As the war in Afghanistan enters its 19th year, Kabul is looking east to Beijing for the revival of a stalled peace parley in the battle-weary country.
On the heels of intense clashes between government forces and Taliban insurgents amid initiatives to reinvigorate peace talks in various world capitals, China’s bid to host the rival factions for a rare peace meeting has been well received by Afghans.
According to President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani’s office, the Kabul government will send an inclusive team of negotiators to Beijing to engage in talks with the Taliban insurgents. Ghani’s spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, told journalists in Kabul on Sunday that discussions with various stakeholders on the formation of the team are underway.
”This team can then represent and defend Afghanistan, democracy and all those hard-earned and defended values,” said Sediqqi.
The Taliban — who almost clinched a landmark peace deal with the U.S. after nine months of marathon negotiations mainly in Qatar’s capital Doha before President Donald Trump canceled the talks on Sep. 7 over the insurgents’ string of deadly attacks in Afghanistan — has already accepted the Chinese invitation and nominated a team for the conference to be headed by their deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
They are yet to acknowledge and hold talks with the Kabul administration.
Government sources confirmed to Anadolu Agency that this crucial meeting is on hold until the already delayed outcome of landmark presidential polls is announced in Afghanistan.
Chinese balancing amid conflicting interests
Political commentators including Kabul-based Waheed Mujda, a former government official when the insurgents ruled the country from 1996-2001 who is considered an expert on Taliban affairs, argue that China can make a new and more dynamic push to revive the bid for a peaceful settlement of the raging conflict in Afghanistan.
“Usually, the host countries for such conferences so far have just served as facilitators. But China is a country the Taliban would like to see as a guarantor or observer to sign the eventual peace agreement, which is a clear demonstration of confidence,” he said, adding the Kabul government also sees Beijing as a neutral player in this rather complex conflict with multiple players jockeying for often conflicting interests.
The other key players — the U.S., Russia and Pakistan — have also welcomed China’s proposal of hosting the next intra-Afghan meeting in Beijing. The proposal was made and approved during a quadrilateral meeting attended by the Chinese, Russian, U.S. and Pakistani special envoys for Afghanistan in Moscow on Oct. 25.
Still, Mujda believes the regional conflicts of interest among China, India, the U.S. and Pakistan can only be overcome if an understanding is reached at the top levels in Washington and Beijing.
China-based analyst Wang Wenwen with the Global Times daily under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper, told Anadolu Agency these are testing times for Afghans.
“Each power is striving for some kind of dominance in Afghanistan. The U.S. fears that China might fill the vacuum it leaves [after the proposed withdrawal of troops] and India has long been competing with China for regional leadership. It tests the wisdom of the Afghan government to balance the interests of these powers,” she said, adding Beijing can strike a balance between Pakistan and Afghanistan or even India.
Amid the rejuvenated efforts to revive the stalled talks for reconciliation, the Afghan government last month floated an ambitious seven-point peace plan.
Ambitious call for ceasefire
Against the backdrop of a resilient armed insurgency and failed peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban, President Ghani’s top National Security Adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, said at a press conference that lasting peace in Afghanistan was only possible if Pakistan convinces the Taliban to lay down their arms rather than seeking privileges through negotiations with the U.S.
“We have found that the Taliban were not together [united]. They don’t have control of the war, and some key Taliban commanders joined Daesh,” he said, while making a point about fractures in the ranks of the Taliban despite the insurgents managing to stage deadly assaults in different parts of the country.
Making the revival of the peace talks conditional to the announcement of an all-out ceasefire, he said negotiations must also take place with Pakistan and that Islamabad must guarantee not to support the rebels or give them safe havens.
“Guarantees for peace from both the Taliban and Pakistan are important,” he added.
The seven-point plan calls for negotiations with the U.S. and NATO, negotiations with the Taliban, negotiations with Pakistan, consensus building with regional and international partners, discussions with the West and international organizations, strengthening institutions at the national level and addressing grievances at the local level.
The Taliban has rejected this plan and announcement of the ceasefire.
Kabul University professor Akram Arifi has a unique perspective on the Chinese role in such a scenario.
“Under such a stalemate, there is always a need for face-saving and a dignified restart of talks, and with its perceived good ties with Pakistan, the Taliban and the U.S., China can well help remove ambiguities and as a neutral partner revive the talks with a renewed spirit,” Arifi said.
China has shown a keen interest in extracting the vast and untapped mineral resources in Afghanistan besides investing nearly $50 billion on infrastructure projects in neighboring Pakistan as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor linked to the multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.
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