The Kremlin’s appointment of Zamir Kabulov as presidential envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan and head of the Russian foreign ministry’s Asia and Middle East department also signals a strategic rethink about how Moscow views the Pakistan-Afghanistan beltway. With this Moscow looking to create new road-maps for reconciliation, it will also be important to ensure that the political dysfunctions of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) do not carry forward as new emerging stakeholders look to take on greater leadership roles in upcoming negotiation cycles.
Moscow, which for years opposed Afghan Taliban, has recently changed its position and now sought direct talks between the Ghani administration and insurgents. It also hosted a trilateral meeting in December last year involving China and Pakistan. The support to peace efforts by two key international players is seen as diplomatic victory for Pakistan. Pakistan has always supported Afghan-led and Afghan-owned reconciliation process, underlined the importance of intensifying efforts in this regard, and suggested to adopt flexible measures to remove the names of certain Taliban members from the sanctions lists in order to encourage peace talks.
Pakistan also remains the only regional player to insist on an Afghan-led political solution to the crisis in Afghanistan, even as Kabul struggles to extend the writ of the state beyond its city limits. It now controls or influences just 52 percent of the nation’s districts compared to 72 percent of districts that were under its control in 2015. An estimated 15 percent of Afghanistan’s districts have slipped from the government’s control over the past six months. Now, with Russia having upped its interest in Afghanistan in a manner that may favour the Taliban in the short term.
On the other hand, Taliban, who previously considered Russia an enemy, have welcomed the trilateral initiative, expressing that “it is joyous to see that regional countries have also understood that the Taliban are a political and military force and that the proposal forwarded in the Moscow tripartite of delisting members of the group is a positive step in bringing peace and security to Afghanistan.” Similarly, the recent unexpected contact between Russia and the Taliban over their common enemy, the IS, has brought a new dimension to the Afghan issue. Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, had recently expressed that the “Taliban interests objectively coincide with ours.” While Russia’s outreach towards the Taliban appears to be political, the apparent deepening of ties between Russia and the Taliban has been an issue of concern for Afghanistan and the US who are concerned that “Russian support may lead to or include weapons or funding.
Policy makers from US acknowledged the Moscow Afghanistan peace initiative; President Putin smart tactic to increase Russians influence in the region. Hence, the Trump Administration declined the invitation of the Moscow to participate in the multinational meeting scheduled on April 14, 2016. The absence of the United States in the meeting obviously reflects the divergence of opinion of the Great Powers over the peace process in Afghanistan.
Beijing has traditionally maintained a limited role in Afghanistan has begun to play a more proactive and constructive role in helping to bring about stability in Afghanistan by offering to provide necessary facilitation between the Afghan government and the Taliban in realizing reconciliation. Since 2014, China has hosted a number of Taliban delegations and has taken part in several initiatives including the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) to help foster talks. China’s increasing interest and involvement in Afghanistan stems from its fears of the possible spread of militancy into its Sinkiang province, spread of IS and its support to the Chinese militant groups i.e. ETIM separatist group based in Sinkiang. Apart from the spread of militancy, ongoing instability in Afghanistan continues to be a major hurdle for interconnectivity in the region and the implementation of CPEC.
Tehran must be pleased over its inclusion. Along with Russia and India, it has supported the Northern Alliance against the Taliban between 1996 and 2001. Now it has balanced its policy and has been in contact with Taliban. Like Russia, Iran finds ISIS more dangerous and its priority is to eliminate them as a threat. Russian President Vladimir Putin, after meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the Kremlin, urged a direct negotiation between the Afghan government and the Taliban. “We discussed the situation in Afghanistan, stressing the importance of national reconciliation in that country,” Putin said Tuesday.
“Russia believes that Iran made a fruitful contribution at multilateral talks in Moscow in February by joining the international efforts aimed at the launch of a constructive dialogue between the Afghan government and Taliban militants.” Moscow and Islamabad have indeed held discussions to merge the corridor with the Russian-sponsored Eurasian Economic Union. Pakistan accession as a full member state of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization later provides another platform for Islamabad to pivot itself in the increasingly competitive Pan-Asian arms and energy market.
For the upcoming talks, Moscow has invited 12 nations for the restoration of peace in Afghanistan on April 14, 2017, in Moscow. China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, India and Central Asian nations are among the invitees to the Moscow conference. Many analysts believe that the Russians practical involvement in the Afghanistan affairs is a continuation of its assertiveness in the Eurasian region. Secondly, it’s efforts to prevent IS from spreading its tentacles in the war-torn Afghanistan. Besides Russians, the Chinese are also actively participating in the Afghan peace efforts. Beijing is equally scared from the spread of IS influence in Afghanistan. The forthcoming meeting accentuates Russians and Chinese convergence of opinion over the peace process in Afghanistan and thwarting IS making inroads close to o the borders of Central Asian countries.
What is significant of the Moscow talks is that both Pakistan and India will join other regional countries to discuss the future of Afghanistan. Although, Islamabad and New Delhi are part of Heart of Asia conference. Given divergent interests as well as current strain in ties, it is not clear how Pakistan and India will come together on the issue of Afghanistan. On the other hand Dialogue has taken place at a time when relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan are at their lowest following a series of tensions revolving around perpetual mistrust, Afghan Taliban, vicious blame game, reignited border clashes and repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan.
While Pakistan has expressed its willingness to extend every kind of cooperation for lasting peace in Afghanistan and has agreed to revisit its policy on repatriation, authorities in Afghanistan have been less forthcoming, and it appears that until such contentious issues are addressed, particularly those of security and border management, relations will continue to plummet. While Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran are all in favour of direct talks with the Afghan Taliban, India is reluctant to support such a move fearing that this will provide legitimacy to the insurgents.
China and Russia seem to be more reliable towards Pakistan compared to the U.S. While Washington has weakened its diplomatic support to Islamabad, Beijing and Moscow seem to be eager to continue defending Pakistanis on the diplomatic sphere. Pakistan backing Russians’ Afghanistan peace initiative. It contributed in the three trilateral meetings that were held for deliberation during the recent months. Certainly, the upcoming Moscow multilateral meeting is the outcome of Russians, Chinese and Pakistani efforts.
Co-Author: Rana Shahid Saleem ,MPhil Defence & Strategic Studies, Quaid -I-Azam University ,Islamabad.