Two issues of relative importance to Afghanistan are currently being played out. One, a political development in the form of a Taliban office in Qatar, and two, an economic issue that has been on the table in Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India (TAPI) for a considerable period of time – namely the extension of a gas pipeline from Central Asia to energy-hungry South Asia.
Both are significant in relation to the existing Afghan quagmire of many years.
The opening of a Taliban office in the Gulf State of Qatar is more significant to a tiny sheikdom than to the issue of peace in Afghanistan. The ‘office’ will give credence to the international recognition given to the Taliban movement by the Gulf countries – the first being Bahrain which, about a decade ago, became one of only three countries that officially recognized the Taliban regime. While Afghanistan would prefer to call the office ‘a liaison office,’ the Taliban would like it to be viewed more as an Embassy.
More important though, is the fact that the U.S. has shown support for the move. This, apart from its regional implication, is significant. It shows a direct acceptance of an offer of dialogue by the Taliban, which had so far abstained from holding talks with the Afghan government or its primary supporter, the United States. A condition placed by the Taliban for talks – the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from the country – is also drawing closer.
Those sentient of the mentality of the Taliban and their reactionary stance, are dubious about the outcome of talks. As envisaged by the Afghan government, the Taliban wouldn’t ideally accept the Afghan constitution – a document they have not supported as they do not believe in the basic principle of separation of religion from the state. On the other hand, the acceptance of a diplomatic office will certainly give the Taliban the feeling that it has won its long war against the mighty forces of the U.S. and of the Afghan government.
The question then is this: Who would go to the meeting from a position of strength – the Taliban or the Afghan government?
So far, besides standing by their basic and existing demands, neither side has come up with a truly conciliatory solution. Will the peace talks offer the Taliban a part in the government? And if so, which ministries would be offered and how would the work of those ministries be coordinated with other parts of the government if a democratic system is to be put to work?
And how should this perplexing development in U.S. foreign policy be read: a possible conciliatory gesture by the U.S., to strike off Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, from its “most wanted terrorists” list? The U.S., which not long ago strongly believed that the Taliban was the main threat to regional peace, has now taken a 180-degree about-turn and is showing signs of camaraderie towards that group.
Many endeavors have been made in the past to talk with the Taliban; but none resulted in the group’s interest or readiness to discuss peace. It consistently and adamantly called the Afghan government a puppet of the Western powers.
Whatever may be the result of the opening of the Taliban office in Qatar – and not in Saudi Arabia or Turkey as the Afghan government had proposed – thick clouds of uncertainty now hover over the region.
Regarding the TAPI pipeline: it was to benefit all parties concerned. Since its inception a decade ago, a general agreement was drafted, but security remained a hurdle. Now, many more questions arise: Is Afghanistan strong enough to guarantee the security of the pipeline, both during construction and afterward? Can the Taliban and the insurgency be trusted to view the project with an open mind, and consider it an economic asset for Afghanistan? And even if so, will they take part in the provision of its security? These questions need to be answered, after considerable diplomatic scrutiny.
Another state in the region, namely Iran, will not like to see the project succeed, as it has its own plans to export energy to the Sub-continent. Tehran may use whatever influence it has in Afghan affairs to see to it that the TAPI project does not take off. This issue has to be considered as well.
But there is no dobut as to the economic benefits to all of the four countries directly involved. If the pipeline becomes a reality, the benefits to Afghanistan will be manifold: the country will, in short order, acquire the status of a hub in regional commerce when its communication and transportation projects, including the extension of railways, materialize. Of course security will have a major role. Thus, a combined solution, reminiscent of the Silk Route of yore, is required – for the provision of an international security arrangement for the pipeline, as well as to the new transportation routes.
If diplomacy wins in the talks with the Taliban, that in itself will be a giant step in the right direction for Afghanistan, and greatly enhance its international standing.
Dr. Rauf Roashan is the Director of the Institute for Afghan Studies.
This article was written exclusively for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can find more exclusive features here.