The nascent peace and reconciliation process underway in Afghanistan is often described as “Afghan-owned” and “Afghan-led.” But in reality, Afghanistan’s neighbours (and America and the EU too) have played a big part in it.
Still, the influence of regional states on the current negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban — formally known as the intra-Afghan dialogue — should not be overstated. The Taliban, not Afghanistan’s neighbours — or Kabul or Washington for that matter — will be the key factor that determines the fate of the peace process. If it fails, and Afghanistan descends into civil war and chaos, Afghanistan’s neighbours will take measures to secure their interests — actions that could further destabilize Afghanistan, and the broader region.
The intra-Afghan dialogue has a considerable regional imprint. In the years prior to its launch, Pakistan, Russia, Iran, and China all hosted informal meetings between Taliban representatives and Afghan political leaders, in an effort to socialize the idea of future peace talks with both sides. Some of these gatherings were controversial, from Washington’s perspective: its Russian rival hosted several sessions that some American observers feared was a parallel track in competition with US-led efforts. Pakistan is the most consequential regional player in the peace process, given that its long-time support — sanctuaries and other succour — to the Taliban enables it to exert leverage over the Taliban. Islamabad is under pressure to push the Taliban to reduce violence, in order to generate a more conducive negotiating environment.
The only key neighbour of Afghanistan not to play a notable role in the peace process is India, which has a close relationship with Kabul. This is in part because of its Pakistani rival’s involvement in the peace process, but also — perhaps — because India fears that a successful peace process would result in an unfavourable outcome for New Delhi: a post-war government in which the Taliban, which opposes India, enjoys a prominent role. Such an outcome, by contrast, is highly desired by Pakistan. However, in recent days, India has stepped up its game, with India’s national security advisor visiting Kabul and its foreign minister reportedly pledging to increase Indian military support to Afghanistan, which is currently quite modest. India’s goal is likely to strengthen the hand of the Afghan government, which has entered negotiations with the Taliban from a position of weakness. And that is because of an intensifying Taliban insurgency playing out against the backdrop of a US drawdown that will further strengthen the Taliban’s battlefield position.
However, the region’s robust role in the peace process should not be mistaken for strong influence. Afghanistan’s neighbours may have helped encourage the Taliban to agree to negotiations with the Afghan state, but they have little ability to shape the Taliban’s thinking now that negotiations have begun. Quite simply, the Taliban has an upper hand. It has no incentive to be pressured into accepting demands or making concessions it does not support, because it knows it has the option of giving up on talks and returning to the battlefield to continue fighting a war it believes it is already winning — and it will be furthered advantaged on the battlefield amid the US troop drawdown. In effect, no regional player — not even Pakistan — can wield the type of leverage over the Taliban that the Taliban wields over the peace process.
While the fate of the peace process is impossible to predict at this early point, some initial observations can be made about what its potential outcomes would mean for the region.
If there is a peace agreement that ends the war, this would undoubtedly be a win for the region. A more stable Afghanistan brings benefits to its neighbours: fewer refugee flows, a weaker drug trade, less cross-border violence and more opportunities for investment, including connectivity projects. Even Islamabad — which may be advantaged by the strength that its Taliban asset would derive from an ongoing war — fears the possibility of a Taliban takeover of Kabul, because this would galvanize and inspire extremists in Pakistan and raise fears of a similar anti-government insurgency in that country. In effect, the region would benefit enormously, for security and economic reasons, from a successful peace process. New Delhi is the only possible exception, given its unease about a post-war government in which the Taliban wields political power and — by extension — Pakistan enjoys influence and access in Afghanistan. However, an Afghanistan at peace would also enable India to expand its investments in the country, and the Taliban has signalled its support for infrastructure projects with an Indian footprint.
If the peace process fails, and the country is plunged into civil war and chaos, the region would clearly be disadvantaged. Some of Afghanistan’s neighbours would be prompted to intervene, covertly, in order to safeguard their interests. This would raise the risk of regional proxy war, and produce more of the deleterious consequences that so often emerge when other countries meddle in Afghanistan. Pakistan would likely funnel support to the Taliban and its allies. India would provide backing to anti-Taliban actors. Iran would help Afghanistan’s Shia community, which happens to include a Shia-led militia that Tehran previously armed and trained and deployed to Syria. China and Russia, which have less of a footprint in Afghanistan, may quietly provide assistance to other friendly actors.
The result of such efforts is that rival armed factions in Afghanistan would enjoy greater backing from external patrons — a recipe for more instability.
In sum, the role of the region in the intra-Afghan dialogue is considerable. But ultimately, the fate of a fragile peace process will be decided solely by Afghans — and especially the Taliban. But that fate, whatever it may be, will have major implications for Afghanistan and its neighbours alike.