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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the Sa'dabad Palace, Tehran, 19 April 2015. Photo: Tasnim News Agency/Meghdad Madadi.

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The Regional Question in the Afghan Peace Process

The Afghan peace process should be “Afghan owned and Afghan led.” The phrase is used so often, it has practically become a cliché.

Published: 16 November 2020

Authors: Michael Kugelman

The Afghan peace process should be “Afghan owned and Afghan led.” The phrase is used so often, it has practically become a cliché.

But few would disagree that the role of external actors is essential too. The United States, which inked an agreement with the Taliban in February that paved the way for the current intra-Afghan dialogue, has been a prominent player. So has the European Union.

Regional actors have also done their part by hosting meetings and urging the sides to keep talking. Afghanistan’s neighbors are integral to the peace process because— unlike geographically distant actors like America—they have a direct stake in the outcome.

Regional players may take different approaches to Afghanistan, but they all gain from a more stable neighbor. And yet, while the region’s interest in peace is compelling, its ultimate impact on the peace process is limited. With US forces poised to withdraw, the influence of more global actors will diminish as well.

These constraints underscore the crucial role of donors. The financial assistance they provide—or withhold—constitutes a powerful tool of leverage that can help incentivize the Afghan state and Taliban to move a struggling peace process forward.

Regional Peace Dividend

The region would benefit from successful peace talks. More stability would reduce conflict spillover effects, such as refugee flows and drug trafficking, which are problematic for neighboring states. Pakistan and Iran host the largest number of Afghan refugees in the world, but both seek to repatriate many of them. Afghan poppy production, which helps fund the Taliban insurgency, brings Afghanistan-sourced narcotics to India, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia—nations struggling with heroin and opioid epidemics.

Additionally, ending war with the Taliban would enable Afghan security forces to focus more on combating ISIS—the most potent militant group in Afghanistan after the Taliban, and one that all regional actors regard as a major threat.

Furthermore, a more peaceful Afghanistan, by ushering in greater security, would unlock opportunities for regional trade, investment, and connectivity. China could expand its Belt and Road Initiative from Pakistan into Afghanistan. Slow-moving infrastructure projects—including the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline—could enjoy new momentum. India could increase cooperation with Iran on infrastructure development from the southern port of Chabahar into Afghanistan.

The India-Pakistan Question

To be sure, Islamabad may derive a strategic benefit from continued war, given the added strength that would accrue to the Taliban, a key Pakistani ally. But Islamabad gains more from the current peace process, because it could give Pakistan what it’s long wanted: A friendly government in Kabul with a prominent Taliban role. Additionally, the worst-case scenario of continued war—the Taliban seizing power and reinstituting the same theocratic regime it imposed in the 1990s—could disadvantage Pakistan by emboldening local Islamist extremists and inspiring them to carry out attacks on the Pakistani state at a time when anti-state terror has receded significantly.

Of all regional actors, India has the most reason to be concerned about the peace process. It could produce a political settlement that allocates power to the Taliban—a Pakistan-aligned group blamed for several attacks on Indian targets in Afghanistan—and ensures Pakistani influence in Afghanistan.

However, a peace deal would dramatically reduce security threats to India in Afghanistan, and better enable New Delhi to pursue development projects and broader relations in a country where it already has provided $3 billion in assistance since 2001 and has a strategic partnership agreement in place. Tellingly, some Indian strategic thinkers in recent months have called on New Delhi to start engaging with the Taliban, which has signaled its willingness to support infrastructure projects with an Indian footprint. In 2018, two retired Indian diplomats attended a conference in Moscow that featured Taliban representatives. And in February 2020, India’s ambassador to Qatar was at the Doha signing ceremony for the US-Taliban agreement—the first time since 1999 that an Indian official attended an event with a Taliban presence.

Neighborhood Contributions—and Limitations—to Peace

In effect, regional actors have a strong incentive to help move the needle forward on the peace process. Regional diplomacy that prods the Afghan state and the Taliban to keep talking is always useful, as are efforts to push the Taliban to agree to concessions—such as reducing violence—that would deliver major boosts to talks. Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors should also pursue new border management agreements with Kabul. Such accords would help build trust, reduce border instability, and enable Afghan officials to focus more fully on peace talks.

However, these regional efforts, while helpful, can only go so far. Afghanistan’s neighbors can use diplomacy and pressure, but their leverage is limited. Pakistan wields more leverage over the Taliban than any other regional actor, owing to the sanctuaries it has long provided to the Taliban leadership. But this leverage has its limits. Islamabad has not convinced the insurgents to agree to a violence reduction plan, much less a ceasefire. Meanwhile, India arguably has more leverage over Kabul than any other regional player, due to its close ties, but its role in the peace process has been relatively hands off.

The Donor Community’s Role

Here is where donors can be helpful.

Both Kabul and the Taliban have reasons to slow-walk the peace process. The former risks losing power if the Taliban demands the formation of an interim government to oversee talks. And the Taliban can simply wait for the departure of U.S. troops, capitalize on its new battlefield advantage, and aim to seize total power by force, as opposed to trying to gain partial power through negotiations.

The international community has two prime tools of leverage to wield in the peace process: troops and financing. However, with President Elect Biden likely to continue with President Trump’s withdrawal plans (albeit possibly at a slower pace), don’t expect Washington to suspend troop departures if the Taliban doesn’t decrease violence or cut ties to al-Qaeda.

This leaves the other key source of leverage. Afghanistan’s deep dependence on foreign aid is well known. Kabul relies on it heavily. The Taliban would also require aid if it gains power through a negotiated settlement. In October, a senior Taliban leader met with the head of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, and a group spokesman said it supported “global investment.”

The donor community can leverage aid in several ways. It can refuse future meetings or other engagements with the Taliban until the insurgents have agreed to a formal violence reduction plan. It can condition a portion of future security assistance on the achievement of key benchmarks in negotiations—which may initially be an agreement on procedural aspects of talks, and then on an agenda for talks. Above all, donors should make clear they won’t provide any assistance to a Taliban government that seizes power by force.

Amid longstanding donor fatigue, the risk of pandemic-induced hits to donor resources, and reports of reduced financial commitments, now is the time to embed more conditionality in future assistance. America may be planning a withdrawal, and regional actors may lack leverage, but the donor community is well positioned to help salvage a fragile peace process. The upcoming Afghanistan donor’s conference provides a prominent platform to project this important message.

Michael Kugelman is Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He is on Twitter @michaelkugelman.