On November 9, 2018, Russia hosted talks on Afghanistan in Moscow which were attended by opposing Afghan factions – representatives of the Taliban from their office in Qatar – and the Afghan High Peace Council members with the blessings of the Afghan government. Delegations from eleven other countries, including regional powers, Pakistan, China and Iran as well as informal presence of the Americans and Indians were also in attendance. While this meeting was more of a photo opportunity than a substantive dialogue, it marked the first formal gathering in a public form by opposing Afghan sides as well as the major stakeholders in the evolving new great game being played out in Afghanistan. The Moscow meeting was, therefore, significant in that it not only set the stage for a possible future multilateral process to end the continuing conflict in Afghanistan but also marked the formal entry by Russia into the latest phase of the Great Game.
Historical Context of the New Great Game
Since the late 19th century the major world powers have competed for influence in the Asian heartland of Central and South Asia. This “Great Game”, as it came to be known, was initiated between the Russian and British Empires, both of whom tried to gain control over the pivotal land between their respective areas of influence – Afghanistan – as the key to controlling the entire region. Following Britain’s three largely unsuccessful “Afghan Wars” and the collapse of the Czarist monarchy in Russia, which was replaced by the Communist-ruled USSR, the two sides agreed to recognize Afghanistan as a “buffer” State between them, leading to a pause in this Great Game.
Pakistan inherited the British legacy after independence in 1947, especially the Durand Line border, separating the Pashtun tribes, which emerged as a source of tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The USSR seized the opportunity to extend its influence in the region by supporting the irredentist Afghan claims to Pakistani territory while also supporting India – which had its own disputes with Pakistan such as over Jammu and Kashmir – to support the Afghans against Pakistan. This put Pakistan in the crosshairs of hostile forces on both its western and eastern borders, a challenge that still persists.
The 1978 Communist coup in Afghanistan provided Moscow a great opportunity to consolidate its influence in the country and beyond. However, popular opposition to the Communist regime in Kabul triggered Moscow’s military intervention in December 1979, in the process starting the next phase of the Great Game.
The Soviet leaders believed that their Afghan operation would be brief. They did not foresee the determination of the Afghan Mujahideen to fight back with Pakistan’s support and the backing of the U.S. and other Western countries as well as China. For Pakistan, the Soviet occupation threatened its security whereas for the Americans it was an ideal opportunity to discredit and bleed the Soviets. The Afghan invasion proved to be a major drain on the Soviet Union, politically, economically and militarily. Eventually, after 10 years of fighting, the Soviet leadership under Gorbachev decided to cut their losses and withdraw.
But Moscow’s Afghan misadventure had far-reaching implications for the USSR; precipitating major upheavals in the Soviet bloc, leading to the overthrow of Soviet-sponsored Communist rule in Eastern Europe and eventually the collapse of the USSR itself by 1991. This marked the end of yet another chapter of the Great Game.
Unfortunately, Afghanistan’s misfortunes did not come to an end with the Soviet withdrawal. A decade of civil war ensued, complicated by ethnic and religious divisions between Afghans, as well as efforts by regional powers, such as Pakistan, Iran and India, to safeguard and promote their regional interests. To make matters worse, the U.S. and the entire West, after having achieved their strategic purpose of defeating the USSR, promptly abandoned Afghanistan to its fate.
From this chaos emerged the Taliban – a group of battle-hardened students who tried to restore order in their country. But, after the Taliban succeeded to gain control over most of Afghanistan, they ushered in a harsh system of governance that drew domestic and international criticism, denying them the legitimacy that they sought. Added to this was their refusal to act against the “Arab” fighters who had fought against the Soviets and thereafter founded Al-Qaeda which resorted to terrorism against western and especially American targets. Afghanistan thus became a pariah State.
Throughout this phase, Russia, with no allies left in Afghanistan, operated from the sidelines to protect its interests in Central Asia which they feared would be threatened by “Islamic” extremism and terrorism emanating from Afghanistan. Working through India and Iran, Russia supported the Tajik and Uzbek Northern Alliance even though, throughout the 1990s, the Pashtun Taliban made overtures to Moscow to seek its recognition.
The terrorist attacks in the U.S. on September 11, 2001, which were ascribed to the Afghan based Al-Qaeda, led to the American intervention in Afghanistan, again changing the regional geo-political dynamics and beginning a new chapter of the Great Game. As the U.S. and NATO forces quickly overthrew the Taliban government, whose leaders alongwith al-Qaeda forces, spread into the Afghan countryside and over the porous border into Pakistan, Russia was left with little choice but to accept this strategic transformation. It decided to support the American “War on Terror” but remained alarmed over the U.S. military presence in its Central Asian “soft underbelly”.
Initially the U.S. was able to stabilize Afghanistan with Pakistan’s help to greatly weaken Al-Qaeda. But over time, due to a series of missteps including refusal to recognize the political reality of the resurgent Taliban, the Americans began to lose their grip over Afghanistan. Now, after 17 years of fighting, the U.S. has finally come to accept the need for direct talks with the Taliban in order to find a negotiated end to their Afghan quagmire.
Search for Peace in Afghanistan
After almost 40 years of continuous warfare, the search for durable peace in Afghanistan faces numerous obstacles. The American supported National Unity Government (NUG) is beset with corruption, mismanagement and dissension, especially between factions supporting President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. The Afghan security forces, though supported by the U.S., are incapable of overcoming the Taliban, who now control almost 45-50 percent of the country and are steadily expanding their hold. Moreover, IS (Islamic State or Daesh) terrorists have also established their presence in ungoverned areas of Afghanistan in the north, south and east.
Having gained the upper hand, the Taliban have rejected the NUG’s offer of “unconditional” talks, describing the government as “American puppets”. They are only willing to talk to the Americans directly without any participation by the NUG. This is unacceptable to the rulers in Kabul and the Americans are finding it difficult to ignore the NUG while engaging directly with the Taliban.
The recently appointed U.S. Special Envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, has started the dialogue process with the Taliban which Pakistan has facilitated. However, some of the Taliban’s conditions for a settlement are difficult for the Trump administration to accept. Apart from the demand to keep the NUG out from the talks, the Taliban are demanding complete withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan and a change in the existing Afghan constitution. While Washington may find a way to engage directly with the Taliban and even accept changes in the constitution, complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, including their military bases, may prove to be unacceptable. The U.S. considers such a presence necessary to ensure that Afghanistan does not once again become a safe haven for terrorists, while the unstated aim is to keep a watch over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and to contain Iran.
Russia, alongwith Pakistan, Iran and China, supports a Taliban-American dialogue to end the Afghan war and focus on dealing with IS terrorists in the country as well as to resolve the problem of drugs production and ensure return of Afghan refugees from Pakistan and Iran. The Central Asian States on Afghanistan’s borders also support such a dialogue.
However, India and the NUG remain opposed to any American settlement with the Taliban. From New Delhi’s perspective such a development would bring Pakistan’s alleged allies, the Taliban, to power, thereby easing Islamabad’s security concerns on its western borders. For the NUG, this would simply mean giving up or atleast sharing power with the Taliban.
Russia’s Return to the Great Game
Since the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 and, especially following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Moscow has remained concerned about developments in Afghanistan but until recently lacked the capacity to influence developments there.
But the Russian retreat from its role as a global power under weak leaderships of Gorbachev and Yeltsin created a backlash within the country, providing the opportunity for a strong leader like Putin to reverse this trend and reassert Russian power on the world stage. Starting with the pushback in Georgia and Ukraine to protect Russian interests, Putin also challenged the U.S. and its allies in Syria. In line with this Russian resurgence, Putin has now also stepped up to play a more proactive role in Afghanistan to protect Russian interests, especially in Central Asia. By doing so, Russia has once again entered the Great Game.
From Moscow’s perspective, seventeen years of military operations by America has failed to bring peace to Afghanistan. Moreover, over the past few years, IS has established a presence in the country with local support and infiltration by IS fighters from Iraq and Syria. Indian and Afghanistan supported TTP as well as terrorist groups from Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan operating from Afghan territory, in collaboration with IS. Meanwhile, in vast areas of the country poppy cultivation is flourishing, which fuels narco-terrorism throughout the region, including Russia.
Therefore, the Russian Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, stated recently that “The West has lost the war in Afghanistan, and it’s reluctant to acknowledge that obvious fact”. He added that “if they continue to rely on force, it would only lead to thousands more victims and further ravage the country”. As such, according to Kabulov, “the presence of the U.S. and NATO hasn’t only failed to solve the problem but exacerbated it”. Underscoring the Russian concern over the Afghan situation, Kabulov added that “continuing fighting in Afghanistan threatens the interests of Russia and its allies in Central Asia” since “Afghanistan is close to our underbelly”. Moreover, he noted that “regional powers, including Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran have a strong interest in ending the conflict and should play a more active role”.
From the foregoing, it is clear that Russia’s reassertion of its role in Afghanistan is driven by five interlocking objectives: i) ensuring revival of Russia’s role as a global power by promoting solutions to intractable issues such as Syria and Afghanistan; ii) playing an active role in the larger Central Asian region to protect its interests in the new great game; iii) addressing the legitimate security concerns of Russia and its Central Asian partners threatened by terrorist induced instability in Afghanistan; iv) promoting a political settlement in Afghanistan to stabilize the country in order to overcome the threats posed by terrorism and the drug trade; and, v) to ensure the eventual withdrawal of the American presence from Russia’s sensitive southern neighbourhood. To achieve these objectives, Russia has been willing to reverse its earlier aversion to the Taliban which it demonstrated in the 1990s and has increasingly engaged with the Taliban, who are now recognized as a legitimate Afghan political entity, central to any settlement in Afghanistan. According to some American reports, Russia has even gone to the extent of arming the Taliban which is, however, denied by Moscow.
Russia has also sought to engage with regional powers to promote its objectives, seeking common ground for a negotiated solution in Afghanistan with Pakistan, Iran and China, which have supported the Russian initiative. However, the Russians do face implicit if not explicit resistance from the Kabul government itself, India and the U.S. The Afghan government views any deal with the Taliban, whether brokered by Russia or the U.S., as leading to its own demise. India views the Taliban as close to Pakistan and hence their role in a future Afghan government as a gain for Islamabad. For the U.S., any initiative by Russia undercuts their own belated efforts to start a dialogue with the Taliban alongwith an uncertain outcome from the perspective of American interests. But the Russians realize that participation by the Afghan government and the Americans in their efforts would be the key for success. Alternatively, the U.S. also realizes that the Russian initiative puts pressure on them to either achieve results in their own process for a settlement or to engage with the Russian enterprise.
The Moscow Talks
Russia’s role as peacemaker in Afghanistan started in earnest in December 2016 when Moscow hosted a meeting on Afghanistan with the participation of Pakistan and China, while also establishing direct contacts with the Taliban. In February 2017, the talks were expanded to include Iran and India and in September 2017, the Central Asian States were also included in the process. The most important follow up meeting was scheduled for September 4, 2018 in which the Taliban readily agreed to participate as a first step towards gaining international legitimacy. However, the Afghan government refused to attend at first and then asked that the meeting be postponed after President Ghani personally spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. This angered the Taliban who conveyed to Moscow that if it did not coordinate such changes with them, they would not attend the next meeting. After several efforts to placate the Taliban, Russia prepared the ground for the key session on November 9, 2018.
Russia was realistic enough to recognize beforehand that this meeting would not lead to any substantive results. But the meeting was still more than a photo opportunity. The Taliban were represented by their Qatar based office including a 5-member delegation that comprised the main ethnic Afghan groups: Pashtuns, Tajiks and Uzbeks. While the Afghan government did not send an “official” delegation, it was represented by members of the Afghan Peace Council, a quasi-official group endorsed by the government. Indian participated through their former diplomats while the U.S. sent an officer from their Moscow Embassy. Other countries, including Pakistan, participated at the senior official level.
Foreign Minister Lavrov stated that “Russia stands for preserving the one and undivided Afghanistan, in which all of the ethnic groups that inhabit the country would live side by side peacefully and happily”. He added that “Russia, as the organizer of this session, sees its role in working together with Afghanistan’s regional partners and friends who have gathered at this table today extend all possible assistance to facilitate the start of a constructive intra-Afghan dialogue”.
The Taliban representative, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, underscored that the cause of the Afghan problem was “foreign intervention and interference” and called for the “withdrawal of U.S. and foreign troops”, terming the U.S. presence as “illegal”. He stated that the Taliban were ready for talks with the U.S. but not with the Kabul government which he claimed was “illegitimate”. Stanekzai also called for an “Afghan process” to find a political solution for which the Taliban should be recognized as a legitimate political stakeholder in the country, and as such, sanctions against the Taliban should be withdrawn. He also extended the assurance that the Taliban had no agenda beyond Afghanistan’s borders and that they would not allow Afghan territory to be used against any other country.
As expected, the Afghan Peace Council representative called for direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government and endorsed the need for an intra-Afghan dialogue for a political settlement.
The format of the Moscow talks involved short formal statements by participating delegations seated at a round table followed by informal exchanges. There was no official outcome document or joint statement at the conclusion of the talks. The only general agreement was to continue with the Russian sponsored process.
While critics would describe the Moscow talks as a non-event or at best a photo opportunity, the fact remains that the event marks the beginning of a process initiated by Russia that is supported by the major regional states. It also represents a forum where the Taliban and the Afghan government’s chosen “unofficial” representatives from the Peace Council are able to engage. Over time, the Russian objective would be to convince the Afghan government to participate directly.
Once there is traction in this process, the NUG government would recognize the merit of engaging in such an initiative. Given the uncertainties of the U.S.-Taliban dialogue in which the Afghan government is practically excluded in any case, the advantage of doing so would not be lost on President Ghani.
The U.S., of course, will remain a major player in this as in any other effort for a political solution in Afghanistan. The American Special Envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, has so far been “cautiously optimistic” about the U.S.-Taliban talks, even claiming a positive outcome by mid-2019. However, there remain major obstacles, not least over the future of American presence in Afghanistan which is strongly opposed by the Taliban. Even so, the competing Moscow process would continue to be an incentive to ensure success of the U.S.-Taliban dialogue. Not willing to be seen as spoilers, Russian has also claimed that their initiative is meant to compliment the American effort.
Any process that brings Pakistan’s perceived friends, the Taliban, to power would continue to be opposed by India. However, given the American decision, to engage with the Taliban as well as the clear Russian objective of involving the Taliban in their own initiative, the options for India are either to openly oppose any peace process or to reluctantly go alongwith such a process, perhaps working behind the scenes to scuttle it. They seem to have opted for the second option.
Both Iran and China will continue to support Russia’s efforts as they both share concerns over terrorism and drugs emanating from Afghanistan as well as over the U.S. military presence in their neighbourhood.
For Pakistan, which has for over a decade advocated a political process involving the Taliban to end the Afghan war, the Russian initiative is a positive development as is the American dialogue with the Taliban. As the country most affected by instability in Afghanistan, Pakistan has a vested strategic interest in a peaceful Afghanistan that would secure its western borders, end terrorism from the Afghan soil and ensure return of three million Afghan refugees.
It remains to be seen whether the efforts for a return to peace and stability in Afghanistan will succeed. What is clear, however, is that Russia is back in the Great Game which, as in the past, pivots on the outcome of the situation in Afghanistan.
The writer is a former Ambassador of Pakistan.
E-mail: [email protected]
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