9 MARCH 2021
US Special Afghan Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s new approach to resolving the War on Afghanistan follows in Russia’s diplomatic footsteps by encouraging the creation of an inclusive government between Kabul and the Taliban and including India as an official party to the international talks on this topic, though it also innovates upon Moscow’s proposed solution by suggesting that Turkey host such negotiations in the coming future.
Late last month President Putin’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov made headlines after proposing the creation of an inclusive transitional coalition government in Afghanistan between Kabul and the Taliban, yet the US is now officially following in Moscow’s diplomatic footsteps after its own Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad gave a letter from Secretary of State Blinken to the country’s top political leaders suggesting the same solution. I explained the Russian approach at length in my analysis at the time about “How Russia’s Special Afghan Envoy Wants To Save The Struggling Peace Process”, which should be reviewed by the reader in order to obtain a more solid understanding of the Great Power’s evolving position towards the conflict. As for the US, it seems to have realized that this outcome is inevitable and therefore decided to take the wind out of Russia’s diplomatic sails to an extent by attempting to take leadership of this political process. In addition, America is following Russia’s lead by including India as an official party to the international talks on this topic while innovating upon its proposed solution by suggesting that Turkey host such negotiations in the coming future.
New Delhi was already invited to participate in the Moscow peace process, but that round of talks couldn’t ever be as important as anything that Washington leads by simple virtue of the fact that America retains the largest foreign military force in Afghanistan. Although the US observed the talks in the Russian capital, it didn’t actively participate in them, though it seemingly learned enough to realize that it’s in the country’s grand strategic interests to ensure that India isn’t excluded from the latest round that it wants Turkey to host. This can be explained by the US’ efforts to continue courting India to its side against China in the New Cold War, which is all the more urgent for it after New Delhi and Beijing agreed to a synchronized de-escalation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) last month. In my analysis at the time about “How India’s Regional Strategy Is Adapting To The Post-Trump Reality”, I attributed it to New Delhi’s uncertainty over Washington’s envisioned geostrategic role for it under the Biden Administration due to concerns about the impact of a possible US-Chinese detente and repeated threats to sanction the South Asian state over its decision to purchase Russia’s S-400 systems.
The diplomatic elephant in the room is unquestionably the global pivot state of Pakistan, whose consistently pragmatic approach to resolving the conflict by including the Taliban as a legitimate political party to the conflict’s solution (in spite of its official designation as a terrorist group by countries like the US and Russia) ultimately ended up being supported by everyone except India and Iran, both of which have a history of serious problems with the group. Nevertheless, those two are forced by diplomatic inertia to go along with events whether they like it or not, though the US doesn’t want them to feel left out of the process because it fears the political consequences that this impression could have on India’s anti-Chinese Quad activities and the recent push to revive the Iranian nuclear deal. Washington also knows how sensitive New Delhi and Tehran are towards the optics of Islamabad being right all along and even influencing Moscow of all parties to go along with its consistently pragmatic approach to resolving this conflict. There are also more indirect motives at play too which concern the Central Asian strategy that the Biden Administration inherited from Trump.
I analyzed this last year in my piece about how “The US’ Central Asian Strategy Isn’t Sinister, But That Doesn’t Mean It’ll Succeed” where I explained how America is exploring the option of “economic diplomacy” to ensure its post-withdrawal influence in the Eurasian Heartland. Not only does it aspire to use N-CPEC+ as a means for enhancing its role in the region, but it also hopes that the eastern branch of India’s North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC) through Iran to Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics can result in New Delhi counterbalancing Moscow’s and Beijing’s influence there afterwards. This explains why the US has always granted a sanctions waiving to India for its Chabahar port project. It also adds a new strategic dimension to Blinken’s written announcement that Turkey will hold Afghan talks in the coming future. Washington has an interest in seeing the Lapis Lazuli Corridor from Afghanistan to the EU via Turkmenistan, the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, and Turkey be completed in order to expand Turkish and European influence in this same space for geostrategic “balancing” purposes.
To be absolutely, neither Pakistan, India, Iran, nor Turkey have any intentions of expanding their influence in Central Asia via their respective “economic diplomacy” initiatives of N-CPEC+, the NSTC’s eastern branch, and the Lapis Lazuli Corridor in any “unfriendly” manner that goes against Russian and/or Chinese strategic objectives there, but the inevitable cumulative effect of more countries getting involved in the Eurasian Heartland will ultimately result in a greater “balance” of interests there. All relevant parties with the exception of India support the Golden Ring proposal that I elaborated on in my March 2018 analysis, “From ‘Bandwagoning’ Against Eurasia To ‘Circling The Wagons’ In The Center Of It”, but this ambitious vision of course requires very close coordination between each stakeholder which might still take some time to materialize. In the interim, the US hopes that it can encourage “emerging dynamics” of “natural (albeit ‘friendly’) competition” to take hold and therefore offset this scenario, especially relating to the exploitation of mutual strategic suspicions between China & India, and perhaps even to a lesser extent, Iran & Turkey.
It’ll be really interesting for observers to watch how America’s latest diplomatic initiatives in Afghanistan play out, particularly its push to include the Taliban in an inclusive government as well as the US’ encouragement of greater Indian and Turkish roles in this overall process, but it mustn’t be forgotten that Washington is basically following in Moscow’s footsteps when it comes to this political solution. It was Russia’s tacit embrace of Pakistan’s consistently pragmatic stance to include the Taliban as a legitimate party to the peace process despite its designation as a terrorist organization that inspired the US to change its position in response, as well as Moscow’s support of New Delhi’s involvement in all of this. The Turkish element is a unique twist that wasn’t foreseen but nevertheless aligns with America’s envisioned “economic diplomacy” towards the post-war region. The ideal outcome would be the peaceful establishment of a joint Kabul-Taliban government (at least for the time being) in parallel with tangible progress being made on building the Golden Ring in such a way that India could play a constructive role in it too, but the actual outcome is likely to be a lot more complex than that.