IN an environment in which the Afghan Taliban seem to be in the ascendant in heir insurgency against the Afghan and US forces, a gathering of desperate Afghan groups took place in Moscow. The Russian initiative known as the “Moscow Format”, is seen as a significant move to find a regional solution to the prolonged Afghan War. The initiative of a former power that started the Afghan crises in the first place by invading Afghanistan, now hosting old enemies to find durable peace to the Afghan conflict is indeed remarkable.
The Moscow Summit took place in spite of strong reservations from both Kabul and Washington. In spite of these reservations 11 countries were represented in the summit. For the first time. Afghan Taliban were invited to the format, where they shared the stage with the delegates of the Afghan High Peace Council. The Afghan government did not participate directly in these talks. The presence of the delegates belonging to the Afghan High Peace Council, which oversees peace efforts, was highly significant. Observers were also sent by the U.S. Government. The conference certainly did not resolve all the complex questions of the prolonged conflict, but it did provide an important diplomatic forum to the Afghan Taliban.
Russia has become more actively involved in the Afghan conflict during the course of the last few years. In this regard, Russia has held consultation with regional countries including China, Pakistan, Iran and India. For some strange reason, Afghanistan was kept out of the first two meetings, raising skepticism about the whole process. The main reason for the Russian initiative on the Afghan conflict seemed to be its growing concern regarding the spillover effect of the conflict in the region. Russia also wanted to assert its diplomatic power, amidst growing frustration over the US inability to deliver peace to Afghanistan in over seventeen years.
Another reason for Russian anxiety has been the growing power of the Islamic State (IS). Russia’s efforts are aimed at forming regional alliance against the growing power of IS not only in Afghanistan but the region as well. The Russian initiatives could, however, not make much headway in the absence of main parties to the conflict in the previous parlays. The latest Moscow Summit seems to have a greater impact in the presence of Afghan Taliban and some other important Afghan leaders. Pakistan shares Moscow’s legitimate concerns and sees hope in the new regional format to persuade the Afghan Taliban to come to the negotiating table. Participation of the Afghan Taliban in the Moscow meeting has certainly strengthened the position of the Afghan Taliban and given it greater international recognition. As the Afghan Taliban position on the battle field has strengthened, its flexibility at negotiation seems to have lessened.
It is interesting to note that the Russian initiative has come at a time, when the Trump Administration has agreed to hold direct talks with the Afghan Taliban. This has been a sharp departure from US. previous position, that it wanted the Afghan Taliban to hold negotiations only with the Afghan government’s. In fact, there have already been two rounds of talks between senior US officials and Afghan Taliban. During these two rounds of talks, however, no breakthrough has been achieved between the two sides, to pave the way for holding structured peace talks between the two sides.
The Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in principle agreed to direct talks between Afghanistan Taliban and the US. The Afghan officials were however, angry that they were not informed about the latest round of talks between the Taliban and the US Zalmay Khalilzad a veteran American diplomat of Afghan origin was appointed as Special American Envoy for Afghanistan, with the main task of bringing the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table. It is important to note that the Afghan insurgents have refused to talk directly to the Afghan Taliban. The Afghan Taliban have also demanded the lifting of UN travel restrictions on their leaders. In conclusion it can be said; that the Moscow Summit has delivered some positive results by bringing the Afghan Taliban’s together with certain Afghan leaders, and leadership of regional countries. But it appears to be clear that no durable settlement of the Afghan crises can be found without American support. The decision of the US to hold direct talks with the Afghan Taliban is certainly an important first step, but a lot more in the way of a structural dialogue between the two sides needs to be done.
—The writer is author, senior journalist and entrepreneur based in Islamabad.