Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Regional Relations

A Troika of Four: Looking back at the March 2021 Afghanistan meeting in Moscow

Thomas Ruttig 20 min

The ‘extended troika’ meeting in Moscow on 18 March did not spark a significant new impulse in the search for peace in Afghanistan. Instead, it followed a well-known pattern. Foreign powers offered platitudes about an ‘Afghan-led, Afghan-owned’ peace process, again, while they insist on setting the timeline themselves and handpick those who are to be included in their plans, which are driven by their own and not Afghanistan’s interests. AAN’s Co-director Thomas Ruttig looks at the regional power game and finds that India and Iran’s absence demonstrated how difficult it would be to get buy-in for the latest US plan from the most important neighbouring countries and powers with influence. This makes one major pillar of the plan unsteady and may exacerbate regional tensions, raising prospects that conflicting interests might attempt to ‘fill the vacuum’ created by the US withdrawal.

Helmand peace marchers in front of the Russian embassy. Photo: People's Peace Movement/2018Helmand peace marchers in front of the Russian embassy in Kabul in 2018. Civil society was missing in the "extended troika" meeting on Afghanistan in Moscow on 18 March 2021. Photo: People's Peace Movement.

Who attended the Moscow meeting?

In Moscow of all places, the capital of the United States’ second global rival, the curtain was raised on the Biden-Harris administration’s eleventh-hour attempt to reshape the Afghan ‘peace process.’ On 18 March, the special envoys for Afghanistan of the US, China and Russia – Zalmay Khalilzad, Liu Jian and Zamir Kabulov – met in what Moscow called an “extended troika.” The troika refers to the three powers’ regular Afghanistan-themed consultations. Represented by its special envoy for Afghanistan, Muhammad Sadiq, the extension, Pakistan, was invited “as a player having influence on both sides.” It is also one of three countries the US plans to invite (or ask the UN to invite) to the Afghanistan peace conference in Istanbul in April, according to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s letter, the others being Iran and India (more on this below). (It is not clear yet whether there will be one conference or two, will they be held at different times and in different places, or will they, at some point, be merged into one. During the Moscow meeting, Reuters reported that “a meeting of regional players” will be held in Turkey in the first week of April. There is no official confirmation of the date.

Qatar – as the host of the intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha – and Turkey – as the prospective host of a new international Afghanistan conference – were invited as “guests of honour.” In the week before the Moscow meeting, Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, visited Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, holding, among other meetings, a trilateral with his Qatari and Turkish counterparts in Doha.

Also invited to the one-day Moscow meeting were various Afghan players, a ten-member Taleban delegation and 15 participants from Kabul. While official Russian sources repeatedly called the latter group a “delegation” (like in this tweet by the Russian embassy in Kabul), it was reported that at least some, if not all, had been invited individually. 

The group was comprised of the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR), Dr Abdullah Abdullah, his deputy Babur Frahmand, former president Hamed Karzai, members of the so-called Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (IRoA) negotiating team at the intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha and a handful of former warlords and mujahedin commanders, now leaders of political tanzims in domestic opposition to President Ashraf Ghani. [1]From the presidential camp, there were chief negotiator Masum Stanakzai, Nader Naderi, peace affairs minister Sayed Mansur Naderi (no relation) and his deputy, ex-journalist Abdullah Khenjani, and … Continue reading

Mullah Abdul Ghani, better known under his nom de guerre Mullah Baradar, led the Taleban delegation. Chief negotiator Mowlawi Abdul Hakim (sometimes given the takhallus [surname] Haqqani – not related to the Haqqani sub-network, which Anas Haqqani represented) and his predecessor, now deputy, Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanakzai also attended.

Before the meeting, Lavrov announced: “It was initiated by the so-called Russia-US-China trio. The trio will meet in an extended format involving Pakistan and with the invitation of the Afghan parties. … It is aimed at encouraging the parties to be more cooperative through informal, free discussions and trust-based conversations.”

The new US administration might not have envisioned this when designing its new approach to its troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. But with the date of a planned ‘Bonn-style’ Afghanistan peace conference in Turkey, initially planned for 27 March, according to information from within the Taleban, slipping into April, a window opened for other actors to project themselves in the ‘peace process’. Despite recent moody exchanges between the US and Russian presidents in the context of the Alexey Navalny poisoning affair, the US did not appear unhappy that the Russian government provided an early opportunity to meet various Afghan and international players to push forward its own initiative.

After the meeting, Russia’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, was quoted as saying: “We had a serious talk with all Afghan sides, and the leitmotif is – the sides understand and are ready to negotiate peace in Afghanistan.” On the sidelines of or before the meeting, various countries, among them the US and Turkey, stated that the planned Afghanistan peace conference in Istanbul was not designed to replace the intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha. Meanwhile, through its ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Javid Ahmad, the Afghan government criticised Qatar and asked for ‘rotating venues’ for future talks.

Not everything went smoothly. According to a Russian media report, confirmed by AAN interlocutors in Afghanistan, the Taleban and Dostum clashed on the first day when the latter approached Mullah Fazl and “asked him about his state of health.” Fazl replied by “publicly calling him a ‘traitor’ and ‘killer.’” Then, Dostum reportedly left the “rest” of the meeting. Dostum’s invitation reportedly came after “significant work by Uzbekistan’s foreign ministry” and as a “surprise” to the Taleban. 

By contrast, Hekmatyar – who had offered to form an alliance with the Taleban based on “share[d] mutual beliefs, values, and ideology” in September 2020 – was shown dining with the Taleban, although he appeared stiff, at least as long as the cameras pointed at him. (There is no love lost between the two factions. Hekmatyar’s Hezb lost many fighters to the Taleban during the latter’s sweep to power in the mid-1990s. Later, Hekmatyar’s political exploits took him from being a co-insurgent from 2001 to 2016 to striking a peace deal with Kabul (see AAN dossier)). There was also footage of friendly handshakes between Karzai and Anas Haqqani and Karzai filling Hekmatyar’s water glass as they were waiting for Lavrov to open the conference (see this video).

There was a souring of Afghan-Russian relations in the run-up to the meeting, after Kabulov’s much-noted (particularly in Kabul) 17 February interview with the Tajik service of Russia’s government-run Sputnik News. There he laid the blame for the lack of progress in Doha “primarily [on] the Kabul administration,” adding that “the Kabul administration has already done a lot of stupid things … in anticipation of a change of administration in Washington.” He also rejected the idea of an immediate ceasefire as demanded by Kabul, saying it “doesn’t work.” Using the Taleban term “the Kabul administration” to refer to the Afghan government, he said that Kabul was “offended” as it was not invited to the meeting in its official capacity (translation of the interview here). As a result, Kabul took a long time to decide to send representatives to the meeting. [2]Kabulov, who seems to enjoy the same considerable leverage on Afghan issues as his US counterpart Khalilzad, had already stated in May last year that Russian-Afghan relations were … Continue reading

Meanwhile, the invitation of only one woman (Habiba Sarabi from the IRoA team), the absence of civil society and the conspicuous dominance of representatives from armed factions were stark reminders of the often vast gulf between the words and deeds of international players when it came to the rights of women and other groups and elucidated their understanding of inclusion. Lavrov, before the meeting, called the current crisis in Afghanistan “another example of what the consequences of democratization that non-regional countries are trying to bring look like in practice.”

What was the outcome?

Beyond the chance to meet on the sidelines, the meeting itself did not produce any immediate impulse for the peace process. In his opening speech, Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov emphasized that his country wanted an “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led” peace process and insisted, “no outsider should try to interfere in the country’s affairs.”

The final Joint Statement (full text here), signed by the “extended troika” countries, but not the Afghan participants, was mainly a repetition of often-heard refrains. These ranged from acknowledging “the widespread and sincere demand of the Afghan people for a lasting and just peace and an end to the “war” to calls “on all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan to reduce the level of violence.” There were assurances that the signatories “advocate a durable and just political resolution that will result in the formation of an independent, sovereign, unified, peaceful, democratic and self-sufficient Afghanistan, free of terrorism and an illicit drug industry, which contributes to the creation of pull factors for the voluntary, sustainable and expeditious return of Afghan refugees, stability and global security.” Also included was the pledge that “any peace agreement must include protections for the rights of all Afghans, including women, men, children, victims of war, and minorities, and should respond to the strong desire of all Afghans for economic, social and political development including the rule of law.”

There was no direct reference to the US planned Istanbul conference (agreed to by Turkey), but a more general statement welcoming “all international efforts that are underway to facilitate and support a negotiated settlement as soon as possible.”

More remarkable, although a reiteration of internationally agreed positions grounded in UN resolutions, was the message to the Taleban that the international community does “not support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate.” The statement also called upon the Taleban to “not to pursue” their “spring offensive” – referring to the Taleban’s annual military campaigns usually announced in spring. 

Surprisingly, in an echo of Kabulov’s earlier comments, the statement called “on the Government of the Islamic Republic [of Afghanistan] and the High Council for National Reconciliation to engage openly with their Taliban counterparts regarding a negotiated settlement” but made no such appeals to the Taleban. This singles out the government in Kabul for the lack of meaningful progress in Doha (although it has a role in slowing the pace) without mentioning the Taleban’s unwillingness to negotiate with a government they do not recognise.

There were no references to the need to establish an interim government, which the US has long been pressing for and Russia is supporting (read AAN analysis). At a press conference in Moscow on 24 March, Kabulov reiterated and called it inescapable. After Kabulov’s February visit to Islamabad, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said that his country shared Russia’s desire for “an inclusive political settlement (to) the conflict in Afghanistan.” This usually refers to Pakistan’s wish to see the Taleban strongly represented in a new Afghan government and resonates with US secretary Blinken’s idea of an “inclusive government” different from the current one. Pakistan’s ambassador to Kabul, Mansoor Ahmad Khan, commented on a future Afghan government, in a speech on 23 March saying: “whether it is an interim government or provisional settlement or the future roadmap—political roadmap of Afghanistan, it must be agreed among Afghan stakeholders” (quoted here, also see here). 

Kabulov also hinted in his interview quoted above that China agreed with the idea of an interim government. The director of the Analysis Centre of the Russian Society of Political Scientists, Andrey Serenko, wrote in the Moscow-based Nezavisimaya Gazeta that he believes Beijing prevented this demand from being included in the Moscow statement in order not to alienate the Afghan government, which had repeatedly rejected this idea (as on 23 March, see here). Reuters quoted “a diplomatic source whose country [was] present in Moscow” as saying that Tehran also “had communicated it would accept an interim government so long as it had representation from minority ethnic groups that have historic ties with Iran.” There was no official Iranian reaction to the Moscow meeting.

Meanwhile, Reuters reported that “traditional U.S. partners including European and NATO nations felt sidelined by Washington’s regional push.” There seems to be a lack of clarity in European circles about the details of the US plan. Reportedly, the United Nations was also not present at the Moscow talks.

Afghan domestic policy aspects

Some important domestic developments inside Afghanistan complemented the Moscow meeting. First, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani indirectly rejected the US peace plan’s central aspects, particularly – and repeatedly – the installation of an unelected interim government. Two anonymous “senior government officials,” told Reuters on 23 March that Ghani would propose his own new peace plan at the Istanbul conference, with a snap presidential election within six months or a year (the latter mentioned in this media report). It is not clear whether Ghani would attend this conference in person, but it appears there is US pressure for him to do so. According to one official, Ghani would only attend if Taleban leader Mowlawi Hebatullah Akhunzada or Mullah Yaqub, the son of late Taleban founder Mullah Muhammad Omar also participate. 

Second, the conspicuous absence of former Balkh governor Nur Muhammad Atta, a regular guest at previous meetings in Moscow, was noteworthy. Instead, he attended a congress of the largest faction of his splintered Jamiat-e Islami party, where he was elected chairman against two other candidates on 18 March. Before, he had been chairman of the Executive Council of the party since 2013 (AAN reporting here), a time during which Jamiat split into three factions. The main splinter group, led by Salahuddin Rabbani, former foreign minister and son of the party’s founder, the late Borhanuddin Rabbani, immediately challenged the election. Ismail Khan, another influential Jamiat leader who had attended the meeting of Atta’s faction, criticised his election, calling it “completely fraudulent and fabricated.” (Ismail Khan had reportedly not run, but he did not explain if he was present during the vote.) 

The congress of the Atta faction came only three days after four important leaders from across the old unified Jamiat, including Atta, Rabbani, Yunos Qanuni and Ahmad Zia Massud – the latter two former vice presidents of the country – met in Kabul, ostensibly to coordinate their approach for the upcoming Moscow meeting. Afghan media also speculated that ways toward the reunification of the party had been discussed. Apparently, Atta’s election was seen as a move to secure his home base in the party’s main faction before Jamiat holds a “general assembly after the Istanbul conference,” according to Ismail Khan.

In a third development, Dostum’s Jombesh party and Ahmad Massud, the son of assassinated Jamiat’s military chief Ahmad Shah Massud – tabled individual proposals to overcome what many believe to be an over-centralised political system in the country. Jombesh published an extensive plan for a “decentralisation of power” (that will not be further discussed here). In an interview with French broadcaster France24, Massud said that his late father’s vision of a “Swiss model, a decentralised system [and] a deconcentration of power“ was still a model for Afghanistan after the experience of the last 20 years.” Two years ago, Massud announced that he would start a – still-unnamed – political movement. Such a movement would also draw on and further split Jamiat’s constituency.

What was in it for Moscow?

Moscow has been a venue for Afghanistan-related meetings before. In December 2016, trilateral Russia-Pakistan-China consultations started. When India and the Afghan government felt excluded, it was expanded in 2017 to what the Russian government called the “Moscow format,” which also included Iran. The first meetings of this format took place in February 2017. In April 2017, the five former Soviet Central Asian republics were added. The Russian government intended to invite the Taleban for a meeting in September 2018, but the US and the Afghan government pulled out, and the meeting was delayed. The meeting, dubbed the Moscow Afghan dialogue, was finally held in May 2019. Officially, it was dedicated to the 100th anniversary of Russian-Afghan diplomatic relations. The question of whether there “will be negotiations or just a discussion on how to establish peace in Afghanistan” was left open by Kabulov. When only the Taleban, Karzai and some factional leaders from Kabul but none from the government attended, negotiations that Russia hoped to ignite did not take place (read AAN analysis here). In February 2019, Russia convened the first meeting called the inter-Afghan dialogue in Moscow (AAN analysis here), this time with members of the Afghan government. 

Russia’s goals with regards to Afghanistan “are ultimately unclear”, as Kirill Krivosheev, a journalist for the Russian Kommersant daily newspaper, wrote in an article for the Carnegie Moscow Center in mid-March this year. He termed Russia’s relationship with Afghanistan “a complex one, burdened with fears for the situation in Central Asia [ie, terrorism overspill’ from Afghanistan], the [geopolitical] standoff with the United States, and the trauma of the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s.” Foreign minister Lavrov also employed the anti-terrorism argument during his opening speech in Moscow, saying: “There are radical groups that are trying to use the situation on the ground, including Daesh, to strengthen their position and project their influence in the Central Asian region.”

Mindful of the political burdens described by Krivosheev, the Russian government under President Vladimir Putin, who has been in power since May 2000 (with a stint as Prime Minister in 2008-12), ie during the entire period of the US-led intervention, has used mounting US failures in Afghanistan to rebuild its influence in the country carefully (read this AAN analysis). The earlier Afghanistan-themed meetings in Moscow were designed to build a parallel strand of contacts with diverse Afghan players, with the option of turning them into a parallel negotiations process. But that strand faded, and the intra-Afghan dialogue moved to Doha – until the new US administration ran into problems and had second thoughts about the implementation of the troop withdrawal timeline agreed with the Taleban under Trump, and US secretary Blinken launched the Istanbul conference idea (AAN analysis of the plan here).

The Russian government’s calculus behind the latest Moscow meeting seems to stem from the US’s still undecided course in Afghanistan. It offered an opportunity to gain some ground in Afghanistan at Washington’s expense by developing and diversifying its relations with various Afghan players, in case the Ghani government collapses, for which it does not have much sympathy anyway, as it is propped up by the US and the ‘West’. Among Moscow’s diversified interlocutors are the Taleban. Russia reached out to them early after the start of the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. Concerns about the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan gave an additional impulse to the Russian reorientation vis-à-vis the Taleban, who had been considered a terrorist threat to Russia and its southern neighbours but are now seen fighting the local IS branch.

Furthermore, Russia re-intensified its relationship with what Krivosheev calls the “unofficial local leaders” of Afghanistan’s larger ethnic minorities, “especially … the ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks … in the northern provinces” of Afghanistan close to the border with the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. For this, he wrote, “Moscow is prepared to undermine the authority of the central government” in Kabul. Krivosheev concluded that “a deterioration in the situation in Afghanistan” and the possible failure of the new US plan would give Moscow “more ammunition to argue that the United States is failing in its role as global leader.” 

Moscow has undoubtedly not forgotten repeated accusations by the Trump administration that it was supplying weapons and cash to the Taleban, even paying them bounties for killed US soldiers, and more generally opening up “more of an assertive or contentious front against the United States and NATO” in Afghanistan (quoted here).

In contrast, Andrew Korybko, a Moscow-based American political analyst, wrote in a Pakistani newspaper on 16 March 2021 that the Moscow meeting “creates a unique opportunity for these two rival Great Powers to find some common ground between them despite their many differences elsewhere.” 

Is there a pro-peace concert of neighbours?

Who participated in the Moscow meeting and how it played out were heavily influenced by a multi-layered and shifting global and regional constellation involving the US, China, Russia, India and Pakistan. While the US and China are Pakistan’s key allies and donors, they are rivals on the global stage. India and Russia were traditional partners, going back to the Soviet days and India’s leading role in the non-aligned movement under Nehru and Indira Gandhi. But Moscow has been working for several years on improved relations with Islamabad, which does not go down well in New Delhi. A former high-ranking Pakistani military officer writing for a US-based think tank attributes this shift to Pakistan’s initiative, resulting from souring relations with the US after their 2011 special operation to kill Osama ben Laden. China and India are locked in a long-standing border dispute and their competition to be the leading power in Asia. India and Pakistan have gone to war with each other four times since independence (1947, 1965, 1971 and 1999) and were close to that several times more, as after the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai carried out by Pakistan-based groups and most recently during a series of clashed in disputed Kashmir in April/May 2020. Russia and China have moved closer together on the global scene in their shared race to challenge US leadership, having set up the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as a would-be eastern NATO, which also has an Afghanistan Liaison Group. While the two countries are more rivals than partners in Central Asia, their respective positions on Afghanistan are not far from each other. Finally, the US and Iran are still locked in their dispute about Tehran’s nuclear programme, and Iran currently refuses to engage with the US, at least officially (see also here).

Russian observers, such as Serenko and Sergey Strokan and Elena Chernenko, also writing for Kommersant daily, have criticised Moscow for jeopardising its traditional good relations with India by not inviting it to the extended Moscow troika meeting, pushing India closer to the US, which plans to invite India to the Istanbul conference. On the eve of the Moscow meeting, the Pakistani media reports quoted “a senior Pakistani official, who has direct knowledge of the development,” that the country’s leadership had formally conveyed to the US its “serious reservations over inviting India” to the planned UN conference on Afghanistan. Reportedly, during a phone conversation, army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa told US secretary Blinken that India was a “spoiler” that “cannot be assigned a role in the peace efforts.” 

According to Strokan and Chernenko, “leading Indian media” blamed the non-invitation to the Moscow meeting on Pakistan and China and called for a “reassessment of relations with Russia,” which has the status of a “privileged strategic partnership.” Kabulov, speaking to the Kommersant, only made things worse by explaining that “the extended troika … was created based on the criteria of the influence of all its members on both conflicting sides in Afghanistan. On the other hand, India has influence only on one of the parties – and according to this criterion, she was not invited to consultations in Moscow.” 

On a trip to Delhi immediately after the Moscow meeting, Afghan foreign minister Hanif Atmar met external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and national security advisor Ajit Doval. Unsurprisingly, he said that it was a “mistake” not to have invited India. Atmar called for India’s “enhanced role in strengthening regional and international consensus for the success of peace talks.” The Afghan government considers India its main regional ally as both countries have conflicts with Pakistan, which is geographically sandwiched between them. After Atmar’s visit, India stated its “readiness to participate in regional conferences on peace and development in Afghanistan, including … Peace Talks in Turkey,” according to Indian media. This, however, was not included in the Indian foreign ministry’s statement after the visit. Reflecting Kabul’s interest in having an ally at the conference, Atmar called for India’s “enhanced role in strengthening regional and international consensus for the success of peace talks.” 

Russian foreign minister Lavrov, before the meeting, tried to assuage Indian misgivings by announcing that this format was “in no way official, enshrined in some [permanent] decision.”Ironically, Vinay Kaura, an Indian analyst writing for the Washington DC-based Middle East Institute, quoted Ram Madhav, “a political figure close to the ruling establishment in New Delhi,” as writing that the Indian government “would display righteous indignation at being excluded from the … talks, but privately, the leadership was happy to be out of the quagmire.” Madhav calledAfghanistan “America’s latest bloody nose in Asia” and said: “The Americans want the mess to be handled by countries like India.” However, he said, India should be cautious about changing its strategy of “stay[ing] away from conflict resolution activity.”

Kaura also pointed out that Moscow is keeping New Delhi in the loop. In February, India’s foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla met his Russian counterpart Lavrov in Moscow for political consultations on multiple issues, including Afghanistan. American Russia analyst Korybko pointed out that India had “declined to participate in previous rounds of the Moscow peace process in an official capacity” and sent only former diplomats to the May 2019 Moscow meeting, for example.

Serenko questioned Russia’s overall Afghanistan strategy of banking on Karzai and the “veteran” leaders “of individual ethnopolitical clans” who, in his view, “can imitate some semblance of unanimity only in foreign capitals.” He wrote there was “no need to harbour illusions that [they] represent all of Afghan society and, moreover, are able to ensure its unity.” Serenko is also concerned about Russia gambling away its hard-won improved image in the Afghan public by siding with the US and Pakistan on the issue of the interim government, which he believes would “narrow the corridor of political opportunities in the region for Moscow.”

According to Iranian media, until a few days before the Moscow meeting, Tehran was expecting an invitation. This did not happen. The Russian state-run daily Izvestiya reported that the Taleban delegation in Moscow would travel directly to Tehran on 19 March to participate in an international “Tehran dialogue” also attended by the foreign ministers of Turkey and Afghanistan. Also, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi was in Tehran for a two-day visit on 26-27 March to “exchange views on international and regional developments,” which will undoubtedly have included discussions on Afghanistan.

Kabulov was quoted in the Russian media on 24 March as saying that “in particular, it would be very important and productive, if representatives of Iran joined our negotiation format as soon as possible.” He was also quoted as saying that “the Pakistanis are doing a lot to attract Iranian partners to these negotiations” and that he hoped “that in the very near future the Iranian partners will join this work.” Russia and Iran had repeatedly consulted on Afghanistan before the meeting, including in a quadrilateral format in May 2020 involving China and Pakistan and a November 2020 trilateral meeting involving India in Moscow, all on the special envoy level. Iran, reportedly, might also have been instrumental in establishing discrete Russian-Taleban contacts as early as 2015.

Conclusion

The ‘extended Troika’ meeting in Moscow on 18 March did not spark a significant new impulse in the search for peace in Afghanistan. Instead, it followed a well-known pattern: Foreign powers offer platitudes about an ‘Afghan led, Afghan-owned’ peace process, again, while they attempt to set the agenda and timeline and handpick those who are to be included in their plans, which are driven by their own and not Afghanistan’s interests. Moscow’s invitation of just one female participant and the absence of civil society actors speaks volumes on this.

The multi-layered network of interests and conflicts between the main global and regional powers, and the fact that Afghanistan is not the most pressing foreign policy priority for any of them, make control over the Afghan peace process – or the challenge thereof – part of their geopolitical power play. While the Moscow meeting seemed to indicate a temporary convergence of US, Russian and Chinese interests – with Pakistan, Turkey and Qatar going along for their own reasons – and resembled a broad cooperation such as the one that existed at the 2001 Bonn conference, the geopolitical situation – and particularly US-Russian and US-Chinese relations – is much more strained today. In such a context, there is always the option that Russia or China, for example, will decide to end this cooperation if they see it as advantageous in the bigger picture, ie by projecting the US as a failing world leader, gaining political capital or expanding political leverage. 

Russia’s efforts to revive its Afghanistan track in Moscow also reflects its willingness to exploit the US’ weaknesses to advance its own leverage. In this case, resulting from the new US administration’s uncertainty about meeting its 1 May 2021 troop withdrawal deadline or postponing their departure (the latter risks a breakdown of the February 2020 deal with the Taleban and consequently having to keep troops in Afghanistan even longer).

This constellation has forced Washington to seek the cooperation of Russia, China and Iran, despite rancorous relations with all of them. Such cooperation could also open back channels to tackle other bi- or multilateral issues.

As many Russia watchers agree, their country’s foreign policy ultimately aims at limiting Western strategic influence “in a broad arc from Syria and Iran through to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and the Central Asian states in what Moscow increasingly refers to as ‘Greater Eurasia.’” However, even some Russia analysts admit that the country does not possess the ability and willingness to play a leading role across the region, including Afghanistan. While some see the Moscow meetingas a public relations exercise and even a failure, as it strained Russia’s traditionally close relations with India, others consider it a “diplomatic coup” vis-à-vis the US.

If the latter is true, the US has apparently reacted by shifting Afghanistan-related negotiations to Turkey and keeping the option open to continue the Doha talks to prevent Moscow from becoming the main venue for the Afghan peace talks.

From Kabul’s perspective, the Moscow meeting was not a positive development. The non-participation of Iran and India excluded two countries Afghanistan perceives as more supportive of its own positions than those invited to Moscow (India, not least because of its ‘traditional’ conflict with Pakistan). The Afghan government is stuck between two unfavourable options. The US plan aims to replace it entirely, and the Russian initiative could strengthen domestic political rivals and have the same outcome as the US plan at its conclusion. 

The non-participation of Iran and India indicated the lack of concerted action or consensus about Afghanistan among the six powers Washington envisages could bring about a peace agreement in Istanbul. The regional infighting, including some mutual undermining, demonstrated how difficult it would be to get buy-in for the latest US plan from the most important neighbouring countries and powers with influence. This destabilises a major pillar of the plan and could even jeopardise the Istanbul meeting. Finally, it may exacerbate regional tensions, raising prospects that conflicting interests might attempt to ‘fill the vacuum’ created by the US withdrawal.

Edited by Roxanna Shapour

Annex

Joint Statement of extended “Troika” on peaceful settlement in Afghanistan, Moscow, 18 March 2021

On 18 March 2021, Moscow hosted a regular meeting of the extended “Troika” comprising representatives of Russia, China, the USA and Pakistan, which focused on making progress in the intra-Afghan process to reach a negotiated settlement and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire. The event was attended by representatives of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, prominent Afghan political figures, and representatives of the Taliban movement and Qatar and Turkey as guests of honour.

In the spirit of the discussions, as well as provisions of joint statements on the outcomes of previous ‘Troika’ meetings held on 22 March, 25 April, 11 July and 25 October 2019, online conferences held on June 3 and 30 November 2020, the four states participating in the extended ‘Troika’ have agreed as follows:

  1. We acknowledge the widespread and sincere demand of the Afghan people for a lasting and just peace and an end to the war and confirm that a sustainable peace can only be achieved through a negotiated political settlement.
  2. We call on all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan to reduce the level of violence in the country and on the Taliban not to pursue a Spring offensive, so as to avoid further casualties and to create an environment conducive to reaching a negotiated political settlement.
  3. As stated in the UNSC resolution 2513 (2020), we do not support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate and we call on the Government of the Islamic Republic and the High Council for National Reconciliation to engage openly with their Taliban counterparts regarding a negotiated settlement.
  4. We urge participants in the intra-Afghan negotiations to  engage immediately in discussions on fundamental issues to resolve the conflict, including the foundations of the future peaceful and stable Afghan State, the content of a political roadmap leading to an inclusive government, and the modalities of a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire. At this pivotal moment, our four states call on the parties to negotiate and conclude a peace agreement that will bring an end to over four decades of war in Afghanistan.
  5. We strongly advocate a durable and just political resolution that will result in the formation of an independent, sovereign, unified, peaceful, democratic and self-sufficient Afghanistan, free of terrorism and an illicit drug industry, which contributes to the creation of pull factors for the voluntary, sustainable and expeditious return of Afghan refugees, stability and global security.
  6. We call on all Afghans including the Government of the Islamic Republic and the Taliban to ensure that terrorist groups and individuals do not use Afghan soil to threaten the security of any other country.
  7. We reaffirm that any peace agreement must include protections for the rights of all Afghans, including women, men, children, victims of war, and minorities, and should respond to the strong desire of all Afghans for economic, social and political development including the rule of law.
  8. We encourage all concerned countries to support the Afghan people and contribute to a lasting peace in the interest of all. We reaffirm our commitment to mobilize international political and economic support for a post political settlement Afghanistan.
  9. We appreciate the long-standing support of the State of Qatar to facilitate the peace process, and we support the continuation of discussions between the parties’ negotiating teams in Doha, which began in September 2020 and which have resulted in meaningful progress toward a political settlement.
  10. We recognize and welcome all international efforts that are underway to facilitate and support a negotiated settlement as soon as possible. We note that the UN Secretary General Gutteres’ appointment of Mr. Jean Arnault as his personal envoy on Afghanistan and regional issues. We welcome the UN playing a positive and constructive role on the Afghan peace and reconciliation process.

References

References
1 From the presidential camp, there were chief negotiator Masum Stanakzai, Nader Naderi, peace affairs minister Sayed Mansur Naderi (no relation) and his deputy, ex-journalist Abdullah Khenjani, and – as the only women invited – ex-minister Habiba Sarabi. Also participating were Abdul Rashid Dostum, leader of the predominantly Uzbek tanzimJombesh-e Melli Islami (also Frahmand belongs to this faction); Muhammad Karim Khalili, leader of one faction of predominantly Hazara Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami; and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of the largest Hezb-e Islami faction, accompanied by two more Hezb leaders, MP Abdul Sattar Khawasi and Ghairat Bahir. Senator Alam Ezadyar represented predominantly Tajik Jamiat-e Islami (of which also Abdullah is a member). Wolesi Jirga speaker Rahman Rahmani who is now in opposition to Ghani. Afghanistan’s ambassador to Moscow, Sayed Tayeb Jawad, was also present.
2 Kabulov, who seems to enjoy the same considerable leverage on Afghan issues as his US counterpart Khalilzad, had already stated in May last year that Russian-Afghan relations were “not very rosy” and that “[i]n recent years, we have seen a cool attitude from Kabul both to the deepening of bilateral cooperation and to our initiatives on the track of Afghan national reconciliation.” In the same month, he held quadripartite video consultations with China’s special envoy for Afghanistan Liu Jian, Pakistan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Safdar Hayat, and Iran’s special envoy for Afghanistan Mohammad Taherianfard.

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Afghan-Russian relations Blinken letter Zamir Kabulov Moscow meeting Afghan peace talks Istanbul conference Pakistan regional relations China India

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