On November 9, 2018, Russia hosted the Moscow Initiative to resolve the 17 years old Afghan war between US led coalition forces and Taliban. Taliban delegation from its Qatar office participated in the event while Afghanistan was represented by a delegation of the High Peace Council (HPC) which the Afghan government described as an “unofficial delegation participating in Moscow event in its personal capacity”.
While other countries / stakeholders such asUSA, China, Pakistan, Iran, India, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan hadalso participated. Moscow Initiative has been signifying Russia’s ever increasing interest in Afghanistan that has been evolved from a continued conflict between the US and the Taliban / Al-Qaeda, to a strategic impasse between the US and the Taliban. Russia is also worried about discreet rise of the Islamic State ofKhorasan Province (ISKP) in Afghanistan that is threatening the entire Central Asia and Russia with its tendency to reach beyond the land it comes to inhabit. The rising threat of ISKP explains why Russia has become active in initiating a peace process to achieve its settlement, but for the Western officials, Russian Initiative is only an attempt on its part to make things ‘complicated’ for a peace process that must be ‘Afghan-led & Afghan owned.’ This is not only ironic given that the West, specifically the US, has failed to end the war in the 17 years, but also factually wrong since Moscow Initiative doesn’t contradict the idea of an ‘Afghan-led’ peace process.
After the meeting, the Taliban said they were only willing to hold direct talks with the US government and not the Afghan government or the High Peace Council. The Taliban also stuck to their previous demand of a full US withdrawal as a prerequisite to any substantial peace talks on Afghanistan. However, according to the TASS News Agency, the Russian Foreign Ministry reported that the Taliban were willing to talk to the Afghan government only after agreeing on a timetable for US pull-out. “They (Taliban) have outlined their plan of action in detail. (They) said they will be ready to hold talks with the Afghan government only after fixing a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan with the US,” ZamirKabulov, Kremlin’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan, told a press conference.
The US and its allies have always viewed Moscow’s peace efforts with suspicion, however, the meeting saw an about-turn from Washington as it sent its representation to such a Moscow-backed initiative for the first time. Therefore, bringing the US in the same room with the Taliban representatives was seen as a huge diplomatic success for Russia. Moreover, BBC’s DawoodAzmi believes that “the Moscow meeting highlights Russia’s return to the diplomatic forefront in Afghan affairs”. According to him, despite various reservations, especially from Washington and Kabul, all 11 countries invited to the meeting have participated in some way, making the event a success.
Even though the meeting did not result in a major breakthrough, peace efforts in Afghanistan have accelerated in recent months. Moreover, the Taliban – claiming to control 70% of Afghanistan according to a BBC report – have also shown some intent on talking peace. Taliban’s Qatar office has also held secret meetings with a senior US diplomat in July and last month. On the other hand, Pakistan is also facilitating both the US and the Afghan governments in the peace process. It was confirmed by Islamabad that Mullah Abdul GhaniBaradar, a senior Taliban leader, was freed from jail at the request of the US. “He was released to provide impetus to the peace and reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan”, Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman said. One of the major geopolitical shifts in the Afghan War has been underlined by Russia’s active involvement in the Afghan peace process, especially its direct contact with the Taliban. Hence, this involvement has naturally raised many eyebrows, especially in Washington. However, Moscow argues that its involvement stems from its own security concerns and the US failure in Afghanistan.
It is mentionable here that the US efforts to involve the Taliban in the negotiations have not been successful so far. Former US Ambassador to Afghanistan and Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation ZalmayKhalilzad has held meetings with the Taliban in Qatar, but to no avail. The US is not happy with the “Moscow format” talks on Afghanistan, especially with the Taliban present, but nothing can be done about it — Moscow is spearheading the Afghan peace process. Russia was the first to get the Afghan delegates and the Taliban into the same room and at the same round table, with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov seated between them.Consequentially, Russian envoy ZamirKabulov says, “Afghanistan is close to our underbelly so national interests of Russia and its allies are at stake. We can’t just sit back and watch impassively what’s going on, and we have let the U.S. know that it doesn’t appear to be successful in settlement efforts”.
The Russian government, according to Kabulov, also believes that the US and NATO presence in Afghanistan has exacerbated the problem, rather than solving it. Kabulov also says that the US is reluctant to accept its failures in Afghanistan and its further use of force would only lead to thousands more victims along with ravaging the country. Kabulov says that he is also hoping to hold direct talks with ZalmayKhalilzad later this year.
Russia has quietly invited a group of senior Afghan politicians to talks with the Taliban in Moscow, bypassing President Ashraf Ghani’s government that has angered officials in Kabul who say it could muddle the U.S. backed peace process. Although the Kabul government did not officially participate in the talks, the presence of members of the High Peace Council, which oversees peace efforts and individual Afghan leaders, was highly significant. The US, too, had sent observers.
The conference may not have broken the stalemate but certainly melted some ice. It was, indeed, a diplomatic triumph for the Afghan Taliban.Surely, the ‘Moscow format’ cannot be seen as a parallel peace move; it aims mainly at building greater regional understanding on the issue. This initiative signifies a certain shift in the Russian policy, beyond merely reactive patterns, to adopt the role of a more proactive player in Afghanistan and in the region. The regionalization of Russia’s policy on Afghanistan is dictated by shifting power dynamics in the area. It is significant to mention that the US has been in the region since last 17 years and failed to establish peace in Afghanistan.
As we have seen that a single fixed formula prescribed by one foreign power has not worked since more than a decade. Moreover, the Kremlin worries that violence could spill over into Central Asia from Afghanistan, which is not good for entire region and can have serious implication for Russia. Senior Taliban members in Afghanistan said they would send a delegation to Moscow, as it would give them an opportunity to engage with neighboring countries including China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
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