IT LOOKS like the great game in Afghanistan is entering into a decisive phase, with regional and international powers scrambling to get a bigger slice of the Afghan pie. As the efforts for a political solution to the Afghan problem are picking up, Pakistan, India, Iran and Saudi Arabia have launched extensive efforts to have their say in the future set-up of Afghanistan.
Kabul was abuzz with diplomatic activity last week as the US-led Nato forces were busy planning a massive assault on Taliban’s spiritual centre Kandahar. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates was first to arrive in Afghanistan on a three-day tour to meet US and Nato commanders and hold talks with President Hamid Karzai. During his stay, Gates accused Iran of playing a double-game in Afghanistan by befriending the government in Kabul while undermining US and Nato efforts by secretly supporting the Taliban.
While Gates was still on Afghan soil, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad landed in Kabul on his first visit of the country after the re-election of Hamid Karzai. Apart from holding strategic talks with Karzai on future of Afghanistan, the outspoken Iranian leader used the event to lambast United States and Nato. While accusing the super power and its allies of killing innocent civilians, Ahmadinejad predicted that Afghan people will soon defeat foreign invaders.
Soon after concluding his meeting with Ahmadinejad, the Afghan leader left for a two-day visit to Pakistan signalling a dramatic improvement in ties between the troubled neighbours. After his meeting with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani, Karzai called for an end to the proxy wars in Afghanistan. He was apparently referring to Pakistan-India and US-Iran tussles for seeking greater influence in Afghanistan.
In a rare gesture of warmth towards Pakistan, Karzai accepted Pakistan army’s offer to train Afghan soldiers.
Earlier, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Saudi Arabia and discussed Afghan issue during his meeting with King Abdullah. According to some reports, Indian Prime Minister sought Saudi support to establish contacts with the Taliban because India does not want to lose influence in the region after the possible US-Taliban deal. India is already funding a number of development projects in Afghanistan to strengthen its ties with Kabul and have access to important trade corridor towards Central Asia.
Recent developments in Pakistan are also pointing out at some major changes in Islamabad’s Afghan policy. After launching a successful campaign against militants in troubled Waziristan, Pakistani authorities captured some key Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders including Taliban’s deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. These arrests pleasantly surprised the United States and Afghan government and dispelled the impression that Islamabad was not serious in clamping down on Afghan Taliban on Pakistani soil. The ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan suddenly become warmer after these arrests and Karzai’s visit. According to diplomatic sources in Islamabad, secret efforts are going on to install a government of national consensus in Afghanistan under the leadership of a grandson of former Afghan king Zahir Shah.
According to Islamabad formula, the future Afghan government will be shared by representatives of majority Pushtoons (possibly Taliban), some elements of Karzai administration and key political figures from northern Afghanistan.
Wary of increasing Indian influence in Afghan affairs, Islamabad is keen to forge a deal between the various Afghan factions to have a friendly government in Kabul.
Iran is also funding various projects in Afghanistan, mainly in the areas where Shia Hazara community is in majority. Tehran is also keen to see a friendly set-up in Kabul for economic and political reasons.
Saudi Arabia has always been a key player in Afghan affairs after the defeat of Soviet Union.
Although publicly Saudi government has denied contact with Taliban leadership but insiders claim that Riyadh is facilitating a secret dialogue between the Afghan government and Taliban, using its influence on the former Afghan regime.
All these developments indicate intensive behind-the-scene efforts for a political resolution of the issue with the involvement of regional players. It is clear that the Obama administration is keen to achieve some progress in Afghanistan before the midterm elections for US Congress in November this year.
It seems that the US military is trying to force Taliban leaders into talks through a quick and powerful operation. The massive Kandhar operation, which is likely to be launched next month, is aimed at improving US bargaining power in the eventual talks with Taliban.
So far Taliban has shown reluctance to the talks offers and demanded the complete withdrawal of US and Nato forces from Afghan soil before any dialogue.
But there are indications that the rebels would be ready to change their rigid stance if strong assurances are provided through Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
A political solution to the pro-longed Afghan problem would be in the best interest of all parties involved, especially the people of Afghanistan who have only witnessed un-ending violence and destruction during last three decades.
The views of the writer are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Brunei Times.
The Brunei Times