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Peace in Afghanistan: What is the Expected Role of the Gulf States?

While efforts to end the longest-running war in American history have primarily focused on actors from the United States and Afghanistan, the involvement of the Gulf states in these negotiations has been an undeniable facet of this achievement. The relevance to this agreement has certainly not been a coincidence, and Gulf states’ involvement in Afghanistan is nothing new. In fact, several Gulf states have actually been party to Afghanistan’s political and military turbulences since the 1970s. Following what appeared to be successful negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban, this involvement is only expected to grow. The eventual absence of the United States in the country will likely lead to a regional competition to fill the void, with Gulf states, particularly Iran, well-positioned to be key players in that competition.

Last month’s signing of the first peace agreement between U.S. Special Envoy Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban Deputy Leader and Co-Founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was preceded by nearly a year and a half of intensive negotiations between both parties.[1] The terms of the agreement pave the way for the departure of U.S. and other foreign troops in 14 months, and an end to all hostilities between the Taliban and U.S. While these are certainly significant obligations, the aspects of the deal that are most pivotal for maintaining peace is an agreement that the Taliban be involved in the fight to eliminate ISIS while refraining from allowing Afghani territory to be utilized by Al-Qaeda to plan attacks against the U.S. and its allies.[2]

Although from a macro perspective the nearly 20 years it has taken to achieve peace appear significant, the Afghani populace has been rather pragmatic during the changes that the nation has undergone over the last 19 years. Emerging from Afghanistan’s chaos and confusion have been many instances of oft surprising alliances among various Afghani sects and ethnic groups. In many respects, Western nations failed to grasp that what appeared to be an ethnically disparate nation, was actually significantly open to cross-ethnic coalition building. The predilection towards pursuing a negotiating framework of power-sharing was primarily motivated by the fact that since 2002 no single power has been strong enough to take control of the entire country.

The Qatari government’s role as the host and facilitator of negotiations was undoubtedly impactful, however, the main challenges related to implementation of the agreement will fall to American’s and the Taliban, with the Gulf states perhaps playing only minor mediation roles. Therefore, in order to ensure the success of the deal, it is essential that its implementation be inclusive to all the Afghani ethnic groups, (Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbeks, Hazara, and other minorities). Even still, the accord’s objective for the central government to enforce authority throughout the entirety of the country will be inhibited by the fact that religious leaders have been the most influential figures in the country for decades. Their power is felt throughout the nation, but is particularly felt in the country’s rural communities which will probably sustain the influence of the Taliban regardless of the agreement’s success.

Gulf States in Afghanistan:

The Gulf’s involvement in Afghanistan predates Qatar’s role in facilitating these most recent peace talks. In fact, four decades ago during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Saudi Arabia contributed nearly as much financial resources to the Afghani Mujahideen as was given by the U.S. to fight the Soviets.[3] In addition, nearly all of the Gulf states have paid millions in humanitarian aid to Afghani refugees in Pakistan and elsewhere.[4] [5] Even when Afghanistan fell under Taliban rule for nearly a decade, some Gulf states continued to foster diplomatic relations with the country. In the 1990s, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates formally recognized the Taliban government and established diplomatic relations with the group. These were the only two nations to do so outside of its neighboring Pakistan.[6]

Following the removal of the Taliban’s government, Iran also began playing a role in the country. Tehran began extending its influence by sheltering members of Afghanistan’s Shiite Hazara minority community who fled war, persecution, and Taliban violence. Iran then later recruited young men from this community to become members of their proxy militia groups throughout the region.[7] Diplomatically, Tehran was able to maintain relations with both the Taliban, as well as the recognized Afghani government in Kabul, a skillful display of Iran’s ability to pursue cooperation and dialogue despite ideological antipathy. For instance, in 2018 Iran became Afghanistan’s biggest trading partner.[8]

Expected Role of the Gulf States in the Future of Afghanistan:

The expected role of GCC states in Afghanistan will probably be a continuation of the past few years’ policies that sought to appeal to Washington, D.C. This was evidenced by Qatar’s decision to mediate between the Taliban and the U.S., a clear recognition of America’s desire to withdraw from Afghanistan. Therefore, further involvement in Afghanistan in the form of aid and investment in the aftermath of the peace accord is expected since it will promote two primary goals of the Gulf states. First it will aid their desire to exert influence and expand their various roles throughout the region. Second, it will allow Gulf states to gain proximity and build good will with American administrations, both now and into the future.

While the Gulf states’ role in Afghanistan’s future will primarily be linked to the funding of various reconstruction and development programs, history has shown that the Gulf states are equally likely to intervene in post-conflict developing states. This has been witnessed both in the Gulf region (such as in Iraq and Yemen) and outside the region (such as Libya and Syria). In all instances, these interventions have intended to gain or preserve geopolitical and national security interests. If not a direct military intervention, influence in Afghanistan could also be exerted by the Gulf states should they choose to support various armed groups, comparable to the UAE’s support to the Southern Transitional Council in Yemen, or Saudi and Qatari efforts to fight Iran’s role in Syria.

While it is still unclear what will happen in Afghanistan after the U.S’. withdrawal, it would not be shocking if some Gulf states made the risky choice to become involved with some of Afghanistan’s armed groups. Should this occur, it would be an attempt to exert influence through some sort of agreement with the Taliban, a group with a clear hierarchy that is deeply entrenched in the country’s local systems. Conversely, it is this very entrenchment that will make it difficult for the Gulf to ever impact the Taliban’s influence. Despite these risks, the Arab Gulf states’ motivation to counter Iran’s possible influence over the country may outweigh any deterrents. Unlike past interventions, however, it could be difficult for the Gulf states to coordinate with the U.S., its previous gateway to the country. This differs from Iran which has spent past decades crafting independent deals with different Afghani parties. In some respects, the heightened interest of Iran in Afghani affairs can be explained by its status as the only Gulf state that shares a border with Afghanistan, making developments in Kabul of the utmost national interest.

With the prospects of American withdrawal from Afghanistan growing higher and higher, the Gulf states and other neighboring nations will likely work to fill the aid and security void that for so long has been occupied by the United States. Like in other regions, this will likely result in intra-Gulf tension (Iran vs. Saudi Arabia), and intra-GCC tension (Qatar vs. Saudi Arabia and the UAE). It will be a continuation of the same rivalry that has been witnessed in recent years, but this time in a new arena. Still, Iran remains in the best position to gain a stronger role in Afghanistan due to past efforts to build ties with all segments of Afghani society, including religious leadership and government. Additionally, if Iraq is a suitable comparison, Iran has already proven that it is more adept in many instances than the GCC states in cementing influence in regional nations. Afghanistan could differ due to the sectarian differences between the Iranian government and the majority of the Afghani populace, however in the past Tehran has been able to overcome such hurdles, while the Gulf states continue to start their efforts nearly from scratch.

 

References:

[1] “U.S.-Taliban sign landmark agreement in bid to end America’s longest war,” NBC News, February 29, 2020

[2] Emma Graham-Harrison, Dan Sabbagh, Akhtar Mohammad Makoii and Julian Borger, “US and Taliban sign deal to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan,” The Guardian, February 29, 2020

[3] Greg Bruno, “Saudi Arabia and the Future of Afghanistan,” CFR, December 10, 2008

[4] “Regional states’ assistance sought in repatriation of Afghan refugees,” Gulf News, June 1, 2006

[5] “U.N. refugee offices in Gulf States ready to help Afghan refugees,” ReliefWeb, October 8, 2001

[6] Barnett R. Rubin, “Testimony on the Situation in Afghanistan Before the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations,” CFR, October 8, 1998

[7] Mahan Abedin, “How Iran Found Its Feet in Afghanistan,” Foreign Policy, October 24, 2019

[8] Ariane M. Tabatabai, “Iran’s cooperation with the Taliban could affect talks on U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan,” The Washington Post, August 9, 2019

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