As the date for US withdrawal from Afghanistan approaches rather quickly, there is little news to show progress towards the goal of reconciliation. Ironically, none of the stakeholders are panicking about the relative stagnant state of affairs. Going by the international mood, a lot still depends on the role of Pakistan. While most of the attention was focused on the elections, the challenges confronted by the nation have not changed with the transfer of power.
From early indications, Nawaz Sharif’s foreign policy outlook does not represent any dramatic shift from the past. This, obviously as was expected. Actions on the ground suggest a policy to eliminate the irreconcilable Taliban elements, before approaching a negotiated solution.
Keeping the defense and foreign ministries close to his heart, shows the importance of Afghan reconciliation for the new prime minister, especially when NATO equipment is likely to be retracted via routes through Pakistan. Then there is the complex task of managing public perceptions as the drone strikes continue. Furthermore, he has to address the shortage of energy, and, at the same time, convince the public why Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline is good or bad. The above undertaking would be accompanied by a case for better ties with India and Afghanistan based on trade. Most of all, this would have to be accomplished while striving for better ties with the US and West.
However, this postulation misses the other overarching phenomenon that has completed its incubation period in the Middle East. And, this would involve adapting to the tensions between Shia Iran and the Sunni Middle East. In this context, the recent meetings between Afghan Taliban and Iranian officials have taken on added significance. Three questions surround this engagement; what was the motivation behind it, who benefits from it, and the potential future of this track.
The Timing of the Visit
Media reports indicate a delegation of Afghan Taliban headed by Syed Tayyeb Agha had travelled to Iran recently. Reportedly, other members of the delegation included Maulvi Shahab-ud-Din Dilawar, Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanakzai, and Qari Din Muhammad. The Taliban representatives from the political office in Doha took the three-day trip at the request of Iran.
While Taliban have confirmed the meetings, Iran has so far stayed away from officially confirming such contacts took place. On the other hand, the Afghan government has sought information from Iran on what transpired during these gatherings. Meanwhile, according to unnamed sources in Pakistan, such meetings have taken place in the past as well, and thus suggesting there was nothing unusual about Iran’s engagement with Afghan Taliban.
The timing of the connection between Afghan Taliban and Iran is peculiar. Afghan Taliban have travelled to Iran in the backdrop of President Karzai’s recent visit to India, where he requested its arms and military training. Moreover, the border tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan are also on the rise, and so is Karzai’s vitriol against its neighbor. At the same time, the status of forces agreement between Afghanistan and the US is still in negotiation, and the number of American bases and troops, continue to swing between one extreme to the other.
What does Iran mean for Afghan Taliban
As various sides push for talks, at least publicly Afghan Taliban have persisted in their refusal to deal directly with the Karzai government, claiming it to be a puppet of the West. On the other hand, Karzai had previously wanted all reconciliation talks to be held under his purview, and in Afghanistan. Moreover, yet to be finalized status of forces agreement with the US runs against Taliban’s key demand; withdrawal of all foreign forces as a prerequisite to talks. This Taliban position also matches with Iran’s interests in Afghanistan.
There is always a possibility that the Doha based Taliban political office took the initiative on its own, perhaps feeling the pressure from the joint behind the scenes US-Pakistan cooperation against the irreconcilables. By accepting the Iranian invitation, Afghan Taliban may have wanted to showcase their independence and leverage, to whom it may concern.
The Potential for Iranian Role
If Afghan Taliban are to be included in the future political dispensation of Afghanistan, reasonable ties between Taliban and Iran can be a harbinger of long-term Afghan stability. It’s a good omen for India and China that are investing heavily in the mineral resources of Afghanistan. Additionally, stable Afghanistan can also help to jump-start the TAPI project, which in addition to the IP pipeline, could be a tremendous boost for the energy out look of Pakistan. Closer cooperation between Iran and Pakistan in stabilizing Afghanistan can make the NATO withdrawal smoother. However, American and western efforts to isolate Iran because of it nuclear program have come in the way of these efforts.
Irrespective of who may be behind the initiative for the meeting of Taliban and Iranian officials, the timing is completely off. The sectarian tensions are on the rise in the Middle East, as presently being witnessed not only in Syria but the wider Middle East. With the involvement of Iranian supported Hezbollah militants in the Syrian conflict, the situation has aggravated considerably.
The matters have worsen to such an extent that the influential president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, Sheikh Qardawi commented last weekend in Doha, “every Muslim trained to fight and capable of doing that [must] make himself available” to conduct Jihad against the Assad regime and Hezbollah. “Iran is pushing forward arms and men, so why do we stand idle?” Qardawi went on to add. On the other hand, Qardawi’s statement was praised by Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh.
In this evolving environment, it would be impossible for the Sunni Afghan Taliban to continue their engagement with Iran. Furthermore, this atmosphere of the Arab world demonstrates the approaching pressures for the Nawaz government, Afghan Taliban, and the reconciliation. The lines that are being drawn are stretched from the Levant to Afghanistan. The Taliban weather guy may not have the updated conditions about the change in the direction of the winds, but as soon as they do, the consequences could be alarming.