“Istanbul Conference is crucial and decisive for Afghanistan”

“Istanbul Conference is crucial and decisive for Afghanistan”

Afghanistan, where the United States intervened after the 9/11 attacks, has turned into a country where various conflicts have been experienced for many years. Within the former US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal policy from Afghanistan, the negotiations between the parties began in 2010. The main actors in these talks are the Afghan Government, the Taliban and the USA. However, apart from these, there are other actors such as Turkey, Russia, Iran, China and Pakistan who could affect the peace process in Afghanistan. Afghan parties reached a consensus on procedure and method in the negotiations that started in Doha in September 2020, and completed the first round in January. However, in the negotiations that resumed on February 22, the content could not be approved and the talks were stopped.

In these circumstances, Turkey will host a meeting that was at the top of the agenda. Diplomatic sources state that the Istanbul meeting can be held in the coming weeks in Turkey with the highest-level attendance of Afghan parties.

United World International spoke about the intra-Afghan peace process with Imran Zakeria, Researcher at the Regional Studies Center, Afghanistan Science Academy.

There is no military solution

How do you evaluate the intra-Afghan peace process initiated by the United States? Do you think the talks were unsuccessful? If so, why were they?

After the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001 and the subsequent establishment of interim and transitional administrations and elected governments, the ground for dialogue between the Afghan government and Taliban was not outlined. The involvement of the United States in the ongoing war in Afghanistan is the lengthiest in America’s history, and the United States has arrived to the conclusion that there is no military solution. Therefore, the US has initiated a political way out with Taliban; thus, the Doha agreement has been signed between the United States and Taliban. The Doha Agreement intrinsically has its own imperfections, in which the Afghan government was not a side and involved. In spite of that and taking into consideration the shortcomings, it could still pave the way for a meeting between the Afghan government and Taliban. Negotiations between both sides are inconsequential yet, as Afghan government and Taliban have accused each other of failing to deliver on their commitments and lack of third-party to guarantee. In addition, the Taliban has insisted to continue fighting, so that a ceasefire would not emerge, in order to gain a foothold in the negotiating table.

Istanbul Summit will lead to a positive change

After the negotiations in Doha, the Istanbul meeting is under focus. It is expected that the meeting will be held in the coming weeks. How do you evaluate the role of Turkey in this process, continuing the contacts with the Afghan parties in tandem with the United Nations and Qatar? Will the Istanbul Summit succeed?

Turkey is an Islamic country and has historical ties with Afghanistan. On the other hand, Turkey has regional potency and is essentially one of the United States allies in the region, specifically in Afghanistan. In addition, Turkey has taken various initiatives to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan, such as the Heart of Asia Conference or the Istanbul Process as well as trilateral meetings between Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan to reduce challenges between the two latter. Obviously, Turkey has close ties with various parties and groups in Afghanistan based on the notion of Pan-Islamism and Pan-Turkism; therefore, all Afghans have good attitude towards Turkey. Moreover, the forthcoming Istanbul Conference in Turkey is crucial and decisive for Afghanistan, so Afghans also looking forward to Turkey’s active role with the involvement of United Nations.

Evaluating on success or failure of the coming Istanbul Summit on Afghanistan will be difficult ahead of time, but it seems promising. As the peace in Afghanistan has both internal and external dimensions, the summit’s success will depend on the cooperation and hands-off policy of regional states towards Afghanistan. It is worth to mention that the Istanbul Summit would not put an end to Afghanistan’s problems at once, but to a large extent it will lead to a regional consensus on reconciliation between the Afghan government and Taliban and thus the peace in the country. Additionally, the meeting will lead to a positive change and new political settlements in Afghanistan.

Afghan government is concerned about withdrawal of foreign forces

The Trump administration has pledged that all foreign powers in Afghanistan will leave the country by May 1, 2021. The Biden administration, on the other hand, has announced that they would not act “in a hurry”. How do Kabul and Taliban evaluate the withdrawal of foreign forces?

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan, Dr. Najibullah’s government lasted for few years, but no political settlement was established between the government and Mujahedeen. This led to a civil war across the country. The Doha Agreement calls for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, but the Afghan government and Taliban have differing views on it. Under the Doha Accords, foreign forces stationed in Afghanistan will not operate against Taliban and vice versa, the Taliban will not operate against foreign forces. According to the agreement were no foreign troops deployed to Afghanistan and none were killed in 2020, but the Taliban has stepped up its operations against the Afghan defense and security forces.

For this reason, the Afghan government is concerned that if foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan in hurry, the country could move to another war and the Taliban could gain control of much of Afghanistan’s territory. The Taliban meanwhile are calling the United States to stick to the Doha Agreement. However, given the current situation, it seems that the United States and Taliban may reach an agreement on pulling out of the foreign troops and extend the withdrawal dateline, and it would be possible that a number of foreign troops will remain in Afghanistan until an internationally monitored ceasefire and peace establishment in the country.

Iran’s ties with Taliban

The Tehran Administration has on the one hand carried out an intense diplomatic traffic with the Afghan Government. It has on the other hand increased its contacts with Taliban. Tehran has hosted many talks between the Taliban delegation and Iranian officials, especially since the United States initiated peace talks with Taliban. How do Afghan parties approach this diplomatic initiative of Iran? How do you evaluate Iran’s attempt?

Since long ago, including some other Afghanistan neighbors, Iran already has secret and unbolted ties with Taliban. Recently, in the political arena, Iran and Taliban have stepped up their efforts to reshape relations before a new inclusive government can be formed in Afghanistan. The Afghan government is not pleased and even condemns secret meetings of Iran with Taliban where the agenda is not specified prematurely, but it supports meetings that encourage Taliban to make peace and agree to a ceasefire in Afghanistan.

Iran has a long history of meddling in Afghanistan’s affairs and surmise that Taliban will play a key role in Afghanistan’s next new government, so it attempts to hold early meetings with Taliban and alleviate shared concerns. On the other hand, through out these efforts, Iran furthermore indicates to the United States that it has considerable influence over Taliban and can play a unique role in any change in Afghanistan.

Afghan Government supports all initiatives that endeavor to establish peace

The representatives of Russia, USA, China and Pakistan for Afghanistan attended a meeting that was held in Moscow, hosted by Russia, on March 18. The Afghan parties were called to a diplomatic solution, according to the statements made after the meeting. How do you comment on the meeting in Moscow?

Explicitly, Afghanistan has long been a battleground for the global and regional major powers, and they have followed their own interests in the war. The Afghan government supports all initiatives that endeavor to establish peace in Afghanistan. However, it should be noted that with holding such meetings, an executive guarantee must be taken from the stakeholders for the fulfillment of commitments made, not just to have ostentatious side. Additionally, by virtue of Moscow and other antecedently meetings, to have proper and authoritative position as well as success in the proposed Istanbul Summit, it is remarkably important for the Afghan government and other local parties to come with a shared proposal for the negotiations.

Cooperation of Turkey, Russia and Iran can play a key role

Turkey, Russia and Iran have developed joint cooperation mechanisms, like the Astana model, in solving regional crises such as Nagorno-Karabakh and Syria. Do you think these states can develop a common cooperation mechanism for Afghanistan conflict?

In response to the above question, as I have said previously, the endless conflict in Afghanistan has two factors: internal and external; unless regional proxies haven’t stopped in Afghanistan, it would be difficult to end the war. Russia, Turkey and Iran are significant regional powers, which can play a key role in changing the regional order. Here in Afghanistan, there is often an emphasis on regional consensus, so all three major powers can use their own influence and pressurize the opponents of Afghan government to build a specific regional harmony and cooperation in order to put a full stop to the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

Initiatives by China could provide opportunities for peace in Afghanistan

The instability and terrorist activities in the region are said to be in line with the US Administration’s policy of containing China, which is encircling Central Asia and South Asia. While China sees the peace and stability in the countries of the region as vital for its own security, regional stability is also of great importance for the Belt and Road Initiative. Do you think the Beijing administration, which has improved its relations with Afghan parties in recent years, can play a role in this process? Could Afghanistan be an important part of the Belt and Road Initiative?

China borders with Afghanistan in the northeast, and it sees Afghanistan as both threat and an opportunity. For China, Afghanistan is a country that has vast natural resources, but on the other hand, Beijing also fears from Uighur separatists. Since 2001, with the formation of new governments in Afghanistan, China has re-established relations with Afghanistan and invested in various sectors. With the drawdown of foreign troops from Afghanistan and the formation of a National Unity Government led by Mohammad Ashraf Ghani in 2014, a new chapter in Afghanistan-China relations has opened and ties have expanded. In order to bring peace to Afghanistan, the Chinese government has initiated Quadrilateral Cooperation Mechanism among China, the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan. This and other similar initiatives by China could provide opportunities for peace in Afghanistan, which is in the interest of Afghanistan, China and the region as a whole.

Afghanistan has unique geographical location that has been under attacked by multiple global powers. Given Afghanistan’s strategic location, it could connect Central Asia with South Asia. Although Afghanistan was not a direct member of One Belt One Road Initiative, which has been announced by the Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, it later became a member of the Belt and Road Initiative as well as China-Pakistan Economic Corridor; therefore, the importance of Afghanistan in this project has been increased, which could connect China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to the Central Asian Corridor; thereby improving the economic development in Afghanistan and the region.

To sum up, considering all the above issues, insecurity in Afghanistan results in regional uncertainty and a stable Afghanistan will lead to regional stability and economic development. Therefore all including Turkey, the United States and other regional countries must work on a specific mechanism which abide and adhere upon by Afghanistan’s neighbors, regional states and all other parties involved in Afghanistan, to protect everyone’s interest and put a dot to the ongoing conflict and paves the way for a permanent internationally recognized ceasefire and peace in Afghanistan.

Imran Zakeria is a researcher at the Regional Studies Center, Academy of Sciences of Afghanistan. He has a Master degree in International Relations from Central China Normal University. His research area includes Afghanistan and regional political issues, specifically aiming Chinese and Russian affairs.

Elif İlhamoğlu
Elif İlhamoğlu is political scientist and  journalist (Turkey). She is studying for PHD on the political science and international relations department at Istanbul University (Middle East studies). She visited Middle East countries, Syria, Lebanon, Iran several times and did interviews with the leaders as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hilal al-Hilal Secretary General of the Syrian Ba'ath Party.

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June 2021