Major players in the Afghan peace talks. Image credit: Reuters/AP.
There are doubtless domestic factors behind the crisis in Afghanistan, from ethnic problems to low levels of education. Afghanistan’s geographic position is one of the main obstacles to a lasting peace. Surrounded by neighbors with different ideologies and regional interests, Afghanistan is seen as a geostrategic key to future power in the region. Afghanistan’s importance in the eye of rival countries has historically attracted the Soviet Union to the country, with American expertise and support offered through ISI to stand by the Afghans.
Nowadays, foreign intervention in Afghan internal affairs has become a usual part of almost every peace effort. Arab countries- particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, thanks to their shared ideology with the Taliban- are major players in Afghan peace. Saudi Arabia was certainly the most influential foreign actor in the Afghan war against the Soviet Union. It raised the idea of Jihad which has since recruited young fighters from North Africa to European city suburbs to the war in Afghanistan.
The ten year Soviet occupation ended in 1989, but the Arab influence still remains. Saudi Arabia continued financing radical Wahhabist ideology during the devastating civil war in Afghanistan until the Taliban took power in 1996. The Taliban regime called itself an Islamic Emirate and was recognized by Saudi Arabia. In recent years, however, things have changed. Now other countries have emerged as mediators in the Afghan peace talks. Qatar is on the top of this list.
Qatar, with a fast rising economy in the Gulf, already influences Muslim countries such as Sudan and Lebanon. Now its influence is extending to Afghanistan. Doha hosted a few intra-Afghan meetings on peace and currently is the city where the Taliban has a political office. Doha benefits from a privileged position to be a conflict resolution actor when it comes to the Afghan peace talks: it has a strategic security and economic partnership with Pakistan and enjoys a friendly relationship with Iran. Iran supplied Qatar with necessary food items and gave airspace access to Qatari air traffic during the Saudi-led Blockade. Iran also hosts the largest American military base in the region, Al Udeid, which is the main source of airpower and logistics for operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and other countries.
Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, does not benefit from Qatar’s international prestige but it is ready to pay billions of dollars to buy the loyalty of other countries. The crowned Saudi prince, King Salman, recently went on a tour of the region where he promised to invest more than $4 billion in Pakistan. Rumors are that King Salman is going to buy the Premier League football club, Manchester United, where Sheikh Mansour, an Emirati royal, owns the Manchester city football club.
The rivalry of these two oil exporters is going to shape a new bloc in the region. They both have sufficient resources to direct relations in their own national interests. Saudi Arabia, losing its influence over the Taliban, is being replaced by Qatar. According to a Taliban official, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are trying to block the Afghan peace talks in Doha while Taliban are happy with Qatari mediation in the process.
The fight between Gulf countries leaves Afghanistan with no saying on its future. With all said and done, would a peace deal brokered by Saudis and Qataris bring peace to Afghanistan? That is the real question, and Afghans do not have a solid answer.