Talks in Moscow have concluded between the Taliban and members of the High Peace Council of Afghanistan, a group with close ties to Kabul. In another historic move, Indian representatives were present at the table where peace initiatives were being discussed while representatives from China, Pakistan, the US and the central Asian republics were also invited.
While no side had expectations of any agreement being reached at the conference, the very fact that the conference was held is symptomatic of a new Russian strategy for the region that owes a great deal to the recent success of Russo-Turkish cooperation in Syria.
Russia has a long history dating back to the Soviet era in which Moscow supported the governments of both Afghanistan and Syria. Yet as both nations are currently in the midst of long running conflicts, Russia has recently pivoted its position from one of uniform support for Damascus and Kabul to one of mediation between warring factions. This might come as a surprise to those with sharp memories of the time that Soviet troops fought along side a leftist Afghan government against the Mujaheddin in the 1980s while it also might seem strange to some that the same Russian government that sacrificed Russian lives to help the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad fight terror groups is now working with Turkey to form a constitutional convention and long term dialogue process between Assad’s government and opposing forces.
But acting as a mediating force between the post-Mujaheddin Taliban and Kabul as well as the Syrian opposition and Bashar al-Assad’s government is exactly what Russia is presently doing. In the case of Syria, Russia’s historic rapprochement and resulting strong partnership with Turkey has helped Moscow officials ease into their role as a peacemaker in the Syrian conflict. The tangible results of this new reality have already achieved the following:
–A tense but ultimately successful Syrian National Dialpgue Congress held on Russian soil (successful as few thought it could have happened at all)
–The creation of multiple de-escalation zones in Syria with the cooperation of Turkey and Iran
–The Astana peace format
–A commitment secured between the Syrian government and opposition to engage in a constitutional convention that forms the core of the political peace process
–The creation of a de-militarised zone dividing the contentious Idlib Governorate between the Syrian Arab Army and armed groups opposed to Bashar al-Assad
In respect of Afghanistan and the wider south Asian region, Russia continues to develop closer ties with Pakistan which during the Cold War and indeed after was a US ally while also being a perpetually all-weather friend to China, a state which in the 1960s, 70s and 80s was a rival to the USSR for influence in south Asia. While the Russo-Turkish rapprochement has been very visible, the Russo-Pakistani rapprochement is equally significant and in many was has moved at a similar pace.
This has led Russia to take a far more nuanced position in Afghanistan than the one it took in the 1980s (as the USSR), 1990s or even the early 2000s. Today, Russia like China and Pakistan realises that the only hope for Afghanistan is for a meaningful political peace deal to be signed between the current Kabul government and the Taliban who today control more Afghan territory than at anytime since the US invasion of 2001.
While India had and continues to have a close relationship with Kabul as part of a long term strategy to surround Pakistan with hostile actors, the fact that Russia persuaded its Cold War Indian ally to send representatives (albeit in a technically non-official capacity) to the Moscow peace conference with the Afghan Taliban, represents a new reality where Russia is quietly playing a similar role in Afghanistan as the more visible role it is playing in Syria.
In Syria, Russia is not only the de-facto go-between regarding a Syrian and Turkish government that no longer have formal relations, but in terms of balancing between strategic interests, Russia which was once perceived to have a similar to position as Iran in respect of the Syrian conflict, is today balancing the interests of Turkey and Iran – two partner nations with different views on the nature of the Syrian conflict. At the same time, Russia is also balancing the mutual interests of Israel and the United States against those of Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Damascus. This reality could be important if juxtaposed in an Afghan peace process where the United States, Iran and pro-Iranian factions in Afghanistan also have deeply vested interests.
Likewise, in Afghanistan, Russia retains open communications with Kabul while also working to draw the Taliban into a dialogue based political peace process all the while balancing Pakistan and India’s concerns in the region in the same way that in Syria, Russia balances the Iranian and Turkish position. Of course, this balancing act in Afghanistan is even more critical as while Turkey and Iran are experiencing a renaissance in relations (in spite of some lingering disagreements on Syria), India and Pakistan remain hostile neighbours.
The fact that Afghanistan’s political institutions have never been as strong as Syria’s at any time in the last 1,000 years makes the Afghan peace process a far more entangled and consequently slow moving affair than that which is transpiring in the Levant. That being said, the overall success that has resulted in Russia’s ability to balance multiple seemingly competing interests in Syria does provide a model that could potentially deliver to Afghanistan and its neighbours the kind of peace that is desperately needed.