Will this time be different? For the first time, Afghan government officials and top Taliban representatives “officially” met earlier this week. Pakistan hosted the parley. China and the United States watched over it. The two Afghan sides reportedly had a lengthy exchange. Then they broke in an unusually cordial environment. Next they will meet in Qatar, in about five weeks.
A confluence of regional factors has resurrected hopes of a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is frustratingly looking for an armistice. The economist is running out of time and space to do some nation-building. But the insurgency is unrelenting and getting deadlier by the day.
Divided, the Taliban are having something bordering an identity crisis. They are gradually losing men and influence to the new kid on the block, the Islamic State (IS). Their best bet is not to become IS in order to beat IS. Instead they need to restore their political influence in Afghanistan so that they could legitimately control areas in their southern strongholds. The road to Kandahar now leads through talks, not tanks.
Over at home, the realization in the powers that be seems to be that gains from the ongoing military operations need to be protected. Troubles across the Durand will not be helpful in putting out flames on this side of the border. “Before this, Pakistan has been accused of double dealing, but this time there can be no doubt about our sincerity,” a senior Pakistani official privy to these talks told Reuters.
Internationally, Pakistans role is also in a rational spotlight now. “We have always had a pretty clear view of what Pakistan can and cannot do in terms of delivering the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table. But we see, at this point, a sustained effort by the Pakistanis to support President Ghanis effort,” a US official told Washington Post on the eve of these talks.
Chinese soft power is also at display. The Middle Kingdom is concerned about the well-being of its most-reliable friend, Pakistan, which, since the 2007 Red Mosque operation became the deadliest country for Chinese workers. It is more worried about the ongoing insurgency in its western province, Xinjiang, where ETIM militants are said to have links with the bad boys down south.
In these reconciliation parleys China sees the door to slam shut on those worries. It hopes to later usher in economic prosperity in the region through trade gateways, mining contracts and energy corridors. As for the Yankees, they would be happy not seeing Afghanistan go up in flames the way Iraq did following the Marines withdrawal.
From Kabuls perspective, for trust to bring about, violence must simmer down. But the Taliban likely feel that violence strengthens their bargaining position and unites their cadre. Therefore, the peacemakers are riding on a bumpy road. But nobody expects this to be easy. One must take hope in two global powers present there to nudge, coax, even force the stakeholders to talk. Even if the US walks away again, China has reasons to see this process through.