On the 4th of September, Russia will host a multi-party Afghan peace conference which will be attended by members of the Taliban in spite of the fact that their organisation remains illegal in Russia. Russia’s motive for calling the peace conference and for inviting the Taliban is indicative of the fact that no realistic peace process can arise in Afghanistan unless every single party to the internal conflicts in the war torn state can come to the table and reach some form of consensus. This is likewise the view shared by Pakistan, China, increasingly by Iran and has even been invoked by some US officials at various times.
While representatives of the current government in Kabul were to attend the meeting, it was later announced that they would not. Today however, Afghan officials were quoted by Reuters as stating that either Russian or Tajik warplanes bombed Taliban locations on the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Russian officials as well as Tajik officials have vehemently denied the accusation.
Given the fact that the independently issued statements of both Russia and Tajikistan carry more credibility than the allegations of Afghan government officials in such a context, the question is: why would Kabul officials spread such provocative rumours just over a week before the peace conference in Moscow?
There are several answers which are as self-evident as they are troubling. First of all, by accusing Russia and its Tajik partner of attacking the Taliban, the statement was designed to sow suspicion of Russia’s position vis-a-vis the Taliban at a time of multiple contradictory fake news stories about Moscow’s views on the Taliban. The reality is simple, the Taliban remain outlawed in Russia and seeing as the Taliban’s first government in Afghanistan was a result of a domino effect which stemmed from the execution of Soviet allied former Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah, the Taliban are anything but popular in Russia. That being said, Russia’s pragmatic problem solving regarding formulating its contemporary views on Afghanistan means that Moscow acknowledges the reality that as the Taliban control upwards of 50% of Afghan territory and continue to command support from much of the country’s ethnic Pashtun plurality, no peace process can be successful while cutting the Taliban out. In this sense, the Taliban attending the peace conference in Moscow should be seen as no more controversial nor contradictory than the time in 1978 when Israeli Premier Menachem Begin shook hands with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at Camp David while standing beside President Jimmy Carter.
Secondly, the statement from the Kabul officials lying about a Russo-Tajik airstrike also seek to imply that Russia does not respect Afghanistan’s territorial integrity. Even if such an airstrike occurred, it could have likely been justified by the Caroline Test, a recognised element of international law which allows for a limited and proportional military incursion into a neighbouring state if there is no other way prevent eminent danger. In this case, as Russia is a partner of Tajikistan with a shared modern history, such a Russo-Tajik airstrike against a militant group would have easily fallen within the scope of the Caroline Test.
That being said, the optics that the Kabul officials were trying to invoke by issuing the statement was one of Russian recklessness as the implication is that there was no attempt made by Moscow or Dushanbe to inform Kabul of the strike at any stage.
Taken in totality, Kabul is clearly trying to retard any would-be progress at the forthcoming peace conference while painting Russia as reckless by issuing a public lie about Russian activity in the country. This demonstrates a self-defeating attitude on the part of the Kabul government as Russia is a regionally respected superpower whose all-parties peace process represents the only realistic way in which Afghanistan can ever achieve peace.
The statements from the Kabul officials in question also make it clear that the US is using the Afghan government to do its dirty work. I’ve previously outlined why the US does not want to win the war in Afghanistan in the tradition sense, but instead seeks to prolong the war so as to retard the progress of economic cooperation between Afghanistan’s neighbours in the One Belt–One Road format. Because of this, a successful peace process, especially one conducted by America’s superpower rival Russia would be seen in Washington as a direct threat to America’s influence in the region. But while a war of words between superpowers is both predictable and consequently mundane, an anti-Russian statement from the Afghan government (which today’s outburst clearly was) serves the US purpose while having the perceived credibility of being derived from an indigenous rather than foreign source.
Therefore, today’s episode is instructive in helping the wider world to learn that elements of the Afghan government are both compromised and incompetent while also acting recklessly against the interests of peace in their own nation. In this sense, Kabul has done Russia a favour as now it will know exactly what it is dealing with before the September peace conference even begins.