Recent chatter about dialogue between the Afghan Taliban, the United States and the Afghan government is nothing new on the horizon. Such reports have been around since 2005 and the years that followed witnessed the rise of the Taliban once again.
Efforts to bring what has often been described as the "moderate Taliban" to table were underway much before a statement in December 2004 by Zalmay Khalilzad, the then U.S. Ambassador to Kabul, saying; "noncriminal elements of the Taliban would not be subject to arrest if they renounce violence."
However, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai's call to the Taliban for dialogue is considered a landmark achievement in this regard after he offered in September 2008 to meet Mullah Omar wherever the Taliban chief desired.
Another important development in this aspect was President Obama's announcement in March 2009 stating that peace cannot prevail in Afghanistan without reconciliation among former enemies.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's remarks in December 2012 also came as an important milestone when he said that Taliban are not the enemy per se, further expressing the Administration's desire to bring about a reconciliatory process that would include the Taliban.
Once again, reports over the past month have made headlines about three major meetings between the respective representatives of Taliban and the Afghan government.
The first meeting which gained media attention was in Doha, between the representatives of Taliban's political office and the Afghan High Peace Council in early May 2015.
The second meeting, as reported by the Wall Street Journal on May 24, took place in Urumqi in China between Taliban and the Afghan Government under the joint auspices of China and Pakistan. The last meeting was a visit by the Taliban delegation to Iran for the same purpose on May 19 this year.
Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid categorically denied the news of any such talks with the Afghan Government, describing the meeting in Doha as merely a participation in a conference organized by Pugwash (an international organization working on reducing the danger of armed conflict.
On the other hand, Taliban affirmed in a statement released during the Doha meeting that any dialogue could take place only after the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan; demanding their name be disassociated with terrorism, and the travel ban and terrorist tag lifted from some of the Taliban leaders, reiterating their right to fight for as long as "the occupation" persisted in Afghanistan.
Taliban further refuted reports of meeting in Urumqi, strongly denying that they were represented in China at all. Mullah Tayyab Agha, head of Taliban's political office in Qatar, also termed the Tehran visit as part of Taliban's routine political engagements.
In response to this, Afghan Presidential Spokesman Ajmal Obaid Abidi commented on the 20-member delegation from Afghanistan led by Attaullah Ludin, deputy chief of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, which met with the Taliban in Doha, saying; "These people attended the conference at their own personal invitations."
What's new then?
The international and regional interest in a change in Taliban's stance on talks with the Afghan government stems out of the nature of the transition period in Afghanistan arising due to the withdrawal of international forces from the country; Taliban emerging as a real force can be a threat to the stability of the central government in Kabul.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani gives a lot of attention to talks with the Taliban as he believes the group, with their military might, cannot be kept out of the political milieu. He also believes that to engage the Taliban is essential to stability in Afghanistan.
Regional powers are also trying to fill the vacuum created by the withdrawal of international forcesBaker Atyani
Pakistan steps in as the most active regional power in this regard.
Pakistan swiftly worked toward building good relations with Afghanistan after Ghani took charge and intensified the visits of its political leaders, military and security personnel. The Afghan leadership thinks Islamabad can play a significant role in pressurizing the Taliban and bringing them to the table.
This was evident from the recent letter obtained by various media outlets, which was sent from the Afghan presidential palace to the leadership in Pakistan saying Pakistan was not doing enough to bring Taliban to negotiations.
Iran, on the other hand, has tried to capitalize on what it invested in Afghanistan over the past 13 years starting from helping the U.S. forces topple the Taliban regime in 2001, to delivering weapons to the Taliban later.
According to a U.S. Department of Defense report in October 2014: "The Revolutionary Guard Corps have been delivering weapons to the Taliban since at least 2007,” meanwhile Tehran was also buying loyalty with the government. In October 2010, Afghan President Hamid Karzai acknowledged that his chief of staff had received sometimes as much as $1 million at a time – some of it stuffed in bags – but said the payments were "transparent" and aimed at helping cover official expenses.
Tehran also built one of the largest Universities in Kabul called Khatami-al Nabyeen Islamic University, at a cost of approximately $17 million, with the help of one of the most Iran-inclined clerics of Afghanistan. It is one of Tehran's lesser noticed but most effective efforts to build influence in Afghanistan. Tehran also built a road linking the Iranian border to the western city of Herat in Afghanistan. Tehran simultaneously adopted the policy of welcoming Taliban while building relations with the Afghan Government in order to buy itself a role in this vacuum. Still, a huge trust deficit still persists between the Taliban and Tehran.
Meanwhile, China's motivation was purely based on economic concerns; to build the economic corridor that links Central Asia Republics to Gawadar Port in Pakistan through Afghanistan along with other economic projects that china wished to invest in such as infrastructure, energy and mineral wealth. This haste to fill the vacuum comes as all the stakeholders realize that bringing Taliban to the table means the group entering Afghanistan through its widest door.
This article is the first in a two part series. The second part will be published later this week.
Baker Atyani is Al Arabiya News Channel’s bureau chief in South and East Asia. He is a veteran journalist, covering conflict zones in Asia for the past 16 years and is an expert on militant groups in Asia. He has produced numerous documentaries, articles, and investigative stories and was the last journalist to interview Osama Bin Laden before 9/11. He has been honored by the U.N. for his work and by Al-Arabiya News Channel and MCF with "Exceptional Courage in Journalism" awards.