How the Moscow factor will play in Afghanistan

How the Moscow factor will play in Afghanistan

Salman Rafi Sheikh,
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, second from left, speaks as he attends a conference on Afghanistan bringing together representatives of the Afghan authorities and the Taliban in Moscow, Friday, Nov. 9, 2018. Photo: AP

While the Russian authorities were right in calling the recently held Afghan peace talks in Moscow ‘unique’ because of their ability to bring together forces that have been opposing each other or have not had any previous diplomatic contacts. This is clearly the case when we see the US and India sharing a diplomatic table with the Taliban, as also other countries including Pakistan, in search of peace for Afghanistan. Whereas the presence of such disparate elements (US and Iran, Taliban and India, India and Pakistan) in the summit does indicate the increasing acceptance of Russian role—and its leadership—in mediating the conflict, it also illustrates as to why the prospects for the resolution of Afghan war are brighter in this case than in other cases because of the sheer presence of all major stake-holders.

Even the US is no longer that averse to seeing Moscow playing a role. The US’ previous claims about Moscow allegedly ‘providing arms’ to the Taliban seem to have already lost the ground, and the US’ increasing in-ability to force the Taliban into accepting some, if not all, of the US demands means that the US has run out of its options. The US president’s renewed military push and devolution of powers to the generals on the filed haven’t worked either in terms of militarily denting, let alone defeating, the Taliban.

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Now Zalmay Khalilzad is going to travel to Moscow to discuss the peace process and possibly to coordinate the US peace plan with Moscow, hoping to actually regionalise the peace talks and get some concessions form the Taliban that the US might not be able to extract on its own.

For the US, taking this step is essential as it would not want to be left out of a process that clearly has the blessings of two of the permanent members of United Nations Security Council: Russia and China.

But for Russia as well, coordinating with the US is important for two reasons: the US is still the only major military player in the country, and it is also the major ally of the Afghan regime, which the Taliban aim to overthrow to insert themselves into the system. Therefore, a potential or even a real alignment with the US in Afghanistan would only help resolve the Afghan riddle, and at the same time, still allow Russia to assert itself in the region as a major peace-broker.

Indeed, Russia’s decision to play this role in Afghanistan has been greatly influenced by its successful military and diplomatic mission in the Middle East, particularly Syria. By playing the same role closer to home, Russia is aiming at consolidating its regional and global position; hence, Russia’s emphasis on regionalising its peace efforts and the subsequent inclusion of all major stake holders in the summit.

However, whether or not Moscow can succeed in its mission Afghanistan is contingent on circumstances that aren’t, unlike Syria, directly in its control. In Syria, the Russians have direct influence on the Assad government, and they are leading the Astana and Sochi peace processes in coordination with Iran and Turkey. But in Afghanistan, the Russians neither control the Taliban nor the US. Therefore, even if the Moscow initiative fails to gain traction and yield any concrete results, the blame will hardly be on Moscow, for the bone of contention isn’t between Moscow and the US or Moscow and the Taliban, but between the US and the Taliban, and the latter’s refusal to engage directly with the Kabul regime to start and intra-Afghan peace process unless the US agrees to a full withdrawal complicates the matter that the only the US can control by agreeing to the Taliban terms.

But the real worry for the moment for the US is no longer just how to convince the Taliban of the ‘necessity’ of keeping US military bases in Afghanistan, the real worry is that the Taliban’s regional and international political currency has increased manifold, and that it is a process that the US can’t stop even if it wants to, making the Taliban even more stronger for the US to defeat.

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As such, the fact that Moscow was able to gather so many players to attend a summit with the Taliban means that the Taliban have more friends in the world than was ever the case, and that some of these friends are currently the US’ most important competitors and rivals: Russia, China and Iran. And, were the US not to find a way out of Afghanistan, it will escalate the war, which means that these countries might actually start militarily supporting the Taliban to effect a truly military defeat on the US.

The US, however, cannot afford this. An escalation would mean that the US would start losing whatever support it has from the Afghan regime. Already, the representatives of the Afghan High Peace council have gone public in condemning the US for starting a war that it purportedly never wanted to end.

An escalation would also mean a political suicide for Donald Trump, who is already alarmed by the Republican’s defeat in the House of Representative elections, and prospects of his re-election would become a lot grim if he fails to deliver on his election promise of ending the war in Afghanistan. On the contrary, if he can strike a deal with the Taliban, even if it comes with the help of Moscow, he can certainly sell this to his voters who will see in him a man who pushed the US out of its longest ever war.

The US, therefore, has even more reasons to coordinate with Moscow than Moscow has to coordinate with the US.

The Moscow factor, therefore, is likely to end up working fine not only for Moscow itself, but for the Taliban who would use it to put pressure on the US, and for the US to re-deploy its ‘regional strategy’ through possible coordination with Moscow. In any case, Moscow will emerge as the central player.