Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai, head of the Taliban's political office, left, attends peace talks on Afghanistan at the President Hotel in Moscow on November 9, 2018. Photo: AFP / Sefa Karacan / Anadolu Agency
Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai, head of the Taliban's political office, left, attends peace talks on Afghanistan at the President Hotel in Moscow on November 9, 2018. Photo: AFP / Sefa Karacan / Anadolu Agency

“A modest first step in restoring full-fledged negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban.” This was how senior Russian senior diplomat Zamir Kabulov defined the landmark conference in Moscow last week, which aimed to find a resolution to the long-running Afghan conflict.

Although the two warring sides would not admit they were in “official” negotiations, that the talks took place at all was an achievement. This was the first time that a Taliban delegation had publicly attended talks together with representatives of Kabul’s Western-backed government.

While no major breakthrough was reached, the conference suggests that Moscow is reasserting itself as a player in the war-torn country.

During the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov seated himself between the two opposing factions, playing the role of mediator.

“The problems of Afghanistan can be solved solely by political means, through the achievement of a national consensus with the participation of all the warring parties,” he said  at the opening the talks, which took place in a large hotel in central Moscow, and which was attended by representatives of 11 countries, including China, India, Iran and Pakistan. A US diplomat was also invited as an observer.

As the conference came to a close, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement saying that the parties “agreed to continue consultations within the framework of this mechanism.”

With Afghanistan bordering central Asia states that were former Soviet republics, Moscow has long had an interest in Afghanistan, where, in the 19th and 20th centuries, it dueled for influence with the United Kingdom in “the Great Game.” But for Russians, the Moscow event also evoked painful and more memories of the 1978-1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which ended with the humiliating retreat of the Red Army.

That withdrawal of Soviet troops from the ravaged country presaged the fall of the USSR, and the rise of the global jihadi movement. In Afghanistan, the power vacuum left by Moscow was filled by the Taliban which took over the country from 1996, only to be ousted five years later by a US-led invasion.

Currently, a resurgent Taliban controls much of Afghanistan’s rural territory.

‘Unofficial’, but jovial

The Taliban delegation in Moscow consisted of members of the organization’s political office in Doha, which has been lately acting as the diplomatic organ of the armed insurgency.  The Taliban’s presence in Moscow attracted considerable media attention – understandable given that the organization is officially banned in Russia and classed as a“terrorist” group.

Though organized in an “unofficial” format, the conference was seen as a first meaningful step that could lead to official negotiations between the government led by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban armed insurgency.

Even so, neither side wanted to make an “official” commitment.

Instead of formal diplomats, Kabul sent representatives of the Afghan High Peace Council, a semi-official organ created to seek dialogue with the insurgents. Ghani’s decision not to send official delegates may be a sign of his uncertain commitment to the Moscow-led talks at a time when the US is also sponsoring a parallel peace initiative.

According to political analyst and Afghanistan expert Arkady Dubnov, that decision might have been taken under pressure from the US government, which, for the past 17 years, has been backing Kabul in the fight against the Taliban. “The US don’t want to give Moscow a chance to become a serious player in the Afghan peace process”, told Dubnov Asia Times.

The meeting was unexpectedly jovial, with Kabul’s representatives and the Taliban exchanging hugs.

“This is not the first time we greet and hug each other – we met with the Taliban in different countries, including Qatar,” said the deputy head of Kabul’s delegation Abdurrahman Salim, as reported by Kommersant – although the Moscow meeting was the first time they had sat down for talks. “The Taliban are part of the Afghan people,” Salim added, noting that Kabul is willing to participate in negotiations with the Taliban, “anywhere in the world, mediated by any state, and at any time”.

Salim’s position was not reciprocated by the Taliban who, even before the talks took place, made clear that no negotiation with Kabul is possible as long as the US maintains its military presence in the country.

“This government does not represent the people of Afghanistan as it was brought to power by the Americans,” head of the Taliban delegation Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai said.

At present, a US withdrawal from Afghanistan appears unrealistic. President Donald Trump doubled the number of American troops on Afghan soil last year, bringing them to 14,000.

Still, the conference was used by the Taliban as an opportunity to increase their legitimacy in front of the international community.

Russians ‘not going back’

The talks look like a diplomatic success for the Kremlin, once again reclaiming a prominent role on a strategically vital corner of the global geopolitical chessboard. “Like the military intervention in Syria, Russian involvement in the Afghan conflict is a very useful PR tool and it is even easier to justify,” said Dubnov. “After all, Afghanistan is part of Russia’s southern ‘neighborhood.’”

Still Dubnov doubts that Moscow’s involvement in Afghanistan will involve boots on the ground. The “Afghan Syndrome” – the post-traumatic stress disorder affecting many Soviet soldiers who returned from Afghanistan – in the Russian collective consciousness is still too strong. A further factor is the presence of US troops. “As long as the Americans and NATO are present in Afghanistan, the country is off-limits for Russian troops,” Dubnov added.

By inviting the Taliban to the talks, Moscow has sent a message to the US, which has always refused to engage with the armed insurgency on an official level. “The presence of the US and NATO hasn’t only failed to solve the problem, it has exacerbated it,” said Kabulov in a press briefing after the conference.

By underlining the American failure in bringing the conflict to a solution, Moscow has positioned itself as a potential peace-maker in the perennially troubled region.

However, Russia has excellent grounds for doing so that are entirely domestic. Stabilization of the Afghan crisis and the recruitment of the Taliban would benefit Russian security. “Russia sees in the Taliban a potential ally in the battle against the Islamic State, which is very active in northern Afghanistan and threatens to infiltrate former Soviet republics in Central Asia,” Dubnov explained.

However, prospects of peace in Afghanistan still look far-fetched. “A single round of talks would never bring a solution to the conflict in Afghanistan, a country where war has been raging for the last 40 years,” commented Dubnov. “The road to peace will be a very long and painful process.”