As American diplomats and Taliban negotiators in Doha work toward a political settlement to the Afghan war, most experts on the longest military intervention in American history (now 18 years) are wondering what gridlock in Kabul will mean for the peace process. Even so, the states of the Persian Gulf can play a much more prominent role in peace talks than just hosting them. Qatar is serving as the most obvious intermediary between the Taliban and the United States. But other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-states have a stake in the negotiations as well.
When the Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, Pakistan oversaw most of the day-to-day patronage that the fundamentalist regime received. Yet Pakistan was not alone in supporting the Taliban. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) also recognized the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan as the country’s legitimate government. Despite the Taliban’s fall in 2001, the movement’s ties to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have survived to this day.
Though all GCC member-states recognize the administration of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul as legitimate, they have to various degrees hedged their bets and established pragmatic relations with the Taliban. Given that the Taliban controls more land in Afghanistan now than it did when the American military first intervened in 2001, the Gulf monarchies expect the Taliban to retain a significant amount of power, a possibility with which the rest of the region must come to terms with at some point.
Since the first defeat of the Taliban regime almost two decades ago, the insurgents have often looked to the GCC for financial assistance. In 2010, American diplomats raised concerns to Saudi officials that Taliban emissaries were traveling to Saudi Arabia to court wealthy Arabs. Meanwhile, Mullah Akhtar Mansour—the Taliban’s leader from 2015 to 2016—would visit Bahrain and Dubai to fundraise. However great the level of Bahraini, Emirati, and Saudi involvement in funding the Taliban, the insurgents’ dependence on donors in the Gulf gives governments there leverage over the Taliban. The militants themselves have emphasized the importance that they place on their connection to the Gulf sheikdoms.
In January 2017, a bombing in Kandahar that the Afghan government tied to the Taliban killed no fewer than six Emirati diplomats, including the UAE’s ambassador to Afghanistan. The insurgents moved to deny responsibility for the attack, instead blaming the incident on “internal local rivalry.” The Taliban even dispatched several emissaries to attend the late ambassador’s funeral, but the UAE rebuffed them. The militants’ attempt to repair their relationship with the UAE, one of the Taliban’s earliest allies, speaks to Abu Dhabi’s continued influence in Afghanistan, where the UAE still has 200 troops.
Given the obstacles that the Taliban and the US will likely confront at the negotiating table, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have an opportunity to bolster the peace process started by Qatar. In fact, the Gulf’s regional powers are already flexing their diplomatic muscles in this regard. Just last year, American and Taliban officials participated in a Pakistani-organized tête-à-tête in Abu Dhabi. For its part, Saudi Arabia praised the Abu Dhabi meeting and tried to host its own earlier this year.
As well-connected energy superpowers with longstanding ties to the Taliban and the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE can fast-track Afghanistan’s peace process. Pakistani generals’ near control over the Taliban notwithstanding, few countries can do more to bridge the divide at the heart of Afghanistan’s civil war. American diplomats would likely appreciate Bahraini, Emirati, and Saudi assistance.
That said, the GCC’s Qatari-linked rift may hinder any Gulf-wide effort to bring peace to Afghanistan. As Qatar and its many opponents vie for influence over Egypt, Libya, Sudan, and Yemen, the Gulf’s biggest players may balk at putting aside their differences to solve Afghanistan’s problems. In fact, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have put pressure on the government in Kabul in relation to Doha, illustrating how Afghanistan has joined the long list of Muslim-majority countries that have felt the Arabian feud’s heat.
Washington has embraced Doha’s role as a mediator in this conflict.
Critics of Qatar often point to relations between Doha and the Taliban as a sign of Qatar’s keenness to sponsor extremism. However, Washington has embraced Doha’s role as a mediator in this conflict. Furthermore, the Taliban’s suspicions of Saudi Arabia, much like the insurgents’ misgivings about Turkey, have helped pave the way for Qatar to promote itself to the Taliban as a US-allied country that doubles as a trustworthy mediator.
Although world powers such as China and Russia can do much to facilitate the shaky US-Taliban negotiations, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE’s unique influence and leverage enable them to bolster the steady groundwork laid by Qatar. As human rights defenders the world over condemn Bahraini, Emirati, and Saudi crackdowns on dissidents, Afghanistan’s peace process also offers Manama, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh a chance to improve their global reputations, especially in the West.
In the end, GCC members and other countries in the Middle East have a stake in the outcome of this 19-year conflict. The future of Afghanistan will impact the region in a variety of ways, reinforcing Gulf states’ vested interests in the resolution of this war. As US President Donald Trump looks to end the Afghan war to boost his standing at home, he has an incentive to further decrease the US’s military presence in the war-torn country without leaving behind a power vacuum that could be filled by extremists.
At a time when all six members of the GCC seek to curry favor with this White House, members of the GCC have an opportunity to convince Washington that peace in Afghanistan must go through the Gulf.