The gathering in Moscow of disparate Afghan groups and regional players last week is indicative of the shifting sands of regional geopolitics. Described as the ‘Moscow format’, the Russian initiative is seen as a significant move to finding a regional solution to the protracted Afghan war. The spectacle of a former invading power hosting old foes was, indeed, remarkable.
Despite the strong reservations of Kabul and Washington on the format, 11 countries were represented in the talks. It was the first time that the Afghan Taliban were invited to an international forum. More significant was the fact that the insurgents shared the platform with Afghan delegates.
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 regionalisation of Russia’s policy on Afghanistan is dictated by shifting power dynamics in the area.
Although it was the first time Moscow had officially invited the Afghan Taliban, the two sides had already established contact earlier. There have been some reports of Russia providing financial and material support to the Afghan insurgents. That has caused serious concerns in Kabul and Washington. The meeting was initially planned for August, but was postponed at the insistence of the Kabul government.
Russia has become more actively involved in Afghan affairs in the past few years. Moscow has held a series of consultations with regional countries including China, Pakistan, Iran and India. Curiously, Afghanistan was kept out of the first two meetings evoking scepticism about the process going anywhere. The last such meeting took place in 2017. The underlying reason for the initiative was the growing concern regarding the spill over effect of the Afghan crisis in the region. The move was also a manifestation of Russia’s assertion of its diplomatic power amidst growing frustration over the US failure to deliver peace in Afghanistan.
Another cause of anxiety has been the threat of the militant Islamic State group spreading its tentacles in the war-torn country. The Russian initiative to build a regional alliance to counter the IS threat points to a new alignment of forces in a changing geopolitical landscape. But those parleys could not make much headway in the absence of the main parties to the conflict. The latest ‘Moscow format’, however, seems to have had greater impact with the participation of the Taliban and some important Afghan leaders.
Pakistan shares Moscow’s concerns and sees some hope of the new regional format being in a better position to persuade the Afghan Taliban to come to the negotiating table. But it will not be so easy given the complexities involving the problem. The participation in the Moscow meeting has certainly strengthened the Taliban’s position and provided it with greater international recognition.
As the Taliban have vastly strengthened their hand in the battlefield in recent years, there seems to be no flexibility in its position. In a statement, the insurgent group said that the participation in the Moscow meeting was not about holding negotiations ‘with any side’.
Interestingly, the Russian initiative came as the Trump administration agreed to hold direct negotiations with the Taliban. It marked a shift from the long-standing US position that any peace negotiations should be led by the Kabul government. There have already been two rounds of talks between senior US officials and representatives of the Taliban. But no significant breakthrough has been achieved that could pave the way for structured peace talks.
Although Afghan president Ashraf Ghani in principle had endorsed direct talks between the US and the Taliban, he was reportedly not informed about the latest meeting, causing anger among Afghan government officials.
A veteran US diplomat of Afghan origin, Zalmay Khalilzad, was appointed as special American envoy on Afghanistan three months ago with a mandate to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. As a former ambassador to Afghanistan, he feels he is the right man for the job largely because of his ethnicity. No public statement has been issued by Washington following last month’s talks in Doha. However, a Taliban communiqué said that the meeting focused on ending the occupation and working towards finding a peaceful solution to the Afghan conflict.
The insurgents have refused to back down from their hard-line stance of not talking to the Kabul government. They have also demanded the lifting of UN travel sanctions on Taliban leaders including the five who were freed from Guantanamo in 2014. The Taliban’s position has further hardened with their success on the battlefield.
Meanwhile, it has been pointed out that the assassination of Gen Abdul Raziq, the dreaded police chief of Kandahar, and two other top officials may cast a shadow over the future round of talks between the US and Taliban representatives. The audacious attack on a security conference — also attended by America’s top military commander — came days after Khalilzad met senior Taliban leaders in Doha. The Taliban, while claiming responsibility for the attack, said that they had intended to target Gen Scott Miller, the commander of US and Nato troops in Afghanistan.
However, there is no indication that Gen Raziq’s assassination will cause any change in the US administration’s policy to engage with the Taliban
While the Moscow meeting has delivered some positive results by bringing together the Taliban representatives, Afghan leaders and regional countries, no political settlement of the Afghan crisis is possible without US support. The American decision to hold direct talks with the Taliban is certainly a step forward, but there is still no plan that could lead to a set of structured negotiations.