Pepe Escobar
14 Jan, 2016
RT.com

Just like Lazarus, there were reasons to believe the Afghan peace process might have stood a chance of being resurrected this past Monday in Islamabad, as four major players – Afghanistan, Pakistan, the US and China – sat together at the same table.

The final communiqué though was not exactly ground breaking: “The participants emphasized the immediate need for direct talks between representatives of the Government of Afghanistan and representatives from Taliban groups in a peace process that aims to preserve Afghanistan’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

A week before the Islamabad meeting, while in the Persian Gulf, I had an extremely enlightening conversation with a group of Afghan Pashtuns. After the ice was broken, and it was established I was not some Sean Penn-style shadowy asset with a dodgy agenda, my Pashtun interlocutors did deliver the goods. I felt I was back in Peshawar in 2001, only a few days before 9/11.

The first ground breaker was that two Taliban officials, currently based in Qatar, are about to meet top Chinese and Pakistani envoys face to face, without interference from the US. This fits into the strategy laid out by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), led by China and Russia, according to which the Afghan puzzle must be solved as an Asian matter. And Beijing definitely wants a solution, fast; think Afghan chapter of the New Silk Roads.

The post 9/11 Afghan War has been going on for an interminable 14 years; taking a cue from Pentagonese, talk about Enduring Freedom forever. No one is winning – and the Taliban are more divided than ever after the previous peace process collapsed when the Taliban announced Mullah Omar had been dead for two years.

That good old “strategic depth”

Still, it all hinges on the complex interplay between Kabul and Islamabad.

Take the see-saw movements of Afghan CEO (yes, that’s his title) Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. He juggles between Tehran – where he emphasizes terrorism is a threat both to Iran and Afghanistan – and Islamabad, where he discusses peace process arcana with Pakistani officials.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, for his part, never skips a beat renewing his commitment towards peace and economic development in Afghanistan.

When an attempt towards a peace process actually started – informally – in Doha, in 2012, including eight Taliban officials, the Taliban was furious that Kabul actually privileged talking to Islamabad. The official Taliban position is that they are politically – and militarily – independent from Islamabad.

As my Pashtun interlocutors emphasized, most people in Afghanistan don’t know what to make of all that Kabul-Islamabad talk, including what they regard as dangerous concessions, such as sending young Afghan military to be trained in Pakistan.

Islamabad plays a highly leveraged game. The Haqqani group – which Washington brands as terrorists – finds safe harbor inside Pakistan’s tribal areas. If the Taliban is seated at the table at any peace process that will be brokered by Pakistan – which still enjoys a lot of leverage over those Taliban clustered around the new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor.

My Pashtun interlocutors are adamant; the Taliban and the ISI remain indistinguishable. Their strategic alliance is still in place. All Taliban in Doha are monitored by the ISI.

On the other hand, there seems to be a subtle shift involving the Pakistani military and the ISI (which knows everything there is to know, and is complicit on much that happens concerning the Taliban). Last month, Pakistan’s army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif went to Afghanistan by himself; so that could mean the military will privilege real peace on the ground instead of manipulating Afghanistan as a “strategic depth” Pakistani pawn.

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