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Joe Biden close to backing G20 peace talks on Afghanistan, says Italian PM


Show caption US President Joe Biden is described as open minded about the meeting. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images UK news Joe Biden close to backing G20 peace talks on Afghanistan, says Italian PM Some in US administration see risks in seeking support of Russia or China to counter a potential terrorist threat Patrick Wintour Diplomatic Editor Wed 25 Aug 2021 18.59 BST Share on Facebook

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The Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, believes he is close to gaining Joe Biden’s support to stage a special G20 peace conference on Afghanistan next month that will include key players with close contact with the Taliban, including China, Russia and Turkey.

Draghi, the chair of the G20 group of nations, has been working on the plan for days, holding talks with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. The Italian prime minister is also expected to hold a call with the Chinese resident, Xi Jinping, this week.

Biden has told Rome he is willing to talk to anyone, although there are some in his administration that see risks in seeking the support of Russia or China to counter a terrorist threat inside Afghanistan.

The broader meeting, wider than the one held in London under the auspices of the G7 and chaired by the UK this week, could act as a powerful signal to the Taliban that the world is united in wanting the new regime at minimum to prevent Afghanistan becoming a launch pad for terrorist attacks again.

Biden is described as open minded about the meeting, although some Democrats may fear it has the potential merely to underline the scale of the US political and military retreat and show Washington needs the support of its adversaries to prevent the rebirth of a terrorist network in Afghanistan.

Although the G7 statement, which was issued under the British chairmanship on Tuesday, made recognition of a Taliban government conditional on its future behaviour, Italy was relieved the statement did not contain more provocative language, such as an explicit threat of sanctions against the Islamist group. The Italians fear threats, as opposed to offers of partnership, at this stage would reduce the chances of a coordinated approach involving Russia and China towards persuading the Taliban to form an inclusive government that in some ways respects human rights.

Speaking on Italian TV, Italy’s undersecretary for defence, Giorgio Mulè, a fierce critic of Europe’s inability to act independently of the US in Kabul, said: “I hope that at the G20, Italy can propose a peace conference involving Russia and China.”

A precise date and format for the G20 meeting, which is strongly backed by EU member states such as Germany and France, is still to be agreed, but it is likely to be virtual and held after the UN general assembly in mid-September. By this time, the focus on the evacuation will have dissipated, and more will be known about the Taliban consolidation of power and the deals they may have struck with jihadist groups.

Even this expanded group of nations will exclude some of the most influential players in the region: Pakistan, Iran and Qatar.

The previously planned in-person G20 would go ahead on 30 October in Rome.

The UN security council, following the US-Taliban agreement in 2020, made a rare show of unity by resolving to demand that the Taliban oppose terrorism in Afghanistan. But Ibraheem Bahiss, a consultant to the anti-conflict non-profit Crisis Group, said there were some signs that this international unified front may be dissipating, adding: “We will see each state pursue their own narrow interests.”

Different countries may also set different conditions for unlocking funds to the Taliban, with some limiting the cooperation conditions to counter-terrorism and others insisting that women’s rights be included.

Putin and Xi spoke by phone on Wednesday, and the two leaders, according to the Kremlin, “expressed their readiness to step up efforts to combat threats of terrorism and drug trafficking coming from the territory of Afghanistan”.

They also spoke of the “importance of establishing peace” in Afghanistan and “preventing the spread of instability to adjacent regions”. No mention of a G20 meeting was included.

But neither Beijing nor Moscow is rushing to recognise the Taliban as yet, and they have their own demands, including combatting Islamic State, the Pakistani Taliban and controlling al-Qaida.

The west has to balance the financial array of carrots and sticks available, knowing that collapsing an already reeling economy – one that is 80% dependent on overseas aid – may only impoverish the poorest and possibly nurture terrorism by turning Afghanistan into a pariah state. At the same time, it cannot subsidise the Taliban before their repeated assurances about inclusiveness are tested against reality.

The World Bank on Wednesday said it had suspended disbursements, a week after the IMF took the same step, blocking access to $460m (£334m). The Pentagon has halted all plans to spend $3.3bn to bolster the now defunct Afghan military, along with about another $3bn in previously unspent training and equipping funds.

Last week, the US also froze billions of dollars of assets held in American accounts by Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB), the country’s central bank. DAB owns $9.5bn in assets, mostly located outside Afghanistan.

But in talks with the Taliban on Wednesday, the German envoy to Kabul, Markus Potzel, said humanitarian aid would be restored once the situation is normalised. It is the second set of talks he has held with Taliban leaders. Arrangements will be needed to confirm that humanitarian aid can be sent through third parties, and not to the Taliban itself, an issue discussed with the UN secretary general, António Guterres.

Draghi has proposed that aid previously sent to the now obliterated Afghan defence force should be converted to humanitarian aid. The US and Nato had paid around $4bn (£2.9bn) each year to fund the Afghan forces.

Longer-term issues such as restoring reconstruction aid will be harder for the G20 to resolve. Even with a friendly regime in Kabul, it proved impossible for the US to prevent its aid being siphoned off by corrupt politicians and war lords.

The head of the International Rescue Committee, David Miliband, said the G7 had not been explicit enough about aid and that 18.4 million Afghans were already critically dependent on aid, including 10 million children. He said: “The World Food Programme has warned that core food supplies could run out by October, as acute hunger is rising across the country. The number of people made homeless by the conflict has jumped by 53% from 360,000 to 550,000 in August alone. Attacks on aid workers and civilians have already been a hallmark of this crisis. This cannot continue.”