At this moment, with developments quickening as the May 1 deadline for the departure of U.S. forces rapidly approaches, we’re getting a lesson in realist-style geopolitical arm-twisting. The thing about Afghanistan is that it’s raw, metallic power on the ground that counts. No fancy ideals or dirigiste policies can substitute.
Afghans feel as if they have been interrupted, a long time ago, by shrapnel and high explosives, fired indiscriminately at them by invading armies. They want to get back to a dimly remembered ‘normal’. They’re sick of the rampant corruption. Women want education. Health outcomes are catastrophically appalling. All our contacts speak of a desire to calibrate their lives, many of which are in some respects ossified in tradition, according to their own imperatives, which are widely various around a country that nonetheless abhors federalism and has the potential, barring interference, to be cooperative.
So, in Dushanbe this week, and as the pace builds to possibly crucial talks in Turkey in April, we’re witnessing a lot of jockeying for air time on U.S. and European networks by Afghan power-brokers. Here’s Ahmad Massoud, son of the revered ‘Lion of Panshir’ Ahmad Shah Massoud, telling France 24 that the people he represents would baulk at a deal that gave too much ground to the Taliban, while over on Al Jazeera Hazara leaders, who as a minority cultural grouping often get a raw deal from Kabul, talk of strengthening their militia units to protect their villages from renewed Taliban attacks.
Despite all the lungfuls of platitudes about a ‘lasting peace’, talks are stalled, and the rhetoric in the Heart of Asia talks in Dushanbe, Tajikistan (under way right now) reflects pretty hardened positions.
India’s external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar advocated a peace acceptable to countries outside Afghanistan, by which he meant his own, of course. U.S. president Joe Biden has also sidestepped questions about the deadline, saying that a decision is pending. Biden’s Secretary of State Tony Blinken has also notably shied away from committing to the date. They’re being told to worry about their cratering worldwide influence.
Russia, which very publicly hosted talks between Ashraf Ghani’s government and the Taliban in Moscow a couple of weeks back, senses an opportunity to gain some traction in Central Asia, even though the United States’ Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad was also in attendance. Wan rays of hope flickered in Moscow’s winter for a while, but the reality on the ground keeps on intruding, annoyingly for all concerned.
The unpalatable fact is that the Taliban, who control huge swathes of Afghanistan outside Kabul, can keep turning up the pressure on all the other parties to the talks, at will. Seasoned observers say that the real players with the real power here are the U.S.A., and the Taliban. Hamid Karzai and others speak of their distaste of foreign influence in their country. But Pakistan, and its intelligence service the ISI, have very close ties to the Taliban and they’ve been doing what they’re doing for a very long time.