Russian Perceptions on Afghanistan’s Peace Process: A Way Forward
The Russian capital has already hosted three rounds of negotiations on this topic in the past couple of months, signaling that Moscow is very serious about getting more actively involved in resolving this issue. The US feels that Russia’s positive and constructive inroads are threatening its long-standing interests, and that’s why a flood of fake news about Russia’s relationship with the Taliban has been disseminated all across the Mainstream Media. These two developments – Russia’s renewed focus on Afghanistan and the US’ indirect soft power pushback – speak to the seriousness and relevance of what I’ll be briefly discussing today.
I conceptualize Russia’s peacemaking efforts as constituting two interlinked and parallel processes, external and internal. The first one deals with the international environment, both the larger global strategic context and the more regional one directly relevant to Afghanistan. About the first, we see how the US has militarily overstretched itself across Eurasia and seems unlikely to return to its mid-2000s troop levels in Afghanistan, even if it eventually decides upon a so-called “troop surge”. This has created space for regional powers to fill the leadership void left by the US’ refocused priorities in West and East Asia, dealing nowadays with Iran and China, respectively, and including pressure against them in “Syraq” on one hand, and North Korea and the South China Sea on the other. These priorities appear to be much more urgent for the US nowadays, and that’s a good thing in this context because it facilitated Russia’s visible efforts in rounding up all of Afghanistan’s regional stakeholders in commencing a new round of Moscow-mediated peace talks.
Internally, Afghanistan remains as divided as ever, and the country’s war has become a renewed issue of global concern ever since Daesh established a presence in the country. This severely complicates the conflict resolution process because it means that what was already a hybrid civil-international war has now taken on much larger, and potentially global, proportions. At the same time, however, it has also given the Taliban the opportunity to prove itself in being a very effective fighting force for countering this terrorist menace, which in turn raises the group’s international profile and creates a common point for convergence between it and other countries, including Russia. It must be said, though, that Russia’s cooperation with the Taliban is limited and does not extend to any of the rumored military support that the US-driven fake news have been fear mongering about. Russia simply and pragmatically sees a useful counter-terrorist partner in some members and factions of the Taliban, and it also recognizes that this group is wildly popular among some of the population and has impressively proven its resiliency over the years.
The international and domestic tracks of the Afghan peace process are inseparable from one another but have yet to be comprehensively paired together, so Russia’s desired vision is to accomplish this necessary, though difficult, task. Moscow has already demonstrated that it wants to broaden the multilateral nature of the talks to include all twelve relevant state-based stakeholders, meaning itself, Pakistan, China, Kabul, India, Iran, the Central Asian Republics, and the US, and it’s succeeded thus far in bringing them all together at the same table with the exception of the US.
Alongside this strategy, Russia has sent signals that it would ideally like for a parallel peace process to begin between Kabul and the Taliban, though this will by no means be an easy effort to broker. In fact, both pairs of envisioned peace processes are hindered by internal contradictions which impede their progress.
The state-based one is sharply divided between the US, Kabul, and India on one hand, and Russia, Pakistan, China, Iran, and the Central Asian Republics on the other over the issue of including pragmatic and anti-terrorist members of the Taliban – or so-called “good Taliban” – into the negotiations. The US and its two allies are ardently against this, while Russia and its partners see the necessary and long-overdue pragmatism in finally taking this historic step. On the internal level, Kabul and the Taliban are anathema to the idea of direct talks with one another because the government designates all of the Taliban as “terrorists” while the militants don’t recognize the authority of Kabul. This maximalist approach by both of them, especially comparatively less flexible Kabul, has resulted in a deadlock which has become the main obstacle to peace and worryingly creates a fertile space for Daesh to spread its reach throughout Afghanistan.
What’s needed to resolve the stalemate which lies at the center of the country’s conflict is for a neutral intermediary to facilitate indirect talks between both Kabul and the Taliban as a stepping stone in the right direction, and then encouraging both sides to enact the necessary concessions and compromises required for reaching a common ground which could then result in multilaterally advantageous, if even only short-term, anti-terrorist gains. A useful model which can be relied on in this context is the one that the Tripartite of Russia, Iran, and Turkey pioneered in Astana, which painstakingly led to some important tangible progress in resolving the War on Syria. Notably, these were the indirect negotiations between both sides brokered by the state intermediaries, which ultimately reinforced the existing ceasefire and designated all non-signatory Salafist fighting groups as terrorists. The results have been far from perfect, but it at least allowed all parties to somewhat delineate their zones of control and identify the spaces in which non-signee terrorists reside, and which could consequently be liberated through prospective joint operations.
Again, I need to reiterate that the outcome of this initiative still leaves a lot to be desired, but it has nevertheless resulted in some form of real progress by helping to set the general framework for a forthcoming political solution to the conflict. Extrapolating the lessons that are currently being learned from the Moscow-mediated peace process in Syria and attempting to apply them towards Afghanistan, we can distinguish a clear pattern. Just as Russia sought to bring together the most direct regional stakeholders in Syria through the Astana Tripartite between itself, Turkey, and Iran, so too is it trying to do something similar as regards Afghanistan, albeit on a much larger scale by involving up to twelve separate participants. I personally suspect that Russia has some backchannel communication with Saudi Arabia and Qatar about Syria too, and we all know about Russia’s positive ties with “Israel”, Jordan, and Iraq. If we add the US to the mix, then informally speaking, there are already almost as many main players involved in influencing Russia’s joint Syrian peace initiative to varying degrees as there are with Afghanistan.
The purpose behind this broad internationalization, it seems, is to find some areas of convergence between the most directly involved foreign stakeholders in order to then create the conditions for the internal players to find common ground, too. In Syria, it’s been the fight against Daesh, and this could also end up being the case for Afghanistan. Russia’s role, therefore, is to catalyze this peace process by gathering all the divergent sides together and applying the experiences that Moscow learned from Astana in encouraging both seemingly intractable parties to put aside their differences for at least the short-term and practical purpose of cooperating in the larger fight against terrorism. Russia was the only actor capable of bringing Turkey & Iran together in Syria, just as it’s the only one which has any realistic chance at doing the same with Pakistan & India in Afghanistan, for example, by getting them to sit down at the same table at least.
Moreover, Moscow’s recent diplomatic successes in fostering ties with a few members of Syria’s “moderate rebel opposition” groups also gave it a certain degree of trust which played to Russia’s favor in ultimately getting these forces to talk with Damascus during the Tripartite-brokered Astana negotiations. Applied to the Afghan context, Russian special envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov’s public and pragmatic statements about the Taliban and Moscow’s rapprochement with Islamabad appear to have earned him a degree of goodwill among this group which could translate into them trusting Russia enough to participate in the Moscow-mediated talks sometime in the future if they were ever invited, though the challenge is in getting Kabul to agree to this.
The Syrian model is imperfect and will have to be tweaked and possibly retooled for Afghan conditions, but proceeding from the mild successes that Russia has obtained from that experience so far, a possible solution might result in the differentiation of “good” anti-Daesh Taliban and “bad” terrorist Taliban, similar to how Jaysh al-Islam participates in Astana in spite of its well-known previous track record.
The difference, however, is that Moscow has influence over Damascus and the Syrian government therefore agreed to indirect talks in Astana, though the reverse isn’t true for Afghanistan – Washington has influence over Kabul, but the US has refused to participate in the latest Moscow talks. This has created a major complication for Russia’s peacemaking efforts because it’s understood that Kabul won’t act contrary to Washington’s will. The US’ lack of participation in the new negotiation format poses a paradoxical challenge for Russia – the US is the main obstacle to peace in Afghanistan, yet no peaceful solution is possible without it. The US is also trying to undermine this process in other direct and indirect ways.
About the indirect methods, I already referenced the fake news that it’s spreading about Russia’s ties with the Taliban, and these so-called reports are premised with the sole purpose of damaging Russia’s relationships with India and Kabul. In terms of direct obstruction, there’s talk that the US is preparing another “troop surge”, and although it won’t return the American military presence to its mid-2000s level, it’s intended to reward Kabul for its stubbornness in refusing to talk with the Taliban. In fact, the US might even make matters worse by emboldening Kabul to step up its attacks against the Taliban and therefore undermine Russia’s incipient peace process efforts by making it almost impossible to bring the two warring sides together in any practical way. Remember, the one factor which Kabul and the Taliban have in common is that they’re both fighting against Daesh, so this needs to be seen as the fulcrum on which any other prospective positive interaction is dependent.
To reference the Syrian model for a starting point in how this could possibly relate to the Moscow peace talks for Afghanistan, the ideal scenario would be if both Kabul and the Taliban indirectly coordinate their anti-terrorist actions with one another through some of the intermediary states present at the negotiations. As a prerequisite to this, Kabul would have to agree to making a distinction between the “good” and “bad” Taliban, with the former fighting Daesh and being open in principle to talking to the government, while the latter would join or sympathize with the terrorists and/or resist any interaction with Kabul. From there, zones of control could unofficially be delineated and this could set the foundation for a ceasefire and the path to a political settlement, though of course both sides would first have to recognize one another, which is a lot easier said than done. Suffice to say, the US is trying to prevent this from happening at all costs.
Washington’s interests are clear – it wants to prolong its ultra-strategic presence at the crossroads of South, West, and Central Asia; undermine any peace process which it doesn’t have full control over; and show that it is “hard” on Russia and “terrorism”.
This last point deserves some extra reflection because it indicates that the US – and especially President Trump in particular under the present circumstances that he finds himself – wants to avoid the optics of “losing out” to Russia in Afghanistan and having America’s 16-year-long so-called “War on Terror” against the Taliban be “wasted” by having the group become a legitimate political player in the country. This presents Russia with only two options: to resolve the paradox of incorporating the US into a political solution for Afghanistan despite Washington’s refusal to participate in the latest format; or devise an effective multilateral workaround for competing with the US’ influence over Kabul and eventually replacing it.
Either way, somehow or another, Kabul needs to recognize the pragmatism and inevitability of talking with the Taliban, and this should prompt the Taliban to accept the same when it comes to Kabul. Just like with Syria, I believe that Russia perceives the Afghan peace process as ending with a political, not a military, solution, and it should all start by both sides entering into some degree of anti-terrorist cooperation against the global evil that most directly afflicts them both, Daesh.