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Afghanistan: Forging peace beyond the peace process

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While the ‘intra-Afghan’ negotiations are on in Afghanistan, the Taliban have been busy making separate deals, both with State and non-state actors in a bid to strength their position in the post-war political landscape of Afghanistan.

By making deals with China, for instance, the Taliban are making themselves indispensable for Afghanistan’s economic future. According to a report in the Financial Times, the Taliban and China are in talks. China has, in exchange for the Taliban’s guarantee of peace in Afghanistan, offered to “bring sizeable investment” in building road networks and energy projects. Channels of communication, trade and energy are absolutely essential for Afghanistan’s post-war economic recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

While there is no gainsaying that China does have political stakes in Afghanistan, its current offer of investment and development indicates that it is aiming to integrate Afghanistan in its Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). 

In other words, while the ‘intra-Afghan’ negotiations continue, the Taliban and China are thinking ahead of the future and laying the ground for Afghanistan’s much needed transformation. It is not just that the Chinese are talking to the Taliban/Afghanistan because they are neighbors. Afghanistan lies on China’s Silk Roads and is vital for a direct territorial link with the Central Asian States (CAS) and for the export of oil & gas from the CAS to China.

At the same time, Iran, being another of Afghanistan’s direct neighbor, has been (cautiously) invited by the US to participate in the peace process. For China, this can only be a highly encouraging development in that an Iranian rapprochement with the Taliban would mean that China, in future, would be able to connect itself via Afghanistan with both Central Asia and West Asia. With Pakistan (South Asia) being already connected with China through CPEC, China’s master plan to have a strong presence across the whole of Asia appears not far from realization. 

The Taliban, by engaging with China, have indicated their willingness to subscribe to the Chinese narrative of durable peace through economic development. “The Taliban recognise China for not only having the financial means but also the motive to develop Afghanistan”, the Financial Times report said. 

While the Taliban are thus forging ‘peace through development’, a crucial bottleneck remains - the presence of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Till this nuisance remains active in Afghanistan, peace would remain elusive. 

The Taliban realise the perils of an unchecked presence of these outfits. Again, as some media reports have shown, they are in talks with groups like Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), al-Qaeda and the Islamic state and are in the process of establishing mechanisms of control. 

According to information thus far available, the Afghan Taliban have made it mandatory for foreign militants to register themselves with them. Foreign militants have also been asked to pledge not to recruit new fighters, stay in the places designated by the Taliban, and inform the latter about their movements.

Whereas the TTP may not be a direct concern for China, al-Qaeda and the IS are (for both China and the US) and their presence and activity can jeopardize the whole process. 

The Taliban’s increasing pressure on these outfits, seems to be making an impact. For instance, in his latest statement released on September 11, 2020, al-Qaeda chief Ayman al Zawahiri did not mention the US- Taliban deal. Unlike his previous statements, the latest statement appeared to deliberately skip any reference to Afghanistan as well, indicating the group’s tacit acceptance of the on-gong peace process and how it is going to change the political landscape against them, limiting their ‘freedom of action.’

For China, these developments are encouraging and relate to its demand of peace from the Taliban.  There is no gainsaying that China is concerned about the security situation in Afghanistan and does not want it to become a safe haven for South-Central Asian militants, who could threaten its stability in its western provinces. 

A Taliban deal with China for ‘development in exchange for peace’ would also have a durable impact than the Taliban’s deal with the US. 

While many in the US fear that the Taliban would back out and continue to support al-Qaeda once the US withdraws, the presence of China as a stake-holder and a direct neighbor of Afghanistan-a fact neither the Taliban nor China can change-will work as a check on the Taliban’s own policies vis-à-vis these non-State actors, keeping Afghanistan going on the terror-free path. 

The peace thus being forged outside of the ‘intra-Afghan’ process in Doha, therefore, is as relevant to Afghanistan’s future as the Doha process. Whereas the Doha process aims to avoid and end in-fighting, the external process aims to end terrorism and bring development. Not only do these two processes complement each other, but they have significance for Afghanistan’s permanent exit from political and economic instability.