As Change Continues in Afghanistan, Middle Eastern Nations Aim for Diplomatic Edge

As American forces withdraw from the war-torn country, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Iran and Turkey are vying with each other to gain a foothold in Afghanistan.

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As the Taliban makes battlefield gains, there will be a massacre of ordinary Afghans and the return of the old and repressive socio-political social order.

In the aftermath of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, an emboldened Taliban now controls some 210 districts, with conflict raging in 70 others. But, with continued fighting, these statistics are changing, unfortunately to the advantage of the Taliban.

Shifting priorities in the Middle East

Among the Middle Eastern countries that are taking the initiative to support a dialogue between the Taliban political committee, led by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, and the High Council for National Reconciliation are Qatar and Iran. But the one country that has had an overwhelming role in the anarchy that marks Afghanistan today is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), which has been restrained in conveying reactions.

From funding the Mujahideen fighters to organising the 2008 peace talks in Medina, the Kingdom’s ties with the Taliban have dominated the Middle East’s engagement with Afghanistan. That is why its present muted responses to the volatility of the security situation there are rather reverberant.

After the 2013 opening of a Taliban embassy in Doha, Saudi Arabia claimed that Qatar supported “terrorism”. But according to a former Afghan fighter, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) tried to host the Taliban before the armed group set up an office in Qatar. There were reports that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) might meet Afghan Taliban representatives during his Pakistan visit in February 2019; whether he did is elusive.

With the American departure, the Kingdom has displayed a distinct detachment towards developments in Afghanistan. This is in part because MBS has indicated his intention for KSA’s return to an “open, moderate Islam”, reigning in the influence of the ultra-conservative religious establishment.

The UAE’s traditional ties with the Taliban took a real hit after its ambassador Juma Mohammed Abdullah al-Kaabi and five Emirati diplomats died following a 2017 bombing in Kandahar. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are aiming for more diversified and sustainable economic projects. UAE under Prince Mohammed bin Zayed is positioning itself as a major financial hub, a ‘Singapore of the Middle East’. For both KSA and UAE, this entails changes to their social structure, in which overt ties to radical Islamist groups are undesirable.

Also read: The Taliban: What Could Its Return to Power Mean For Afghanistan?

Since the establishment of the Doha office, Qatar has remained the hub of any negotiations with the Taliban. After the troop withdrawal deal was agreed between the Taliban and the US in February 2020, and ahead of the intra-Afghan peace talks, high-profile Taliban prisoners were transferred to Qatar.

As a facilitator of peace talks and as the forward headquarters of the US Central Command, Qatar is a political and strategic conduit between NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) countries and Afghanistan. NATO has approached Qatar for a base to train Afghan special forces, and if it agrees, this may lead to friction in its ties with the Taliban.

Iran intervention 

Iran, which hosts hundreds of thousands of undocumented Afghans, has always taken an active role in trying to broker a negotiated Afghan peace deal. Their efforts go back to the 2001 Bonn Conference on Afghanistan’s future when Javad Zarif brought together the Northern Alliance, the Peshawar Group of Pashtun exiles, the Cyprus group close to Iran and representatives of former Mujahideen fighters, to back the appointment of Hamid Karzai as the chairman of the interim administration.

With intense civil war breaking out once again, Shia Iran fears that a wave of Afghans will seek refuge in the country, which already is struggling to stem worsening poverty under tough US sanctions. At the recent ‘Tehran meeting’ (July 8-9) between Afghan politicians and Taliban representatives, it was decided that the conflict is not a solution to Afghanistan’s crisis and all efforts should focus on a political solution.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the leader of the Taliban delegation, signs an agreement with Zalmay Khalilzad, US envoy for peace in Afghanistan, at a signing ceremony between members of Afghanistan’s Taliban and the US in Doha, Qatar February 29, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Ibraheem al Omari.

Despite being opposed to the Taliban’s highly particularistic take on Islam, the Islamic Republic of Iran has always maintained channels with the group and urged all Afghan participants towards a republican solution to the crisis.

An ardent Turkey

Under Recep Erdoğan, Turkey in an effort to undermine Saudi Arabia and inflate its position as a leading Islamic nation is vying for a broader role in Afghanistan. It wishes to assume the responsibility of running  Kabul’s strategic Hamid Karzai Airport. With extensive ties with Pakistan – the Taliban’s principal backer – it has a history of intervening in Afghan affairs.

In the past, it had tried to organise several summits between the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is the only Muslim majority NATO member that posted 500 troops in non-combatant role in Afghanistan. During its deployment in Afghanistan, Turkey cultivated ties with various competing ethnic and political factions in the country, including the Taliban.

In its role as security provider to Afghanistan’s main airport, it wishes to remain as the main influencer in Afghan affairs, and consequently, increase Turkey’s clout in the Muslim world.

The end of ‘Forever War’?

Unlikely. Already the Taliban has killed around 900 people in Kandahar province in the past month and a half. Advancing Taliban soldiers have been summarily executing detained soldiers, police and civilians with alleged ties to the Afghan government. The violence has increased also because there has been an “influx of more than 10,000 terrorists from outside Afghanistan,” according to Sayed Abdullah Hashemi, an official of the Afghan state ministry for peace affairs, which indicates that “there are also foreign hands behind the war”.

In such a situation, violence in Afghanistan will have a debilitating impact in terms of the spread of violent extremism, the movement of jihadis, increase in attacks, influx of Afghan refugees across the entire Middle East.

The Taliban may be more receptive to negotiations led by regional Islamic nations, which must pressurise it to relent on the violence. Given the sway that the House of Saud has over the Taliban due to Riyadh’s historical ties with the Islamist group and the Kingdom’s religious clout as the birthplace of Islam, it is doubtful that no backchannel talks are underway. Already at odds with Iran over Yemen, the Kingdom cannot afford a brutal Taliban or proxy fighting situation.

Also read: Reckless US Withdrawal Could Make Afghanistan the Powder Keg of the World Again

Despite Iran’s efforts during the Bonn agreement, former president George W. Bush’s politicised speech in which he referred to it as part of an ‘Axis of Evil’ upended all prospects of cooperation with the US, or an end to its isolation. If Tehran is able to secure any assurances of a ceasefire from the Taliban, it could realign itself diplomatically.

Turkey is making no secret of its desire to be an influencer in Afghanistan. The Taliban has warned all NATO members including Turkey not to keep its troops in Afghanistan beyond September 2021, but Ankara in pursuance of direct talks with the terrorist group is urging it to reconsider the warnings.

All in all, ameliorating the Afghan situation is an opportunity for the Middle Eastern nations to explore their own diplomacy in the changing dynamics and alter the trajectory of the broader security situation in the region.

Vaishali Basu Sharma is a consultant on strategic and economic affairs. She has worked with the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) for nearly a decade. She is presently associated with the New Delhi-based think tank Policy Perspectives Foundation.