(Image Credit: Zee News)
Deng Xijun, the Chinese special envoy for Afghanistan, flew into Kabul last month, just days after senior Taliban political representatives met Chinese officials to discuss prospects of the Afghan peace process. Mr Xijun told President Ashraf Ghani that China has “encouraged the Taliban during our contacts with them to join the dialogue as this is the only option for them,” Ghani’s Palace had stated after the meeting.
Two Taliban leaders confirmed to the writer that Taliban negotiators from Qatar office, led by Sher Abbas Stanikzai, visited China. Later the Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid also confirmed the visit to the media.
A former Taliban minister said that the Pakistani officials were also invited to the meetings as China coordinates its efforts regarding Afghanistan with Pakistan. Both countries had been on same page during the meetings of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the U.S.
Neither China nor the Taliban shared details of their talks; however, a credible Taliban source familiar with the activities of the Taliban office in Qatar told the writer that the visit was part of the political office policy to have relations with countries just like “they have with European countries including Norway, Germany, France and the UK as well as with neighbouring and regional countries.” “These relations are focused on bringing about peace in Afghanistan and resolving the issue through negotiations,” he further added.
China’s invitation to the Taliban for the visit, the second in nine months, is important in view of the latest diplomatic efforts with the active involvement of China as well as Russia. Taliban’s political emissaries last visited Beijing in July 2016 as part of their contacts with different regional stakeholders.
The Taliban consider China as the possible peace broker as the latter had never directly intervened in Afghanistan and thus had no extra-baggage of the past. China enjoys the confidence of the Afghan Government and the Afghan Taliban as well as Pakistan and the United States.
A senior Taliban political leader hinted recently that the group could accept China as one of the guarantors when the process of peace dialogue begins. Chinese special envoy in an earlier interview with the writer had stated that his country is ready to host peace negotiations if all sides are agreed to such a role.
China has already hosted a meeting between the Afghan Taliban and the government in Urumqi in 2015. The envoy had, however, rejected any mediation. Kabul and the Taliban may also not agree to mediation and insist on the intra-Afghan dialogue in the pattern of its peace process with Hizb-e-Islami (Hekmatyar) which paved a peace deal in September last year.
Chinese efforts could get a boost because of its relationship with Pakistan, which is still being considered as one of the main stakeholders in Afghanistan. Beijing’s new proactive regional diplomacy to promote peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan could also help protect China’s Western flank — Xinjiang province that borders both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
China’s enhanced role to push for reconciliation in Afghanistan comes amid additional efforts from Russia to aid the peace process. Moscow hosted two meetings on Afghanistan in less than two months that threw weight behind the reconciliation between Kabul and the Taliban.
In a surprising move in the trilateral meeting in December, China and Russia, as the UN Security Council permanent members, confirmed their “flexible approach to delisting Afghan Taliban leaders from the UN sanctions lists as their contribution to the efforts aimed at launching peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban.” Such a delisting has remained a years-long demand from the Taliban as a precursor to joining any peace dialogue.
Chinese efforts are also aimed bringing the defunct QCG back on track, which, by far, is one of the best available options to facilitate reconciliation in the war-shattered country. The process faced a serious setback after a U.S. drone killed the Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour just three days after the last meeting of the QCG was held in Islamabad in May, 2016.
Although the latest diplomatic efforts by China and Russia for Afghan peace are significant, the key to Afghan peace is still held by the U.S. and Afghanistan. They will have to shift focus to political process in view of the emerging threat of Daesh (or the Islamic State).
Daesh has increased its activities in Afghanistan and killed nearly 50 people in a deadliest attack on a military hospital in Kabul on 8th of March. Daesh also torched two centuries-old shrines in the northern Jowzjan Province, according to the local officials. Recent activities of Daesh act would also be a matter of serious concern for authorities as the group has extended its activities to the northern parts of the country from its base in eastern Nangarhar province.
The Taliban also need to review their stubborn behaviour and come to the negotiation table as Daesh poses a mutual threat both to the Taliban and the Afghan government. Neither the Afghan gov’t and its western allies nor the Taliban have won the war over the past 16 years and negotiation is the only option for all stakeholders to move forward.
The author Tahir Khan is a journalist for The Express Tribune and a distinguished member of CRSS Pak-Afghan Track 1.5/II initiative, ‘Beyond Boundaries’