IRAS interview with Nozar Shafiei - International affairs analyst
Following a 10-day delay, talks between representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban finally opened in Doha with 21-member delegations. Representatives of the Afghan government travelled to Doha in Qatar, including Afghanistan’s Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah, Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, the Presidential Special envoy for Peace, Abdul Salam Rahimi, and Afghanistan's State Minister of Peace, Sayed Sadat Mansoor Naderi. Last Thursday, Donald Trump announced that he was sending US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to Doha for the opening of the talks. The talks can have different consequences for most countries, including the United States, Russia, and even Iran.
Talking to IRAS, international affairs analyst, Dr Nozar Shafiei is of the opinion that, regardless of what may come to pass and whether it is right or wrong, or in the interest of the Afghan people or the world, the Americans are woefully only considering Mr Trump's interests and have concentrated their efforts on the Afghan government and the Taliban reaching an agreement at any cost. The Afghan government has even been placed under pressure to reach an agreement as quickly as possible.
After years of efforts, intra-Afghan peace talks finally began on Saturday in Doha. Why do you think the preparations for the talks took so long?
There are three parts to every negotiation: the pre-negotiations, negotiations, and the post-negotiations which is the last stage. The pre-negotiations involve the topic and place of the talks. In other words, the main framework of the negotiations is planned in the pre-negotiation stage. The speed in which the work progresses in the pre-negotiation stage, also called talks to negotiate, depends on the topic. Is it a challenging issue? Is it a complex issue? Do the negotiating sides have deep disagreements? The reason behind the slow outset of talks lies in the structure of the negotiations. The complex structure is explained in the pre-negotiation stage, including the number of players involved, conflicts of interest, and the disputed topic.
On this basis, therefore, the Taliban and the Afghan government are set to talk about challenging issues. This is precisely the reason why the talks were delayed. This is the second stage of official talks for the Taliban. In the first stage, the Taliban talked to the Americans and reached a preliminary agreement. Many issues will be resolved between the Afghan government and the Taliban in the second stage which is call intra-Afghan talks. The US government made promises to the Taliban which were not truly within its competence. Namely, they made promises on behalf of the Afghan government. And today, the Afghan government is rejecting most of these. For instance, amending Afghanistan's constitution is a major challenge in the peace talks. The Taliban says reform must be so fundamental as to lead to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, while the government will not be satisfied with anything less than a republic and what has been created over nearly two decades.
The second issue is the Taliban view that more than 50 thousand of its forces must be positioned in Afghanistan's security and military structures. This is a rather difficult task for the government, both in terms of cost and security. And a precondition was set to free 5,000 Taliban fighters imprisoned in Afghanistan. Releasing these people without a positive outlook on the future of the talks means that the Afghan government has effectively placed itself in a position of weakness and strengthened the Taliban. Furthermore, add to this the US presidential election. Regardless of what may come to pass and whether it is right or wrong, or in the interest of the Afghan people or the world, the Americans are woefully only considering Mr Trump's interests and have concentrated their efforts on the Afghan government and the Taliban reaching an agreement at any cost. The Afghan government has even been placed under pressure to reach an agreement as quickly as possible. Pompeo has said that US aid would be reconsidered if the Afghan government did not show the necessary flexibility. In fact, the US has sided with the Taliban in providing assistance to Afghanistan, because peace is important to Americans regardless of its quality in the same way they pushed Bahrain and the UAE to enter into an agreement with Israel. In reality, US pressure is the driving force behind the talks today in line with the 2020 election. However, disagreements between the Afghans are too deep to be resolved at such short notice.
What are the most significant obstacles to a comprehensive agreement?
The failure to achieve their demands finally forced the Americans, Afghans, and the Taliban to talk. The Taliban sought to overthrow the Afghan government and oust US forces from Afghanistan. On the other hand, the Afghan government and the US sought to eliminate the Taliban as a radical, terrorist group. From 2001 until today, nothing much has been achieved following all the conflicts. There were many peaks and troughs and no significant results for either side. The circumstances finally drove both sides to talk. The most important hurdle is conflicting views which cannot be easily overcome. The government is also under intense pressure by liberal forces and civil society and can hardly agree with the demands made by the Taliban. The Taliban has diminished itself from a patriotic force to a national-religious force. Agreeing with the demands made by the Taliban will be a huge blow to the Afghan government; hence, it must stand its ground. These two issues are the biggest hurdles on the path to peace. The Taliban considers its demands to be minimal. On the other hand, the government also considers its demands to be minimal. Under the circumstances, we will either witness a halt to the talks, its failure, or a hiatus in negotiations.
Does either side have the necessary power to overcome the obstacles?
The only factor forcing them to compromise is the failure to achieve their goals. The Taliban is rejected by the Afghan society, Ulema, and elites for the daily acts of atrocity it carries out in the country. The government is also faced with challenges for not being able to counter the Taliban, instil stability, and other similar trials. As such, compulsion is the only driving force for peace.
How is the political future of the Taliban assessed given that the peace talks are now under way?
The Taliban will either share in the power and work as a political faction in Afghanistan, or it will not share power and continue to fight as an opposition group. It may even be split into two groups: one group will get into power and seek a share through talks, and one group will remain outside the power structure and act as backup to increase the Taliban's share. It is the carrot and stick policy and the two groups will complement each other to this end.
What is the position of the two great powers, Russia and the US, at this critical stage?
The US has two goals. One is a tactical one to gain a symbolic victory which could tilt the outcome of the 2020 election in Trump's favour. The second one is a strategic goal. The US sees China as its main, upcoming global rival. One of the ways to curb its influence is to place the country under a blockade. The US has currently tightened its siege on China from Australia to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and India. So, a great strategic success for the US would be to curb China’s influence via Afghanistan. To achieve this, the US must put an end to the crisis in Afghanistan and transform the Taliban from an anti-US force to a pro-US force and, in contrast, activate Daesh in the country.
The US can advance another part of its strategy in South and Central Asia by using the Daesh influence on the East Turkestan movement. Should the US succeed in carrying out this project, it will in fact expose China's territorial integrity to vulnerability as part of its macro politics. Hence, China’s influenced will be curbed and it will also become entangled in its own domestic issues. Under these circumstances, the US will succeed in partially blocking some of China's progress.
Where Russia is concerned, Afghanistan is a place through which the US can influence Central Asia. Therefore, if Russian influence in Afghanistan is strengthened, the vulnerability of Central Asia, as well as the level of contact between radical forces in Afghanistan with radical forces in Central Asia and the Russian Federation will decline. This is why Russia has established close ties with the Taliban today so that a force through which the US hopes to make Russia vulnerable is disposed of as a tool controlled by them US. In my view, everything is currently going through a transitional period and Afghanistan has changed from a buffer state between major powers preventing hostility into an insulating state absorbing all major powers. Namely, it is a place of rivalry for great powers.
What is Iran’s role in this?
Iran must adopt tactical policies against US tactical policies and strategic policies in accordance with US strategic policies. That is to say, from a tactical point of view in the current situation, Iran must approach forces the US intends to control in order to prevent them from being absorbed by the US. In terms of strategy, Iran must adjust its policies exactly with the US macro games. Looking at it from this angle, it may align itself with China and Russia against the US.