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HomeBlogBiden Must Revive ‘Six Plus Two Group’ to Successfully Exit Afghanistan

Biden Must Revive ‘Six Plus Two Group’ to Successfully Exit Afghanistan

Image credit: U.S. Department of State

By Younes Zangiabadi

Active multilateral engagement with regional and international stakeholders is the most reliable course of action to achieve peace and stability in Afghanistan.

This article was first published by The National Interest.

Last week, Taliban deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar published an open letter, calling on President Joe Biden to honour the 2020 Doha agreement reached by his predecessor Donald Trump and withdraw international troops from Afghanistan before the May deadline.

This diplomatic posturing comes after a Taliban delegation visit to Iran in late January, where Mullah Baradar met with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani to discuss “relations between both nations as well as the political and security situation in Afghanistan and the region.”

Such public high-level meetings between Iran and the Taliban are singularly unprecedented, though perhaps more surprising was their similar stance on the Afghan peace process. Both parties view the United States as an “untrustworthy” actor that not only breaks its commitments but is also a destabilizing force that must be encouraged to withdraw from the region as a precursor for sustainable peace in Afghanistan and the greater Middle East. Nevertheless, Tehran used the talks to reiterate its strong opposition to violence (particularly in the Western provinces of Afghanistan bordering Iran), noting it will not recognize factions that seek to accumulate power through armed conflict in Afghanistan.

In recent weeks, unrest in Afghanistan has spiked together with the frequency of assassinations, generating a reaction from NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who called on the Taliban to reduce violence and cease supporting terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda. NATO stations approximately 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, tasked with training national security forces and the organization has warned its withdrawal is conditional on the Taliban’s fulfillment of the Doha agreement.

However, the reality on the ground suggests that the U.S.-Taliban peace deal has reached a stalemate with little progress in negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Political gridlock is baked in. On the one hand, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani continues to demand that the Taliban join the current political system and commit to a lasting ceasefire; on the other hand, the Taliban refuses to back down from its calls for the formation of a new Islamist political system.

With the intra-Afghan peace process technically on hold, all Afghan, regional, and international stakeholders are waiting for the Biden administration to review its Afghan policy and decide on the final timeframe for U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, there is increasing urgency within Washington foreign policy circles to extend the May deadline for the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan “in order to give the peace process sufficient time to produce an acceptable result.”

Similarly, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini argued recently that the Biden administration must “prevent a reckless withdrawal that leads to state collapse, a civil war, and the revival of global terrorist haven.” What they do not recognize, however, is how any unilateral extension of the May deadline by the United States could lead to further exacerbation of violence and the continuation of the war in Afghanistan.

Biden can only choose between bad and worse options if he decides to continue Trump’s unilateral peace process with the Taliban. However, there is still a third way to effectively mitigate and manage this dangerous situation—a multilateral solution applied successfully two decades ago. Active multilateral engagement with regional and international stakeholders is the most reliable course of action to achieve peace and stability in Afghanistan.

In 2001, at the time of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the United States joined an informal coalition consisting of Iran, India, Russia, and the Northern Alliance (an Afghan opposition group) that had worked together to topple the Taliban since the mid-1990s. By means of such creative but bold (back-channel) diplomacy, Washington and Tehran, despite hostile relations, engaged in military and intelligence cooperation to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In terms of more formal diplomacy, the United States became a member of a coalition named Six Plus Two, which included Iran, China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, plus Russia, to address the Afghan civil war and the future of Afghanistan. In fact, the same group, along with Afghan opposition factions, later attended an UN-convened conference in Bonn where they successfully formed a moderate and internationally recognized Afghan government with an interim constitution, guaranteeing democratic elections and cooperation to fight international terrorism in Afghanistan.

Fast forward to today, the very same issues—from creating Afghan peace and stability to preventing that country from slipping into a failed state and becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups like Al Qaeda—remain shared concerns among key players in Afghanistan. Notable exceptions include the Taliban’s presence as an undeniable political force with a stake in Afghanistan’s future, and the involvement of new actors in the Afghan peace equation, such as Turkey.

Last year, Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation, attended the “Six Plus Two” virtual meeting with diplomats present from Iran, Russia, and states neighbouring Afghanistan. Such multilateral dialogue should be welcomed and encouraged, especially under the Biden presidency, and it should be recognized that neglecting to include important stakeholders like Tehran, Moscow, and Beijing have failed Afghan peace negotiations in the past. President Biden’s move to keep Khalilzad as the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan is already a positive sign and mark of prudence by the administration. And the Afghan peace process would certainly benefit if Khalilzad is directed by the White House to engage in more “Six Plus Two” track discussions.

No parties involved—including Iran and Pakistan—would benefit from a hasty American exit from Afghanistan if such withdrawal were to result in another failed state harbouring international terrorist networks that threaten regional and global security. Following the Taliban’s visit to Tehran, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement confirming that the Afghan government was consulted by the Iranians prior to the trip, highlighting that “Iran wants to ensure that the post-conflict Afghanistan does not turn into a safe haven for terrorist groups and it will remain a centre of regional and international cooperation.” In the same vein, Pakistani ambassador to the United States Asad Majeed Khan also signalled Islamabad’s willingness to mediate between the Taliban and the United States, stating that the United States should not decide unilaterally on the extension of the May deadline for a full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

If the United States wishes to extend an already planned withdrawal of its troops and ultimately end the longest war in American history, it must formally revitalize the “Six Plus Two” framework and expand it to include more regional and international actors, including NATO and the European powers. Afghanistan’s current security environment provides enough common ground for such a diverse coalition to take shape, building more leverage against the Taliban to guarantee the group will keep its end of the bargain and uphold the ceasefire.

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Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  

Panelists:

Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security

 

Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.

Panelists:

Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.

 

Panelists:

Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 

Panelists:

Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 

 

Panelists:

Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.

 

Panelists:

Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor