Russia strives to end Afghanistan conflict with olive branch to Taliban, but faces roadblocks of cold US response, unreliable Pakistan

Almost three decades after Moscow’s disgraceful exit from Afghanistan, Russia has been stepping up its efforts to resolve the seemingly intractable Afghan conflict. Russia’s foreign ministry must be elated that the Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani has eventually relented to send a group of senior Afghan politicians to peace talks scheduled to be held in Moscow on 9 November. A delegation from the Taliban’s political office in Doha will also be in attendance in the high-profile meeting in which India and the United States have been invited, besides China, Iran and Pakistan.

File image of Vladimir Putin. AP

File image of Vladimir Putin. AP

The Moscow talks underline the increasingly active role Russia seeks to play in Afghanistan. However, Russia needs to realise that long-term stability in Afghanistan cannot be ensured without forcing Pakistan’s security establishment to crack down on terrorism.

When the US with NATO allies moved into Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, Russian president Vladimir Putin solidly supported the Bush administration’s war against terrorism. Russia had also agreed to allow transit of cargoes, including heavy weaponry, to Afghanistan. But Putin’s frustration grew as the war went on without any visible success on the counterinsurgency front in Afghanistan. There were added concerns in Moscow when rumours began to circulate of America’s intention to set up permanent military bases in its strategic backyard.

Russia initiated a series of meetings in 2016 among countries neighbouring Afghanistan. The initiative is known as the Moscow Process. President Ghani was already sceptical of this initiative. And when the Afghan government was not invited in the first such meeting which was attended only by Russia, China, and Pakistan, it not only enraged the Ghani government but also raised alarm bells ringing in Kabul, Washington and New Delhi. In 2017, Afghanistan, India, and many Central Asian countries were invited for subsequent meetings. Though, the US refused to participate in any of the meetings which were viewed in Washington as an overlapping effort without any purpose and clarity.

Another meeting was planned in September this year in which Russia had invited the Afghan Taliban. But the Ghani government refused to attend on the grounds that talks with the Afghan Taliban should be led by the Afghan government. For Kabul, Moscow’s move undermined the ‘Afghan-led, Afghan-owned’ initiative and gave the Afghan Taliban new avenues of support, thus reducing their incentive to cut a deal with Kabul. Russia had no option but to postpone the meeting. However, despite widespread disagreements about the utility of Moscow-backed initiative, Russia is determined to continue with its own efforts on the Afghan front. However, transparency in these negotiations is essential.

Moscow’s contacts with the Taliban are not new. Russia has conceded that it has shared intelligence with the Taliban. With Russia’s growing profile in the Afghan theatre, there have been rumours of Moscow arming the Taliban. Irrespective of the veracity of these claims, Russia’s links with the Taliban have given the group a semblance of legitimacy. Russia has countered these allegations by blaming the US for the rise of Islamic State in Afghanistan.

Russia has also been in contact with some Afghan warlords. For instance, Atta Mohammad Noor, a former governor of Balkh province, is likely to attend the forthcoming meeting. Moscow’s main concerns in Afghanistan include securing Russia’s southern flank from the IS’ emergence in Central Asia, hedging against the possibility of an abrupt American exit from Afghanistan, and the flow of narcotics. Concerned with the expansion of the IS-Khorasan, Russia claims that its contacts with the Taliban are meant for the safety of its citizens present in Afghanistan. But this claim seems superfluous since Russia does not have a sizable footprint in Afghanistan.

The Afghan government wants the peace process to be ‘Afghan-led and Afghan-owned’, but has also shown a flexible attitude. It has cautiously supported attempts that may help kick-start peace process involving the Taliban. In February 2018, Ghani announced a landmark offer to recognise the Afghan Taliban as a political party in return for permanent peace. Another ceasefire was announced a few months later, which was also reciprocated by the Afghan Taliban. These efforts display the Ghani government’s realisation of the significance of creating a regional consensus on peace and bringing the Afghan Taliban into the political mainstream.

On the other hand, the US, which is struggling to reverse a prolonged Taliban resurgence, is running parallel negotiations under Zalmay Khalilzad, the new US Special Advisor for Afghanistan Reconciliation. Khalilzad has recently held direct talks with the Taliban’s political office in Doha while keeping the Ghani government in the loop regarding his engagement with the insurgent group.

However, parallel peace processes that seek different outcomes can be counterproductive. There has not been a breakthrough as far as US-Russia coordination on Afghanistan is concerned. The US has avoided the Moscow process, and understandably so. There is a feeling in Washington that Moscow’s intervention will only complicate the ongoing efforts to foster peace talks by reducing the Taliban’s incentive to cut a deal. Many Afghans seem worried that their country is again becoming a geopolitical battlefield between the US and Russia. This could take Afghanistan to a more dangerous level of conflict than the current one. The situation is already fragile. The Afghan government is struggling to recover control of districts lost to the Afghan Taliban while casualties among Afghan security forces have reached record levels.

At a time when US-Russia competition is heating up on several contentious issues, the resolution of the Afghan conflict could be an area where cooperation is possible. In Afghanistan, Russia’s security interests broadly align with American aims as there are immense possibilities of cooperation between Moscow and Washington. Instability in Afghanistan has provided an enabling environment for other terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda, IS-Khorasan, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Haqqani Network and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), to launch terrorist attacks across the region. But the failure of Russia and the US to come together to chart a course toward peace shows the degree to which Afghan issue continues to be held hostage to larger global tensions.

However, the biggest challenge in conflict resolution in Afghanistan has been Pakistan’s duplicitous policy. Pakistan remains the epicentre of global terrorism and violent extremism, as exemplified by recent violent protests by hard-line Islamist parties over the acquittal of a Christian woman – Asia Bibi – accused of blasphemy. Who knows it better than New Delhi and Kabul that each time Islamabad has inserted itself into the Afghan political process, it has been for subverting it. If the Moscow-driven peace process is exploited by Pakistan for helping the Taliban penetrate the Afghan governing institutions, a majority of the Afghan population will be at the mercy of Pakistan’s geopolitical manipulations. This outcome would be another cycle of warfare and chaos inside Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is an area where both India and Russia must cooperate. Working on a peace process while strengthening the Ghani government can surely provide an opportunity for Moscow to work closely with New Delhi for increasing its benign footprints in Afghanistan. Pakistan is no longer a key American partner in the region as the strategic interests of Washington and Islamabad continue to diverge in Afghanistan. With Pakistan’s security establishment refusing to change its dangerous Afghan policy, Rawalpindi keeps on expanding its cooperation with Russia and China. The new rapprochement between Russia and Pakistan, as reflected in the purchase of Russian military equipment by Pakistan as well as joint military exercises between Russia and Pakistan, threatens prospects of Afghan peace and reconciliation.

It is thus important for Moscow to clearly define what its ultimate aims in Afghanistan are. Moscow needs to consult India to formulate a carefully layered policy structure to contain the export of Islamist terrorism from Pakistan into Afghanistan, India and the nearby regions. Engaging with the Taliban is inevitable, but how the insurgent group should be engaged is the real question. If Moscow’s contacts with the Taliban can convince the latter to come at the negotiating table, Russia’s Afghan diplomacy needs to be encouraged. However, all such efforts must not undermine the legitimacy of the Afghan government.

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Updated Date: Nov 05, 2018 18:38:12 IST

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