? As the sixth round of the Taliban-US peace talks ended in Qatar without any major breakthrough, the question remains what is holding the two sides to negotiate and how is the eventual breakthrough possible?
Another frequent question is whether Pakistan has enough influence over the Taliban, to push them towards a peace deal with the US as well as agree to direct talks with the Afghan government? Or does the small Gulf state of Qatar, the venue of the Taliban-US talks that began in July 2018, and the place where the Taliban Political Commission is based since 2010, enjoys more clout to persuade the Taliban?
As for the US, there is not much any country can do to influence Washington to change its Afghan policy. The Trump administration would obviously make a decision that best serves America’s interest, after having largely unsuccessfully used its enormous military and economic power since 2001 to achieve its objectives in Afghanistan.
For years it was presumed that Pakistan, due to its old links with the Afghan Taliban, had more influence than any other country on the hardline armed group. Primarily because a number of Taliban leaders had fled to Pakistan after losing power in Afghanistan following the post-9/11 US invasion. It was believed that Islamabad was capable of influencing Taliban decision-making.
On its part, Pakistan conceded it has contacts with the Taliban just like certain other countries. However, Pakistan maintained that its influence on the group was limited, contrary to the widely held belief by Afghanistan, the US and their allies that it could order the Taliban to make war or opt for peace.
For the first time on March 1, 2016, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz, in his candid comments at the Washington-based think-tank, The Council on Foreign Relations, admitted that Islamabad has some influence on the Taliban as its leadership along with their families live in Pakistan, and receive medical facilities. Until then, Pakistan had consistently denied the presence of the Taliban leadership in the country. To reinforce his point, Aziz recalled that Pakistan had pressured the Taliban leaders to participate in the first-ever direct peace talks with the Afghan government in Murree on July 7, 2015.
Pakistan has maintained that the talks collapsed when the belated news of the death of Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was leaked by the Afghan intelligence agency, National Directorate of Security (NDS).
Though Pakistan is claiming to have played a role in facilitating the ongoing peace talks between the Taliban and the US, by releasing the Taliban deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, to lead his negotiating team, it is being asked by the US and Afghanistan to do more by persuading Taliban to agree to a ceasefire and hold peace talks with the Afghan government.
Pakistan has publicly called for Taliban-Afghan government talks and ceasefire, but the Taliban did not show any flexibility. The only concession that the Taliban showed was to meet Afghan opposition leaders at a Russia-sponsored conference in Moscow in February, and agree in principle to an intra-Afghan dialogue in Qatar in which Afghan government officials could attend in their personal capacity. The Qatar meeting was postponed due to disagreements on the size and composition of the 250-member Afghan delegation that was to meet the Taliban in late April, though efforts are being made to make this happen.
The US has always considered Pakistan’s influence on the Taliban as the key to opening the doors of Afghan reconciliation and used every means, including persuasion and arm-twisting, to seek its cooperation for convincing the Taliban to join the peace process.
Earlier, Washington and Kabul used to demand that Pakistan should take action against the irreconcilable elements among the Taliban insisting on continuing the fight. Pakistan resisted this demand by arguing that such an approach would be counter-productive as talks alone could help end the Afghan conflict, after 18 years of failed attempts to force a military solution.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, has been a frequent visitor to Pakistan since assuming his job last September. In fact, he makes it a point to consult Pakistani officials after or before his visits to Kabul and Doha. When the Taliban announced the launching of their annual spring offensive, by the name of Al-Fateh in April, despite being engaged in peace talks with the US, Khalilzad turned to Pakistan and Qatar by asking them to condemn the Taliban move. It was a realization of the fact that the two countries with the biggest influence presently on the Taliban were Pakistan and Qatar.
However, there are limits to what Pakistan can do in promoting the Afghan peace process. Pakistan has yet to host any meeting between the Taliban negotiators and Khalilzad on its soil, even though it reportedly tried to do so last year. The Afghan government has consistently opposed any such move without its agreement. As admitted by Prime Minister Imran Khan, his planned meeting with a Taliban delegation had to be cancelled due to objections by President Ashraf Ghani’s government.
In comparison, Qatar has hosted several rounds of peace talks between the Taliban and the US and would continue to be the host for further meetings. It would likely host the intra-Afghan dialogue in case the Taliban agree to receive a smaller joint delegation of all anti-Taliban groups, including the Afghan government, in future.
The Taliban continue to resist proposals to shift their Political Commission out of Qatar to one of the several countries offering to be the host. The group further showed no enthusiasm for the recent Afghan government proposal to hold the intra-Afghan dialogue in Uzbekistan instead of Qatar. As Taliban leaders based in Qatar have been treated well, they trust the government of Qatar and are known to listen to its advice.
Qatar may be small and embroiled in a bitter rivalry with its giant neighbour, Saudi Arabia, and its allies, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, yet it has continued to punch above its weight. It has maintained friendly relations with the Taliban and other Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Moreover, it played the role of a mediator in complex situations, such as the prisoners’ swap between the Taliban and the US, when five senior Taliban members held at the Guantanamo Bay prison were exchanged for an American soldier.
Pakistan still has a role to play in the Afghan peace process, but Qatar is less controversial and more acceptable as a peacemaker. Pakistan as Afghanistan’s neighbour and home to nearly 2.5 million Afghan refugees cannot be ignored in the peace process, though Qatar is better suited as a trouble-shooter and host to peacemaking events. There is no competition between Pakistan and Qatar in the context of the Afghan peace process, but it would be worthwhile if the two Islamic countries complement each other’s efforts to make Afghanistan peaceful again. It has to be a shared responsibility and other countries such as the US, China, Russia and Iran too must play a role to peacefully bring the four decades long Afghan conflict to an end.
Penned By: Rahimullah Yusufzai