Russia has finally become involved in a major peace initiative concerning Afghanistan, but its effort could fail like the previous such undertakings by other peacemakers if all major and regional powers aren’t taken on board.
Besides, the two main stakeholders — the internationally-recognised Afghan government and the armed Taliban group — would have to be brought to the negotiations table in the hope that they would become part of a peace process to be guaranteed by outside powers.
Already, disagreements have emerged as the US has opted to stay away from the forthcoming peace conference on Afghanistan being hosted by Russia in Moscow on April 14. Though the US has yet to formally announce its boycott of the 12-nation conference, there are clear indications that the Americans won’t be attending the event.
The leaks provided to the media in the US increasingly point to such an eventuality. The US state department sources have been telling the media that Washington won’t attend the conference because it wasn’t consulted before Russia sent the invitation. Also, a state department official requesting anonymity argued that the US didn’t know Russia’s objectives for the gathering in Moscow. However, the official kept the door open for future joint efforts to end the 16-year-old war in Afghanistan by pointing out that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would discuss the issue during his visit to Russia in April.
One cannot hope to achieve a breakthrough in any conference aimed at ending the Afghan conflict in the absence of the US, which as the principal backer of the government in Kabul has a central role in decision-making about Afghanistan’s future. It is obvious the US won’t like Russia to take the leading role in peacemaking in Afghanistan, more so after losing ground to it in the Middle East, particularly in Syria where Russian airstrikes prevented the fall of the beleaguered regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and enabled it to become an important player in the region.
Years ago, the erstwhile Soviet Union enjoyed such a role in the Middle East before it collapsed, and Russia took a back seat — until Vladimir Putin began to revive its power and prestige.
Russia’s entry into the minefield of Afghan peacemaking is calculated and focused. It began by hosting a trilateral meeting in Moscow last December in which China and Pakistan, along with Russia, tried to align their Afghan policies with each other and came up with the significant demand that UN Security Council sanctions on the Taliban leaders be lifted to enable them to join the peace process.
It was the first time that such a demand was made, and that too by two world powers.
The next Moscow meeting in February was expanded as three more countries — Afghanistan, Iran and India — were invited by Russia to join the discussions on Afghan reconciliation and restoration of peace. Russia had an excuse to keep the western countries, particularly the US, out of the two Moscow conferences as it had billed its initiative as regional. Having come thus far, though not without getting bruised as Afghanistan was critical of Russia for not inviting it to the first such conference in December 2016, President Vladimir Putin government’s next move was to further expand the scope of the April 14 meeting.
After speculations earlier that Afghanistan may not attend the April 14 meeting in Moscow, the Afghan government announced that it would attend, adding that nobody could hold a meeting on Afghanistan without Kabul’s participation. It was felt Afghanistan could follow in the footsteps of the US, and stay away from the Russia-sponsored meeting. However, Afghanistan could not have boycotted the Moscow meeting after having earlier expressed anger that it was deliberately kept out of the trilateral talks involving Russia, China and Pakistan last December in the Russian capital.
It is obvious the Russian peace initiative has caught the US off-guard. The Chinese support for Russia’s move won’t have surprised the US, but Pakistan’s eager participation in the Moscow meetings would surely have upset Washington. It is possible the US would propose revival of the four-country Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) to work for peace in Afghanistan to counter the Russian initiative. The QCG has Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the US as members and both Russia and Iran, no friends of the Americans, aren’t part of it. Though the QCG tried and failed for more than a year to revive the Afghan peace process due to the refusal of the Afghan Taliban to hold direct talks with the Afghan government, it hasn’t been disbanded yet.
Both China and Pakistan are keen to use the QCG platform to facilitate peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban while Afghanistan, reluctant at this stage, could be persuaded by the US to give it another try.
The British too have launched their own peace track by mediating between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and hosting the meeting of Sartaj Aziz, National Security Advisor to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and his Afghan counterpart, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, in London in March. It is possible the US encouraged the UK to play such a role not only to counter the Russian move, but also keep things in the Af-Pak region under western control.
Former British Prime Minister David Cameron too had hosted summit meetings between Afghan and Pakistani leaders in the UK, but no real headway could be made in reducing trust deficit between Islamabad and Kabul, or undertaking a credible peace process to end the Afghan conflict.
The London meeting was the first high-level contact between Afghan and Pakistani officials in almost a year, and it helped defuse the tension on the Pak-Afghan border, and reportedly led to an ‘understanding’ that the two sides would engage at multiple political and military levels.
Soon after the London meeting, Pakistan reopened its border with Afghanistan after 32 days of closure in response to the latter’s demand. Though the Afghan government didn’t address Pakistan’s concern as wished by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif while announcing reopening of the border and attacks by Afghanistan-based Pakistani militants in the country continued, the tension was reduced and movement of people and goods across the Durand Line resumed.
The subsequent ‘hotline’ contact between field commanders, Corps Commander Quetta Lt Gen Aamir Riaz and his Afghan counterpart in Kandahar, General Daud Shah, was another dividend of the London meeting.
It remains to be seen if this process would move forward as other points agreed as part of the ‘understanding’ at London would have to be gradually implemented to bridge the Islamabad-Kabul distrust, and improve cooperation to jointly tackle terrorism.
It is too early to say that the Russian peace initiative and the British mediation would achieve anything substantial. The Russian move aims at creating the right conditions for peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban while the British are focusing at this stage on improving Islamabad-Kabul relations. Russia on its own cannot do much as it has no forces in Afghanistan, and lacks the kind of influence that the US enjoys in Kabul, Islamabad and elsewhere.
However, it managed to bring together six regional countries at the Moscow meeting in February, and would gather about 12 states on April 14 with the aim to make Afghanistan peaceful and stable. If nothing else, Russia has forced the US and its allies like the UK to initiate serious measures to find a peaceful rather than a military solution of the Afghan conflict.