Russia getting into Afghan act

The gathering in Moscow last week — the third in the series of consultations between Russia, China and Pakistan — underlines growing concern about the spillover effect of the Afghan crisis in the region. The initiative is the latest example of Russian assertion of its diplomatic power amidst growing frustration over the American failure to deliver peace in Afghanistan.

An underlying cause of anxiety is the growing threat of the militant Islamic State group spreading its tentacles in the war-torn country. But it is still unclear whether the new alliance will be able to help reach a negotiated political solution to the Afghan conflict. Although the Kabul government has now been invited for the next round of talks, its exclusion from the earlier meetings cast a shadow over the process.

Not surprisingly, the United States was not invited to the Moscow initiated process. It is, however, premature to assume that the new nexus could replace the quadrilateral forum that included the US along with Pakistan, China and Afghanistan. The quadrilateral talks have been suspended for almost one year after the collapse of efforts to bring the Afghan Taliban insurgents to the negotiating table. The killing of Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the Taliban chief, in a CIA drone strike last May has further diminished hopes for the talks to resume.

It is quite apparent that no peace effort could succeed without the tacit support, if not active participation, of the US, which still has about 10,000 troops involved in counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan. Things have become more complicated with the political transition in Washington. Like other foreign policy issues, there is complete confusion over the Afghan policy in the soon-to-be installed Trump administration.

Moscow’s initiative to build a regional alliance against IS points to a changing geo-political landscape.

That has perhaps compelled the three countries to find a regional solution to the Afghan crisis that directly affects their own security. It remains to be seen whether the Kabul government accepts the invitation to join the forum and whether it is willing to show some flexibility in its approach on the peace talks. The Moscow trilateral meeting has called for lifting of the travel ban on the insurgent leaders, one of the major demands that the Taliban had presented as a precondition for talks with the Kabul government. The Taliban are obviously pleased by the Moscow meeting endorsing its demand. But lifting of the ban requires US consent.

China has for some time now been actively involved in the Afghan peace efforts, being a major investor in mining and infrastructure development projects in that country. Its good relations with both the Kabul government and the Taliban have helped Beijing facilitate a few rounds of informal talks between the two warring sides. Beijing has also been gravely concerned about the increasing instability in Afghanistan and recent reports of growing IS activity in the country.

Although Russia may not be a fresh entrant on the Afghan scene, its initiative to build a regional alliance to counter the IS threat points to a new alignment of forces in a changing geo-political landscape. Interestingly, the meeting on Afghanistan followed another set of trilateral talks in Moscow that included Turkey and Iran on the settlement of Syrian crisis. The US was excluded from that meeting too, indicating that Moscow is taking a lead in settling the Syrian and Afghan crises, thereby considerably altering the balance of power in the international arena.

This Russian assertiveness seems to be driven by the Obama administration’s inaction and in anticipation of expected changes in US foreign policy under the incoming Trump administration. Though the US president-elect has openly castigated the Obama administration’s approach on Syria and Afghanistan, there is no clarity on future US policy, especially on Afghanistan. That has also provided Moscow an opportunity to alter the current negotiating format and try to break the persisting deadlock in the diplomatic efforts to find a political solution to the Afghan conflict.

Indeed there is also serious concern among the three countries over the deteriorating situation in the proximity of their borders. Last year was the bloodiest in Afghanistan with the Taliban intensifying their attacks considerably. What has been more perturbing, however, is the expanding footprint of IS, apparent in several terrorist attacks in Afghanistan that took a huge toll on the civilian population.

Moreover, the increasing activities of the group in northern Afghanistan, close to the borders of the Central Asian countries, are particularly alarming for Russia. There is also growing fear in Moscow of IS making inroads in the Muslim population, especially as the Chechens form one of the largest foreign contingents in the IS war in Iraq and Syria. That has also been a reason for Russia to establish contacts with the Afghan Taliban who have been fighting IS.

Both China and Pakistan share Moscow’s concerns and hence have decided to join the new regional alignment. Islamabad particularly sees some hope of the new regional format being in a better position to persuade the Afghan Taliban to come to the negotiating table. However, it will certainly not be easy to make a breakthrough given the complexities involving the problem. Most importantly, it requires some serious efforts to remove the reservations of the Kabul government over the new format that involves Pakistan.

Moreover, there is no unanimity within the fractious Afghan administration, even on the issue of negotiations with the Taliban. There is also a question mark over the Taliban agreeing to formally sit across the table with the Kabul government without any preconditions, particularly at a time when they have achieved significant success in the battlefield. According to some reports, the Afghan officials have informally met the representatives of the Taliban’s Qatar office. But formal peace talks are a completely different ballgame.

To bring the Afghan peace process out of the deep freeze, it is most important to end the frosty relations between Islamabad and Kabul. There has been some breaking of the ice with the recent telephonic contact between Afghan leaders and Pakistan’s new army chief. But is this enough to clear the huge wall of distrust between the two countries?

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