In Kabul, the opening of a Russian cultural centre on the site of the House of Science and Culture, which was originally built in 1980 by the Soviet Union, stands as a symbol of Russia’s increasing presence in Afghanistan as also its role in helping put the Afghan war to an end and usher in an era of Afghan re-birth. This is, of course, symbolic. But there is no gainsaying that Russia has come a log way in Afghanistan, starting earlier from a ‘distant observer’ of the Afghan saga and then an active stakeholder to an engineer of peace and a leading actor. The Afghan peace process has, accordingly, gravitated to Moscow, where special representatives of Russia, the US and China met in the last week of April to potentially coordinate their efforts towards achieving peace in Afghanistan. The Moscow meeting has been unprecedented in terms of the consensus that was achieved between Russia-China and the US, power blocs that aren’t always and not necessarily on the same page elsewhere i.e., Venezuela, Syria, North Korea and Yemen.
This is also a significant development, as far as Russia is concerned, against the backdrop of previous US claims about Russian providing “small arms” to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Back then it was claimed that Russia’s provision of arms to the Taliban was “complicating” the US war on them and that a Russian involvement in Afghanistan was not something the US either desired or saw politically beneficial.
“We know that Russia is attempting to undercut our military gains and years of military progress in Afghanistan, and make partners question Afghanistan’s stability,” said the then commander of US Forces-Afghanistan and of Operation Resolute Support, General John Nicholson, only seven months ago when he was only days from stepping down in September 2018.
Now that the US is not only coordinating its peace efforts with Russia, but also building on the work that Russia has done in Afghanistan shows that either earlier US claims were baseless and part of propaganda to arrest increasing Russian involvement in Afghanistan or a just a part of ‘Russophobia’ that the US establishment was (and continues to) suffering from ever since Donald Trump had become president. Thanks to Mueller inquiry, these fears have been settled as the inquiry found no evidence of Trump’s collusion with Russia in the last US presidential elections.
The trilateral meeting happened in Moscow, leaving Washington and Beijing out. Again, the reason for this is the role that Russia has been playing in Afghanistan, especially towards developing a consensus within Afghanistan. Its major manifestation was when Russia was able to make Afghanistan’s political opposition, including many political stalwarts, sit on the negotiating table with the Taliban. This happened in February 2019, and was probably the first time ever that a Taliban delegation met Afghanistan’s direct political stakeholders and leadership to discuss the future of Afghanistan. The Moscow-summit underscored that long-standing fears of conflict within Afghanistan in the post-withdrawal era were, to a considerable extent, misplaced and that the prospects of peace through dialogue were brighter than usually believed. The recent trilateral meeting in Moscow is a continuity of that very leading role that Russia played in bringing Afghanistan’s diverse stakeholders to the table.
A consensus happened then, and a ‘big power’ consensus has happened now as well, placing Russia at the very centre of an international consensus that it yet to develop vis-à-vis Afghanistan peace process. Arguably, Russia is the only country at this stage to have developed consensus at least twice, involving an all-together two different sets of stakeholders, making it—again—the most suitable country to develop an international consensus as well.
An international consensus would inevitably involve powers like Pakistan, India and Iran. Out of the trilateral summit, Russia is the only country that has good relations with all of these countries. Russia is Iran’s close ally in Syria; Russia historically has good relations with India and Russia and Pakistan have also recently discovered mutual interests. By contrast, China’s relations with India are not ‘deep enough’ to develop a consensus, especially because India has reservations about the Taliban’s inclusion into the political set up, something Beijing has no problems with. As far as the US is concerned, it distrusts Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan and its relations with Iran have already touched a new low in the history of their bi-lateral relations.
This leaves Russia in a pivotal position to not only to engineer the Afghan peace process but also develop a consensus that might satisfy all the stakeholders both within and without Afghanistan. This role plus the fact that the withdrawal of US and NATO forces would mean a big boost for Russia’s regional influence.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.