29.10.2021 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Peace in Afghanistan is No Longer ‘Made in the US’


Even though the US fought the war in Afghanistan for twenty years and it decided to withdraw after signing a deal with the Taliban (banned in Russia), the end of the war and the US withdrawal has not automatically transitioned into ‘peace.’ The US’ utterly chaotic and irresponsible withdrawal from Afghanistan and the consequent resurgence of the IS-K (terrorist organization, banned in Russia) in the country threatening to spread into neighboring states of Central Asia, Russia, China and Pakistan has forced these countries into playing a pro-active role in securing peace in Afghanistan in ways to eliminate the threat they are now facing because of the US failure to eliminate the IS-K, which flourished in Afghanistan right when the US military had the country under its occupation. The recent ‘Moscow format’ meeting in Russia happened against this very backdrop. Days before this meeting, the Russian president Vladimir Putin minced no words in hinting that the IS-K fighters were gathering in northern Afghanistan, with the IS-K leadership seeking to export its fighters to Central Asia as refugees. Accordingly, the purpose of the ‘Moscow format’ meeting was to chart out a way to deal with this threat and help Afghanistan stabilise.

With regional states now leading the Afghanistan peace process, it is also evident that the US has lost the plot to its external competitors, especially Russia and China. Just like Syria, the US policies in Afghanistan not only failed to defeat its enemies, but the US presence essentially failed to check or defeat the spread of radical Islamist groups as well. On top it is the utterly poor economic situation that Afghanistan is facing in the wake of the lack of assistance the country used to receive during the US occupation and the fact that the US has simply frozen Afghanistan’s own legitimate financial assets. A deteriorating economic situation is, thus, likely to facilitate radical Islamist groups in finding more and more recruits from within the disgruntled Taliban fighters as well as the unemployed youth. Hence, the ‘Moscow format’ countries’ call upon the US to shoulder the cost for Afghanistan’s post-war recovery. As the joint statement issued after the meeting said, while the regional states have decided to initiate a collective action programme to address Afghanistan’s problems, it remains that “the core burden of post-conflict economic and financial reconstruction and development of Afghanistan must be shouldered by troop-based actors (the US and NATO) which were in the country for the past 20 years.”

Apart from the fact that the US is no longer involved as a party in the on-going process of ridding Afghanistan of its radical landscape, the plan the ‘Moscow format’ has outlined mainly charts a path for the regional, rather than extra-regional, players to lead the path. All the main suggestions forwarded by the meeting show how the initiative for peace, reconciliation and de-radicalisation in Afghanistan has shifted from the US to regional players. For instance, the joint statement’s emphasis on directly influencing the Taliban over the imperative of tackling and defeating the IS-K does not include any US/NATO role. Similarly, their initiative to convene a broad-based international donor conference under the auspices of the United Nations also signals that the US will no longer be the sole player, although Washington does need to shoulder a major portion of the finances needed to rebuild Afghanistan.

On the other hand, the fact that Russia hosted this meeting means that Moscow is gradually, but surely, taking the high ground as the principal player in Afghanistan, replacing, as it did in Syria, the US. The fact that Russia is now emerging as the leading player and that regional states have all agreed to back Afghanistan’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity means that the US quest for military bases in Central Asia to conduct its drone/aerial strikes has also come to a permanent halt.

However, taking the initiative in Afghanistan and climbing the high ground does not mean providing the Taliban regime with political recognition. As it stands, even with all the visits the Taliban have been making to Russia, China and other states, they continue to lack recognition. Recognition, even for Russia, remains contingent upon the Taliban’s ability to prove their willingness, through concrete action, to act against different radical groups currently operating in Afghanistan. As it stands, Russia continues to categorise the Taliban as a “terrorist outfit.” Although its recent engagement with the Taliban shows that Moscow equally considers them a “political reality”, recognition itself remains a moot question, even as Moscow happens to be one of those countries that has not closed its embassy in Afghanistan.

But Moscow’s continuous engagement is itself a positive sign for the Taliban, who could see their regime crumbling in the absence of any economic and political support from these countries. Besides the economic and humanitarian aid promised for Afghanistan in the meeting, the next meeting of the forum is already scheduled for October 27 in Tehran, with the process to expand further to include other multilateral forums. And, as Lavrov outlined in his opening speech to the Moscow meeting, “We plan to engage our capabilities, including the capabilities offered by the UN, the SCO [Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the CSTO [Collective Security Treaty Organization] and other multilateral entities.… Importantly, both the SCO and the CSTO have a special mechanism that was created many years ago, which is dedicated to interacting with Afghanistan, and identifying ways to promote stabilization in that country.”

These steps not only indicate a growing influence of Russia in Afghanistan, but also shows why Russia thinks it expedient to expand its control without leaving it solely to the US and its NATO allies to continue to exacerbate the situation, a politico-military deterioration that will come mainly at the expense of Afghanistan’s territorial neighbours in South, West, Central and East Asia. The Moscow format and its rapid expansion highlights how regional states are increasingly configuring their response to a threat this is, so far, strictly regional i.e., it does not directly threaten the US the way it threatens these states.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.