[UPDATE–Forgot to explain the “”One-Half of the Afghan Taliban” comment. That relates to the fact that one faction of the Afghan Taliban is NOT represented by the Doha, Qatar “Taliban Office,” that is, the Mullah Razool/Zakir faction, the so-called “Mullah Dadullah Faction.”]
The recent visit to China by political negotiators of the Afghan Taliban is seen as the Communist nation’s move to play an active role in encouraging the insurgent movement to join the peace process. Confirming the visit mid-July, Taliban officials said, “Both sides explored ways to espouse a common stand against occupation and colonialism by some countries in the region.”
Although an unnamed Taliban official did not confirm whether the Qatar-based representatives reviewed prospects for renewing peace talks, diplomats in Islamabad say the visit was mainly related to the discussions on the possibility to start the peace talks. Taliban officials insisted that China had invited their negotiators for the visit, their second to the country in nearly two years. Chinese officials have so far avoided comments on the visit.
The delegation, led by Sher Abbas Stanekzai, head of the Taliban political office in Qatar, has assumed importance as the Afghan government has also endorsed the visit and a senior official has said Kabul accepts China playing a role. “China has been cleared already for the role,” an unnamed Afghan official was quoted as saying while commenting on the Taliban visit. Why China?
China, being a key member of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), is struggling to keep the group alive following remarks by some Afghan officials that cast doubts on its efficacy. Contrary to previous meetings, the last meeting of the QCG of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the US in Islamabad, on May 18, failed to decide on the next round of meetings of the group. Afghanistan had also reduced the level of its participation in the fifth round in view of the inability of the group to convince the Taliban to the table. The Taliban could equally be blamed for discrediting the four-nation process when they declined the QCG’s invitation to take part in peace talks in early March.
Whatever the situation might have been, the QCG is presently the best option available to push for peace negotiations with the Taliban. The Afghan government and the Taliban will have to understand its importance if they want to find a lasting solution to the conflict. As members of the QCG, Pakistan and the US will not have any problem if Beijing plays an active role in encouraging the Taliban to come to the negotiation table.
China could play a key role in the political process as it enjoys cordial relations with the National Unity Government and has longstanding contacts with the Taliban political office in Qatar. People familiar with the Qatar office say Chinese diplomats have paid several visits to meet Taliban representatives. The Taliban will have no problem with China playing a more proactive role in the peace process as it had never been militarily involved in Afghanistan and has no military ambitions in the country. The Taliban did not even react to the Chinese delivery of military equipment to Afghan security forces over the past few weeks. China started supplies of military aid under its assistance package of 480 renminbi (approximately $73 million) announced by General Fang Fenghui, chief of China’s joint staff department, during his visit to Kabul in March.
The onus is on the Afghan government of how it chooses to respond to the Chinese initiative. Kabul will have to dispel the impression that certain elements within the ruling coalition are averse to any peace process. Many could point out the deadlock in talks between the government and the Hizb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, despite a series of meetings over the past few months. Hekmatyar’s official Daily Shahadat magazine accused the Chief Executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah of frustrating the possible peace deal. First vice-president Abdul Rashid Dostam and presidential adviser, Ahmad Zia Massoud, publicly oppose talks with the Taliban. President Ghani will have to restrain these leaders from thwarting the peace process.
It is not the first time China’s role has been in the spotlight in the Afghan peace process. The country had hosted three senior Taliban leaders and a former key official of the government-sponsored Afghan High Peace Council, Masoom Stanekzai, in Urumqi last year. One of the Taliban negotiators had confided to the writer that the Taliban’s powerful Rehbari Shura, or leadership council had approved the Urumqi meeting.
The Chinese special envoy for Afghanistan, Deng Xijun, had told The Express Tribune last year that China is ready to provide a venue for the direct talks between the representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban if all sides agree to this role. Besides its role in the peace process, China is also interested in ensuring the preservation of its economic projects and the safety of Chinese workers in the country and it also wants to persuade the Taliban to not host Uighur fighters in its territory. In a series of previous meetings, Chinese officials sought assurances from the Afghan Taliban that they will not export radicalism to Xinjiang or destabilise China’s strategic northwest.