As a major development Moscow hosted 27th December, 2016 third round of trilateral consultations on regional problems, involving special representatives on Afghanistan and senior officials from Russia, China and Pakistan. Though representative from the problematic country Afghanistan and other key players were missing in unprecedented talks but Taliban’s positive response to the trilateral outcomes, signals proxy war in violence-stricken country is taking new shape.
Pakistan and China though have their own rationales to engage multilateral peace efforts in Afghanistan but Russian involvement to facilitate peace process between Afghan government and Taliban raise the eyebrows as what determines dictates Russian policy on the Afghan question? What are Russian interests for emerging situation in Afghanistan?Are Taliban ready to join Russian bandwagon and is Russia came back in Afghanistan?
If we look at joint statement as an outcome of ‘third round of trilateral consultations’ is significant for three reasons, firstly Russia, Pakistan and China expressed concerns for “worsening security situation” in Afghanistan and “worries” about intensifying activities by extremist groups, including the Afghan branch of ISIS. Secondly an agreement emerged over the continue efforts to assist in furthering the national reconciliation process in Afghanistan, based on the key role of the Afghans themselves and in line with the principles of “integrating the armed opposition into peaceful life”. Finally, Russia and China being permanent members of the UN Security Council assured support exclusion of certain individuals from the list of sanctioned persons as part of efforts to promote a “peaceful dialogue” between Kabul and the Taliban movement.
Historically, since 1722 the Battle of Gulnabad, Afghanistan remained a battle ground for proxies among the regional and extra regional players for centuries before and after the Cold War. In Hotaki Dynasty’s fight with Safavid Empire, Durrani Empire’s conflict with Maratha Emipre and Sikh Empire, between 1823-1926 during the so-called “Great Game”, the Soviets were competing with British empire over influence in Afghanistan. Amid the Cold War, when Soviet forces stepped in Afghanistan, they never fought with the Afghan Army, but Mujhideen backed by United States, facilitated by Pakistan, China and sponsored by Saudi Arabia.
Though Russian experts have their own explanation about Soviet forces’ involvement in Afghanistan as Dr. Petr Topychkanov, an associate at the Non-Proliferation Program, Carnegie Moscow Centre, in an interview rejected impression of ‘Soviet Invasion’.Explaining rationale to intervene in Afghanistan, he said Soviet forces stepped in because Afghan government requested to do so, because refusal to the request might have very bad impression to the Soviet allies all around the world, so we responded. History was not portrayed objectively; Soviet Union wasn’t ambitious to go beyond the Central Asia and warm waters or South Asia. “I believe that Soviet Union is itself responsible what happened in Afghanistan, we never blame anyone” he said.
Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan during 1989-92 Civil War, Russia supported Northern Alliance against Taliban, not recognized the regime was established, later on. Russia facilitated U.S./ NATO forces, the ‘War on Terror’ to oust Taliban. Even beyond Taliban regime, Russian major concern was to prevent Taliban to achieve full political and military success. But now situation in Afghanistan is changing, new actors are emerging on strategic chess board. After Putin’s meaningful intervention into the Syrian conflict, intentions for peace in Afghanistan despite having painful history with Taliban and new allies would provide an opportunity to be a legitimate actor in the emerging economic and security situation in the region.

At trilateral consultations, despite knowing the fact that two out of three actors were same who supported the Taliban to fight against the Soviet forces during the Afghan War. Perhaps Russia accepted Taliban as lesser evil comparing ISIS and pursuance of potential economic interest in the region. According to Zamir Kabulov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s director of the Second Asian Department in Afghanistan Presence of almost 2,500 Islamic State combatants in Afghanistan seems to be a bigger threat then Taliban. Moscow “is concerned over the rise of Islamic State in Afghanistan because it has far-reaching geopolitical consequences for Russian safety,” he said.

Russia has been in contact with Afghan government and Taliban leadership since 2007, that was the reason, it not objected the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) talks, led by U.S.  involving China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The QCG lacks sincerity, and failed. Failure of U.S. backed, ill-conceived reconciliation process and emergence of ISIS has given strategic space to Russia to step in and reassert influence in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s location at the crossroads of Central, South, and Southwest Asia, is vital for China through the OBOR Initiative and Russian Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). As for as economic interests are concerned, though Russia repeatedly rebuts the speculations about the discussions concerning merging the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), technically it may be correct as Russia has nothing to do with CPEC portfolio (CPEC is an engagement between Pakistan and China) but generally CPEC is part of China’s grand vision, One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative also known as Silk Road Economic Belt. Russian Foreign Ministry accepts merging the EAEU with the Chinese project of the “Silk Road Economic Belt” that was under discussion.
Continues instability in Afghanistan has became biggest hurdle for regional integration, economic prosperity and key source to threatening security to entire the region. Russian renewed economic and security interests compels to sort out anomalies of conflict resolution in Afghanistan. Kremlin backed reconciliation efforts have given ray of hope as Russia and China are ready to guarantee peace in but the biggest question, How peace prevails without taking regional and extra players on board, including India and Iran because nature of the Afghan conflict is not merely indigenous, it also contains some regional linkages.

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Almas Haider Naqvi is PhD Scholar at School of Politics and International Relations (SPIR), Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He is a senior journalist having experience of more than 15 years currently associated with Dunya News Group as Foreign Policy and Diplomatic Correspondent. In recognition of his credible reporting, Aghai Awards awarded him in 2015.