The opening of the Taliban office in Qatar is big news in the western and Arab media but is being downplayed in Pakistan and Iran. Of course, it stands to reason that Pakistan has been in the loop at some point, and, equally, that the Americans did their utmost to ensure Iran was kept out (although, Iran is irrepressible and nothing in the Hindu Kush escapes its attention).
So, it appears that both Pakistan and Iran are probably suppressing their laughter and are watching how far Uncle Sam succeeds with the ‘moderate Taliban’. Already there is some brusque backtracking by Washington that there is no ‘deal’ as such over the release of the Taliban POWs in Guantanamo Bay. The US diplomats take care that their president doesn’t become the laughing stock in the Afghan bazaar right in the middle of his crucial re-election bid.
But Taliban have been given assurances that their pre-condition on POWs will be met. Perhaps, the title of the Russian commentary — Defiant Obama seeks peace with Taliban — says it all. A perception lingers that the US is retreating from Afghanistan and ensuring that the retreat won’t be from the rooftop of the American embassy in Kabul.
Xinhua remains equally sceptical, echoing a doubt expressed generally by Kabul-based commentators who are attuned to ground realities. Interestingly, Xinhua reported on an helpful note on the talks in Qatar as such. There is merit in cautious optimism. Peace parleys after a bloody conflict are difficult to get started but may gain momentum once mutual confidence between protagonists improves.
Meanwhile, Beijing is getting an excellent opportunity to know more about the dramatic news of Taliban’s change of heart straight from the horse’s mouth. Pakistan’s army chief Ashfaq Kayani has just begun a 5-day visit to China. The point to watch is how far China will be willing to help out the US.
Beijing has strong interest in the stabilisation of Afghanistan and it has influence on Pakistan. A helpful role by China would impact on the atmosphere of US-China relations on the whole. Just before Kayani left for China, US state department expressed optimism about improvement in US-Pak ties.
Kayani’s visit takes place within a fortnight of the visit by China’s top diplomat State Councilor Dai Bingguo to Pakistan with a delegation that included military officials. Dai had met Kayani. Dai is key advisor to Hu on foreign policy. Kayani has scheduled calls on President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. Beijing is laying out the red carpet.
To be sure, Kayani’s visit takes place against a complex regional backdrop. A Xinhua commentary noted on Tuesday that 2012 is going to be a “politically sensitive year” for US-China relations and a factor that adds to the uncertainty is “America’s high-profile return to Asia”, which has “spawned suspicions” in Beijing that Washington’s “purpose is to counterbalance China’s rising influence in Asia.”
The commentary, however, ended with the belief that despite the “many differences and suspicions” between China and US, the two countries will do their “utmost in the new year to maintain a stable relationship and would carefully avoid conflicts that would cause real damage.” The Xinhua commentary is here.
– January 5, 2012