On November 9, 2018, Russia hosted the first round of Moscow initiative to resolve the Afghan conundrum, signifying its ever increasing interest in the country that has evolved, over the last 17 years, from a hot-bed of conflict between the US and the Taliban, including Al-Qaeda, to a strategic stalemate between the US and the Taliban, witnessing also the discreet rise of the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K) in Afghanistan, threatening the entire Central Asia and Russia with its tendency to reach beyond the land it comes to inhabit. The rising threat of IS-K explains why Russia has become active in initiating a peace process to achieve its settlement, but for the Western officials, Russian initiative is only an attempt on its part to make things ‘complicated’ for a peace process that must be ‘Afghan-led & Afghan owned.’ This is not only ironic given that the West, specifically the US, has failed to end the war in the 17 years, but also factually wrong since Moscow initiative doesn’t contradict the idea of an ‘Afghan-led’ peace process.
As such, while the Moscow initiative deepens Russian role in Afghanistan — and there is nothing wrong with deepening ties with one’s neighbouring country — it does also compliment the concept of ‘Afghan-led’ peace process in important ways. In other words, contrary to Western projections, the Moscow initiative is nothing about pushing the US/the West out of the game. First of all, the nature of the summit held itself signifies how it was centred on the idea of ‘Afghan-led’ peace process. For instance, the Afghan High Peace Council, which attended the event, reiterated in its statement that the purpose of the summit was only to discuss “the subject of direct talks with the Taliban and [they] asked them [Taliban] to choose the place and the starting time.” Clearly, this is an Afghan peace council talking to an Afghan militant group, Taliban, asking them to initiate dialogue. Moscow seems only to fit as a facilitator rather than a dictator of peace terms.
The Taliban’s response, on the other hand, also shows how they, too, want to make it a totally ‘Afghan-led’ peace process. For instance, the Taliban emphasised that talks with Kabul were possible only after a formal and full withdrawal of external forces. Now, the external forces are those of the US, and not of Moscow, and no truly Afghan-led peace process can work to a logical and peaceful end as long as Afghanistan and Kabul remain captive to the US’ geo-political interests; hence, the Taliban’s demand for US withdrawal.
The very peace process that the US representative, Zalmay Khalilzad, has initiated suffers from this contradiction: it projects itself as an ‘Afghan owned and Afghan-led’ process, but its previous meetings included no representatives from the Afghan government; hence, the contention: as long as the US remains an occupier of Afghanistan, regardless of the number of troops it retains in Afghanistan, no peace process in which the US appears as the leading and domineering actor can be ‘Afghan owned’ and ‘Afghan-led’, let alone be result-oriented.
On the contrary, quite contrary to Western projections about Moscow virtually de-railing the ‘Afghan-led’ and ‘Afghan owned’ peace process, the purpose of the summit was, as Lavrov himself emphatically stated, was to “to extend all possible assistance to facilitate the start of a constructive intra-Afghan dialogue.”
But the US is not comfortable with any idea of Russia spearheading peace talks, since that would make Russia an important geo-political player in the Afghan end-game. As a US official confirmed to the Washington Post, “The US, of course, is naturally sceptical [of the Moscow initiative] but that’s only because the Russians are convening it”, meaning thereby that any Russian initiative would necessarily and automatically give birth to doubts in Washington, clouding its ability to seek assistance from Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries, such as Russia, in resolving a conflict that the US has itself magnanimously failed to resolve either militarily, diplomatically or even socio-economically.
The latest report of Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) to the US Congress tells a story of how the US has wasted billions of dollars in Afghanistan not just because of corruption but mainly because, as the SIGAR head himself explained, of the “head-smacking stupid programs and really poorly managed and no accountability.” For this failure, the USAID, for instance, is as much to be blamed as the CIA for inventing the threat of WMDs in Iraq. Such is the sheer scale of aid & reconstruction failure!
With the US thus completely unable to militarily control Afghanistan, where IS-K has taken roots, and diplomatically when the process being led by Khalilzad has invoked opposition from within the Kabul regime, and socio-economically when its billion dollar aid programs have drastically failed to ameliorate Afghanistan’s condition, a Russia facilitated peace process shouldn’t be seen as an obstacle but as an opportunity to create some very basic and necessary conditions for peace, starting from establishing regular diplomatic contacts between the Taliban, Kabul and other regional countries as well.
Otherwise, the very Russophobian-hype in Washington is only because Russian diplomacy in Afghanistan, and its ability to bring these actors together, illustrates to the US public the true depth of US failure in Afghanistan, making this reality completely different from the US governments have been selling to their masses for over a decade now.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.