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International relations

US-Taliban ties a way in Afghanistan to keep out IS and boost trade

Prospects for central Asian energy flow remains dim without peace

Taliban in the Ghanikhel district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan on June 16   © Reuters

ISLAMABAD -- Diplomats and businesses are calling on the U.S. to come to a compromise with the Taliban in Afghanistan urgently to keep Islamic State group at bay and also to open up trade in the region.

Diplomats said the U.S. has come to realize that the Taliban cannot be defeated completely and has begun talks to cease the violence, although negotiations will be protracted. The first direct talks between a senior U.S. diplomat and a five-member Taliban delegation in Qatar last week failed to halt escalating violence across Afghanistan, a gateway to other regional countries with vast reserves of oil and gas.

On Tuesday, at least 15 people were killed when armed gunmen stormed a government office in Afghanistan's eastern city, Jalalabad. The attack, said by Afghan government officials to have been carried out by Islamic State group has yet again highlighted the complicated politics in this country that has been at war since the 1979 invasion by the former Soviet Union.

The U.S. military assault on Afghanistan began on orders of former President George W. Bush in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks in New York. But after years of refusing to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate player in Afghanistan, senior diplomats in the region say the view from Washington has changed.

"The Taliban have not been defeated on the battlefield so the U.S. is now trying to engage with them," one senior European diplomat in Islamabad who frequently travels to Kabul, the Afghan capital, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "With the Islamic State making advances in Afghanistan, there is a growing urgency."

"It has taken the Americans a long time to realize this point but they have probably accepted that the Taliban cannot be defeated militarily," Aziz Khan, Pakistan's former ambassador to Afghanistan told Nikkei. "The added element [for the Americans] is also the advances being made by the Islamic State."

Senior Pakistani government officials dealing with security affairs told Nikkei many western governments including the U.S. are increasingly alarmed by the prospect of Afghanistan becoming a base for Islamic State militants after they were largely driven out of Iraq and Syria.

Apart from the risk of increased terrorism, western businessmen with an interest in the landlocked former Soviet republics of Central Asia say that ending the Afghan conflict is essential for trade opportunities to expand in the region.

"If you look at a country like Kazakhstan, you will realize that they have one of the world's biggest oil reserves, and you look at Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan with their large gas reserves," a Middle East-based Western businessman told Nikkei.

"These energy resources can be a big asset to the world but their free flow will only come once Afghanistan is settled. You can't lay down oil and gas pipelines without Afghanistan providing the space and the pipelines coming down to Pakistan for export through the Arabian sea," he added.

Others note that a conflict-free Afghanistan will benefit China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing may sweep the country under its influence once some semblance of peace has returned.

"The Chinese are already in touch with the Afghan government, the Taliban and local tribal leaders in Afghanistan," a Pakistani businessman with interests in Afghanistan told Nikkei. "Once conditions improve in Afghanistan, I am sure the Chinese will want to connect them [Afghanistan] to CPEC [China-Pakistan Economic Corridor] through oil and gas pipelines, road links and train links."

Other experts said that last week's U.S.-Taliban talks were preceded by previous olive branches offered by Washington. James Dorsey of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University told Nikkei that previous gestures such as Washington's acceptance of the opening of a Taliban office in Doha, the capital of Qatar, suggested that the administration was softening its stance.

"In the past, often the fighting [In Afghanistan] was not aimed at total destruction of the Taliban but a means to force them to the table," Dorsey said. "But now this [the meeting] means that the U.S. realizes they are not going to win this war in a clear-cut way."

Dorsey added that the most pressing policy challenge for the U.S. in the region now is its future relationship with Iran following the collapse of Tehran's nuclear agreement with western powers including the U.S.

While last week's meeting could ultimately bring the Taliban into a future ruling structure in Afghanistan, western diplomats warn that security continues to be a key worry.

"In some areas of Afghanistan, the Taliban already have effective control while the Afghan defense services have no will to fight," a western official involved with international development assistance to Afghanistan told Nikkei after a trip to the country last month.

"Afghanistan is already fractured between different interest groups. Exactly how anyone will be able to bring enough stability to have a normal link for [flow of] oil and gas from Central Asia is a big question," he said.

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