Afghanistan: the United States at the table with the Taliban

The news is not of those that conquer the front pages of the newspapers, but it is worth telling because it opens a discrete glimpse of the underground diplomacy that in the Middle East has more than any official position.

Some Taliban leaders have recently met the US envoy in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad , in their political office in Doha, Qatar .

It seems that at the table, representing the Taliban, were sitting two former prisoners of Guantanamo prison: Khairullah Khairkhwah , former governor of Herat, and Mohammed Fazl , former head of the Taliban army, both released in 2014 in an exchange of prisoners for the release of US sergeant Bowe Bergdahl , hostage in Afghanistan since 2009.

The talks in Qatar, not confirmed by the US Department of State but left to filter to the press by Taliban representatives, it seems that they have been going on for some months. Khalilzad already had contacts with the Taliban in Doha at least twice after the failed June ceasefire, which lasted only three days.

In Afghanistan the war has become almost endemic, lasting for seventeen years. On the one hand there is the government of Kabul, supported by the West, on the other the Taliban insurgency, in turn put to the test by violent clashes with ISIS cells. An Afghan hell complicated by the interference of Tehran: the Fatemiyoun brigades , protagonists of the Syrian war alongside President Bashar al Assad , are composed of Afghan Shiites enlisted by Iran. And so many of the attacks claimed by ISIS in Afghanistan affect areas inhabited by the Shiite population, such as the western part of Kabul.

In October, during an attack by the Taliban in the province of Kandahar, a US Army officer, Jeffrey Smiley , was also injured . The Taliban are raising the stakes: in Kabul they ask for the formation of a new government where they can have representation .

The United States envoy in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, is the man whom the Trump administration has chosen to get out of the quagmire. He is Afghan, speaks one of the local languages, the pasthun, but also Farsi, the language of Tehran. He works at the US State Department since Reagan. At the end of the 90s he was a consultant for Unocal , the US oil company that, before September 11th, planned with the Taliban government of Kabul the construction of two gas pipelines that would have crossed the whole country changing the local economy. In the days of President George W. Bush , Khalilzad was the first American ambassador in Afghanistan, then in Iraq.

Zalmay Khalilzad’s ideas now make it clear: the fault of the Afghan chaos would be Pakistan, guilty of protecting the leaders of the Taliban insurgency within its borders. A vision that Trump shares to the end and that Monday found a rant on his Twitter account: the American president has accused Pakistan of not doing ‘one damn thing’ for the United States in Afghanistan.

In 2007 Khalilzad thought otherwise: at the time he explained that the neighbor Iran was the most important aid to the Taliban in Afghanistan, in an anti-American function. The very fact that today the Taliban has a political office in Qatar, the Gulf country closest to Tehran, should say a lot about current ties. But today the narrative has changed: even the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani avoids to officially criticize the presence of the American army in Afghanistan, painting it as an independent choice of the local government.

Despite the rhetoric of recent months and the entry into force of heavy US sanctions on Iran, Washington does not seem to seek a confrontation with Tehran when it comes to Afghanistan. Moreover, his correspondent, Khalilzad, is a frontier man: in the days of Bush junior, former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, whenever he referred to the possibilities of dialogue with Teheran, spoke of a ‘Zal channel’. An unofficial channel that had to be active ever since the war in Afghanistan in the late 1970s, when Iranian ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the war against the Soviets supported the Afghan mujaheddin alongside the United States.

The ‘Zal’ channel seems to have remained intact regardless of the alternation of American administrations.

In 2014 when some Austrian newspapers wrote that Khalilzad and his wife were investigated in the country for money laundering, it soon became known that the Austrian court’s charges had been immediately withdrawn and ended up in vain.

Coincidence or not, when Doha Khalilzad talks with the Taliban leaders, Qatar begins to see a way out of the long embargo that the Gulf countries have imposed on it because of its positions close to Tehran.

Kuwait Deputy Minister Khalil al Jarallah announced on Monday that Qatar will be able to participate in the next Gulf Cooperation Council to be held in December in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It could be the end of the long diplomatic crisis.

In October, the very active Khalilzad, as well as in Doha, stopped in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It is unlikely that someone will tell us what agreements have been taken behind the scenes to achieve this new development between Qatar and the Gulf countries. Yet one thing is clear: the war in Afghanistan, almost forty years after the start of the first conflict in 1979, is one of the cornerstones on which the fate of the Middle East is still being played.