On September the 4th, the Russian government will hold a multiparty Afghan peace conference in Moscow. It has now been confirmed that representatives of the Afghan Taliban will participate in the conference. This announcement itself comes just over a month after the Russian President’s special envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov stated that the Taliban now control over 50% of Afghanistan’s territory.
The revelation from Kabulov regarding the extent to which the Taliban dominate the literal political landscape of Afghanistan is crucial as it represents Russia’s official determination of a highly contested question regarding just how profound the resurgence of the Taliban has been since 2001. Equally important to determining how much territory the group which remains outlawed in Russia controls, is determining how much political influence the Taliban have and where. The answer to this comes relatively easily. Perhaps ironically, the Taliban now control much of northern Afghanistan which in the 1990s was the base of the anti-Taliban coalition Northern Alliance which for a time was supported by Iran, Russia and India. Today not only has the internal political geography of Afghanistan changed but so too have international positions regarding the internal politics and disputes of Afghanistan.
The biggest shifts in policy among the concerned powers since the 1990s is as follows:
–While still outlawed in Russia, Moscow now accepts that in a clearly articulated peace process, certain elements of the Afghan Taliban will have to be involved in a negotiated political settlement within Afghanistan as there is no other realistic way to hold Afghanistan together as a peaceful state.
–While still clearly ideologically opposed to the Taliban, Iran has decided to back a general peace process rather than fund specific anti-Taliban factions as was the case in the 1990s when after 1996 the Taliban formed a theocratic government in Kabul.
–Going back to the 1980s, China’s Afghan policy was framed within the context of the Sino-Soviet split which saw neighbours on historically good terms act as rivals. This also helped to maintain good Sino-Pakistan relations even during the era of the widely pro-US General Zia. Now however, the Afghan policy of Beijing and Moscow is virtually identical as both states work closely in calls for a peace process as well as coordinating efforts to preempt a fragile situation on Afghanistan’s borders from becoming worse.
–In many ways, Pakistan’s position has remained the most consistent, certainly since the 1990s. Pakistan has historically feared Pasthun ethno-nationalism being used by Kabul or Kabul’s de-facto overlords as a means of stirring provocations inside Pakistan’s borders. Furthermore, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is aware that those who seek to threaten the unity and territorial integrity of Pakistan have and could continue to use Afghanistan as a base for terror operations in the south-western province of Balochistan.
Because of this, Pakistan has long sought a stable/united government in Kabul that neither has territorial ambitions which could threaten regional stability and likewise, Pakistan has sought internal security in Afghanistan in order for the country not to become a base of anti-Pakistan operations. Therefore, just as Pakistan has long asserted that Afghanistan requires stability combined with a good neighbourly policy of non-interference in the affairs of others, now Iran, China and Russia have come to embrace this pragmatic and security based position as the best possible way to end decades of conflict in Afghanistan.
As Iran’s southern province of Sistan and Baluchestan is now threatened by many of the same extremist forces that have long threatened Pakistan’s province of Balochistan, Islamabad and Tehran are now working ever more closely on coordinated strategies. This highly positive rapprochement between neighbours who prior to the 1980s were on extremely good terms is a crucial development in creating a united front of responsible nations in Asia.
In so far as Iran-Pakistan cooperation is required regarding neighbouring provinces, the Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Major General Mohammad Hossein Baqeri is currently in Pakistan for a three day visit to discuss these matters in a clear sign that if anything, lats week’s meeting between Chinese, Russian, Iranian and Pakistani officials helped to strengthen ties between Tehran and Islamabad.
Russia delivers its promise to bring the Taliban into the peace process
In July of this year Zamir Kabulov stated ,
“History, including Afghan history, teaches us that problems must be resolved before they grow into a serious threat. In order to facilitate the process of launching negotiations we, already last year, we initiated dialogue of the so-called Moscow format. By the end of this summer, we will organise another meeting in this format, but it needs thorough preparations to yield, if not a breakthrough, but a visible result. We want it to be the beginning of real progress, which is possible only when Taliban begins to speak with the Afghan government or with a more or less broad spectrum of the Afghan establishment”.
In bringing the Taliban to the table, Russia has certainly not guaranteed a positive outcome of the talks but compared to the flimsy and temporary ceasefires that the Taliban often enter into with the Kabul government, having representatives of the government and opposition parties including the Taliban (which for the purposes of the peace conference will be treated akin to a normal opposition party) sit together in a peaceful and neutral environment, this will help to at least mentally prepare all Afghans for the possibility of the talks leading to the formation of a peace minded all-parties government.
While the United States will not participate in the meeting as was easily foreseen due to America’s obstructionist goals in Afghanistan, Russia has proved that in adapting its own Afghan policy to present realities where any kind of lasting peace would be impossible without an all-parties approach, Moscow is willing to be at the forefront of the necessary however difficult discussions that are the only hope of ending the decades long factional battles that have made Afghanistan cease to function as a normal state.
While the full outcome of the September meeting cannot be easily anticipated, accusations that Russia is somehow “capitulating” to the Taliban or otherwise “facilitating” Taliban rule can be easily preempted and exposed as sham arguments. While the Taliban remain an outlawed organisation in Russia and have indeed committed multiple atrocities, what the Afghan Taliban are not is an international (key word) terror group. Indeed, during their last time in power over the country between 1996 and 2001, Afghanistan was an incredibly reactionary society to be sure but not an outwardly violent one. The fact that a genuine terror group al-Qaeda effectively rented space from the Taliban in the late 1990s and early 2000s is often used to illustrate the Taliban’s ambitions as a global terror group. In reality, the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the 1990s and early 2000s was more of a fiscal relationship than an ideological one. This was made clear by the fact that the Taliban were willing to cooperate in handing over al-Qaeda’s leadership to a third party after the 9/11 atrocity with the aim of facilitating an extradition to the United States of al-Qaeda’s kingpins.
None of this is to say that the Taliban have a moral standing – no such argument could or should be responsibly made. But the truth of the matter is that no faction in Afghanistan has a morally unimpeachable standing, while at the same time the Taliban continue to dominate not only vast swaths of Afghan territory but also command the support of a sizeable number of the country’s Pashtuns – the ethnic plurality of Afghanistan. Therefore when taken in totality, Russia has made a pragmatic decision to bring about peace that includes all domestic Afghan factions in the knowledge that to do otherwise would be to perpetuate the longest game of blood soaked cat and mouse in recent history.