Under two administrations, Obama and now Trump, the US has been struggling to end its campaign in Afghanistan and withdraw its troops. An enormous battlefield experience has given the Afghan Taliban an upper hand in the fight against US led forces. With no side prepared to give up, peace continues to elude the country after all these devastating years of conflict. For peace to prevail in the region, diplomatic efforts are essential. One such effort has been the recent ‘Moscow Format’ or Afghanistan Peace Conference in which Afghan Taliban participated and also India participated at non-official level.
Held in the first week of November in Russia and described as the ‘Moscow Format’, the Russian initiative was purportedly aimed at settling the Afghan conflict. The meeting represented Russia’s attempt to bring regional powers and the Taliban together for bringing peace in the war-torn country. Eleven countries participated in the meeting alongside the Taliban representatives and Afghan delegates. The Kabul government did not directly take part in the meeting.
It was a rare sight to see the Taliban leadership sharing the platform with the members of the High Peace Council of Afghanistan, which oversees peace efforts, and individual Afghan leaders. American observers were also present, not the American government officials. The conference is seen as significant because it has broken some ice though it has not broken the deadlock.
For Afghan Taliban, the invitation to the meeting was its diplomatic victory. For decades, the insurgent forces have been engaged in a fierce battle against the US forces and its allies. With no side gaining victory through war, each of them has expressed desire to hold talks to end the conflict. Many unsuccessful negotiations have been held.
Meanwhile, the long fight has toughened Taliban in their fight, making them a force to reckon with. General Austin Scott Miller, who was appointed as commander-in-chief of the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan in October 2018, stated that the Taliban (who control more than 60 percent of the Afghan territory) are invincible. The invitation to the international forum - the ‘Moscow Format’- has given the insurgent group an international recognition and strengthened its position.
Moreover, the meeting has echoed what Scott Miller observed that the Taliban cannot be defeated in the battlefield. General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of U.S. last week said about the Taliban during a discussion at a security forum in Canada: “They are not losing right now, I think that is fair to say.”
The Russian initiative indicated a shift in Moscow’s policy from being a reactive to a more proactive player in Afghanistan and the region. The shifting power equation in the region can be attributed to the policy shift. Russia wants a greater understanding of the Afghanistan issue, fearing the spillover of the conflict .The initiative points to a new alignment of forces in a changing geopolitical climate.
Recently, Moscow has proactively engaged herself in Afghanistan. The country has been having consultations with regional countries including Pakistan, China, India and Iran. The ‘Moscow Format’ is a fresh move towards discovering ways for resolving the Afghan conflict. The move also shows Russia displaying its diplomatic prowess. Forget about the previous parleys that failed to make much progress, the Moscow meeting appears to have greater effect in view of the participation of those invited.
With this peace initiative, Russia can show its potential as an effective mediator between the Taliban and President Ashraf Ghani’s led Afghan government. The talks can portray Moscow as a constructive partner for peace in Afghanistan given the accusation that Russia arms the Taliban.
America holds that Russia supports the Taliban – something that has increased anti-Russian sentiments in Afghanistan. On July 6, Afghan peace activists protested outside the Russian embassy in Kabul, asking Moscow to stop interfering in the Afghan crisis. To improve its image and to erase the impression that it is a Taliban ally, Russia with Tajikistan on July 17 did an anti-Taliban military exercise aimed at strengthening Tajikistan military’s capacity to resist a potential Taliban attack in the Afghan-Tajik border.
Moscow is desperate to showcase that it wants political stability and peace in Afghanistan through talks to remove the concerns of its alleged support to the Taliban and to dispel fears of hostility towards her in Afghanistan. Besides, Moscow would like to be a party to the ultimate peace process in the war-torn country to score points at the international level.
Moreover, Russia has shown that it is not playing second fiddle to China in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). By hosting major peace initiatives on Afghanistan, Russian policy makers can show that Moscow is an able negotiator within the SCO and capable member in the security organization. Recently, Moscow actively participated in the meeting of intelligence chiefs from Russia, China, Pakistan, and Iran.
Most importantly, Russia is actively seeking to demonstrate herself as a link between the Taliban and America which wants an end to its longest war in history (in Afghanistan). Washington has tried to give peace a chance in Afghanistan by involving Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to agree to a peace deal and to end the 17-year-long war which has cost it about 1.07 trillion dollars besides several thousand causalities. Believing that America will be compelled to establish the lines of communication with the Taliban, Moscow has tried to display its diplomatic abilities and come closer to Washington.
Interestingly, the Russian peace initiative came when Washington is holding talks directly with the Taliban. This shift in America’s position –those negotiations should only be led by Kabul — shows that the former wants to end Afghan crisis.
A power sharing equation involving all sections of Afghanistan is a must. Since neither Taliban nor the US appears to be gaining in the protracted conflict in Afghanistan, the two must come forward to talk and resolve it. Therefore Moscow-like meetings must be held to resolve the crisis amicably.