On 17 February 2017, the office of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, citing mechanisms devised during the meetings of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), demanded that Pakistan take "practical measures and initiate effective counter-terrorism efforts against all those terrorist groups which operate in Pakistan and pose a threat to security and stability of Afghanistan."
Pakistan – which had witnessed a terror attack by the Islamic State (IS) earlier that week – responded positively, at least in rhetoric. Whether the response is followed up with sustained concrete action remains to be seen. Nonetheless, the timing of Afghanistan's invocation of the QCG narrative is important. Could it possibly provide a hint about the new US administration's potential Afghanistan strategy? Perhaps.
Significance and Timing
The QCG – comprising the US, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China – had been instituted to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiation table with an objective of achieving reconciliation between Kabul and the Taliban. However, the Group – which did not find much success – was considered a failure and a lost cause by many, especially after President Ghani, following a massive attack in Kabul, stated in April 2016 that Afghanistan no longer expected Pakistan to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table.
Meanwhile, Russia began undertaking consultations regarding the Afghan issue with China and Pakistan in a trilateral meeting format. The February 2017 six-party talks in Moscow - where representatives from Afghanistan, Russia, India, Iran, China and Pakistan were in attendance - was the subsequent phase of these consultations. The US was excluded from this Russia-led meeting, much like Moscow was from the Washington-led QCG. It is conceivable that the US viewed this development as unfavourable, particularly as it came at a time when the new administration in Washington was still in the process of formulating its Afghanistan strategy.
In November 2016, Kabul signed a peace deal with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the chief of the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG). In February 2017, his name was removed from the UN sanctions list. While many have voiced concerns regarding the terms of the deal, Russia supported this development, as did several other countries including China and the US, viewing the deal as the first step towards a peace deal between Kabul and other terrorist groups, such as the Afghan Taliban.
China too has sought to bring relevance back to the QCG (for similar but not the same reasons). On 5 February, days after China had hosted a meeting with the Qatar-based Taliban leaders, China's Special Envoy on Afghan Affairs, Deng Xijun, met Ghani in Kabul and said Beijing had "coaxed Taliban into negotiations, urging Pakistan to revive quadrilateral dialogues." China seems to prefer a platform in which it can play a greater role – something the six-party talks does not offer – and therefore seeks to work with the US via the QCG. However, that does not automatically mean that Beijing – which has had contacts with the Taliban for years – would want to substantially expand its role or presence inside Afghanistan in the process, at least in the immediate future. Beijing would likely want to avoid getting involved in Afghanistan militarily. It might therefore be useful to also assess whether the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) will or are able to align their actions based on common objectives.
Kabul's invocation of the "mechanisms devised during" the QCG meetings came two days after Moscow hosted the first six-party talks on security in Afghanistan and its neighbourhood. When the office of the president issued the 17 February statement, President Ghani was away attending the Munich Security Conference. His 18 February speech at the conference did not contain any reference to the QCG, but he said that "...this is not a civil war, it is a drug war, it is a terrorist war, and it is also a state-to-state undeclared war." The timing of invoking the QCG thus seems to indicate that it was perhaps not an action that had been in the works; and even if it was, it was probably done with short notice, possibly on the US' 'encouragement'.
It seems that the US now seeks to revive the relevance of the QCG to counter-balance Russia's regional initiatives with an objective to remain in the 'lead' on the Afghan issue – and thereby, in South Asia. The attempted exhumation of the QCG could be viewed in connection to this. Nonetheless, the US appears to be keeping its options for the time being (at least till the White House and the Pentagon come to a consensus on Washington’s Afghanistan policy).
However, for now, the QCG cannot be considered entirely exhumed. While the fates and efficacies of these multiple regional multi-lateral initiatives remain to be seen, it appears that at present the US might want to remain in Afghanistan for some time to come. Overall, reconciliation might become a recurring theme throughout 2017, at least in rhetoric. Whether the objectives are achieved and in that manner, is another matter entirely. Meanwhile, one could expect restlessness in Islamabad at every instance Kabul interacts with Moscow, because Pakistan too seems to prefer the US and not Russia to 'take the lead'.