Afghan conundrum

Russia’s shot at peace-making

Two months after its initial attempt at peace-making was rebuffed by various parties, Russia was at it again – trying to bring parties to the conflict in Afghanistan around a table to kick-start a peace process which has been moving directionless for years now. This was an attempt by Russia to showcase its regional power and to deftly take the centre stage away from the US in a country where almost 30 years back it had to end its occupation in sheer humiliation.

Last week’s conference in Moscow was attended by delegations from 12 countries as well as the Afghan Taliban and for Russia, it was an attempt to “make a conducive environment to promote a direct dialogue between the government, the Taliban, and wider representatives of other social and political circles of the country.”

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov underlined that the participation of both Afghan leaders and the Taliban was an “important contribution” aimed at creating “favourable conditions for the start of direct talks.” He was also categorical about Russian interests when he highlighted the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in Afghanistan, saying that it has relied on foreign sponsors in a bid to “turn Afghanistan into a springboard for its expansion in Central Asia.”

A previous attempt by Moscow to host Afghan peace talks had failed in September after the Afghan government objected, arguing that any such move should be Afghan-led. Washington had also declined to attend and even India had made its objections known to Russia. This time, however, Kabul’s stand was less vociferous and the United States embassy in Moscow sent a representative to observe the discussions. India also decided to participate at an unofficial level.

While the Afghan government was not represented at the diplomatic level, members of the government-appointed High Peace Council (HPC) participated in the conference.

There has been a flurry of activity on the Afghan front in recent weeks with the newly appointed US special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, holding talks with the Taliban in Qatar a few weeks back. He will be engaged with a range of key players including Pakistan, United Arab Emirates and Qatar this month trying to assess the feasibility of some kind of a political resolution to the 17-year-long war in Afghanistan. Reports of some nascent Russia-America coordination in this regard have also been floating around.

Though Moscow can claim that holding the conference itself is an achievement, nothing substantive came out of the conference as was widely expected. Fundamental differences continue to mar the process. Though there were some suggestions that President Ashraf Ghani was sending a delegation of the High Peace Council to the meeting, an Afghan foreign office statement underscored that the government has “not sent any representative to the Moscow meeting.” The High Peace Council, according to the Afghan foreign office, was participating “in its own capacity as a national but non-government institution.”

The Taliban, for its part, made it clear that its representatives would not negotiate with the Afghan delegation. It used the invite to the conference to showcase its widening global acceptance.

As per the statement that was issued by the Taliban: “With participation in the meeting, the international status of the Islamic Emirate will be strengthened even further.” They also repeated their central demand of speaking directly to the US government in line with their lack of recognition of the government in Kabul as legitimate. The Taliban’s envoy, Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, reinforced the central challenge in such talks when he suggested that “considering our main demand is the withdrawal of foreign troops, we will discuss peaceful settlement with the Americans.”

Given these fundamental divergences and the rapidly evolving ground realities in Afghanistan, it is imperative for India to be diplomatically nimble in its approach. New Delhi’s standard policy so far has been that any peace talks should be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled and with the participation of the government of Afghanistan. But this policy will have to be recalibrated in accordance with the changing regional and global power dynamic.

It is part of this reassessment that saw India participating last week in the multilateral conference in Moscow despite its aversion to any engagement with the Taliban. This was the first time when India was seated at the same table as the Taliban at a multilateral forum since 1999, though the participation from New Delhi was at a ‘non-official’ level of two retired diplomats.

In opening remarks at the conference, Lavrov said, “No one should think in terms of geopolitical games that may result in another transformation of Afghanistan into a field for competition between external players with drastic consequences both for the Afghans and their neighbours.” This is easier said than done as it is precisely this geopolitical mindset that continues to make it difficult for regional powers to give space to Afghanistan to emerge as a stable and secure nation-state.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King’s College, London)

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