With the Afghan peace process stalled in Doha and the Biden administration mulling its policy options, Russia is jumping into the fray to ensure its interests in any post-conflict scenario.
Those include a full withdrawal of US troops, an end to the long-running war on its border, and Afghanistan’s eventual integration into the emerging Eurasian Economic Union.
On Thursday, Moscow hosted a peace conference between President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the rebel Taliban, a gambit that called for a ceasefire between the warring parties and pushed for a power-sharing agreement.
The US, China and Pakistan all sent representatives to the conference. Reports indicated the US supported Russia’s peace-making role.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he hoped the Moscow conference will “help create conditions for achieving progressive inter-Afghan relations,” while warning that “further delays are unacceptable.”
Economic incentives for peace are being broached. Earlier this month, Uzbekistan announced it would hold a conference this summer titled “Central And South Asia: Regional Interconnectedness, Challenges And Opportunities.”
The core purpose of the conference is to expose South Asian countries – Pakistan and Afghanistan – to the idea of expanding China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)projects in Pakistan northwards via Afghanistan into Central Asia.
The conference comes against the backdrop of an earlier decision taken by Pakistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan to jointly build a railway network connecting South Asia with Central Asia via Afghanistan.
The end of war in Afghanistan remains crucial for the success of the so-called “North CPEC” project, or “N-CPEC.” With that goal of integrating Afghanistan to the greater Eurasian geo-economic landscape in mind, Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan has steadily increased.
While hosting the Taliban and Afghan representatives from the opposition and Ghani’s government, Russia is clearly keen to establish ties with all of Afghanistan’s major stakeholders.
Moscow has good relations with Kabul, with the latter not only buying Covid vaccines from Russia but also inviting Russia to take part in building the broached Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan railway network.
Moscow is also benefitting from growing friction between Kabul and the US, with relations at a new low.
Afghanistan’s First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, for example, recently said that Kabul thanks the US for 20 years of financial and military assistance, but that it will not take orders from Washington.
His comment came in response to the US’ recent unilateral suggestion that Ghani’s government share power with the Taliban in a transitional arrangement before new elections could be held.
In the wake of that discord, Moscow becomes a natural choice for many in Kabul as well as other regions of Afghanistan beyond Kabul’s political reach.
Ata Muhammad Nori, leader of Afghanistan’s Tajik community, has been a special guest in all rounds of peace talks in Moscow. His presence indicates Moscow’s policy to maintain good ties with as many power centers in the conflict as possible, especially in the northern provinces that border former Soviet territories.
Crucially, Moscow has also developed strong ties with the Taliban, which controls almost two-third of Afghanistan’s territory, including in the south.
Not only does Russia support the Taliban’s inclusion in an interim government, but it also subscribes to the Taliban’s narrative that the US has chiefly breached its peace deal brokered in February 2020.
Both sides have claimed the other have failed to uphold their commitments under the deal, which could result in a delay in America’s vow under the deal to completely withdrawal its troops by this May. Biden is reportedly considering a delay to the withdrawal, amid fears it could pave the way for a Taliban walkover of Ghani’s government forces.
Russia’s position vis-à-vis the Taliban is a result of not only increasing direct contact between the two sides, but also reflects a convergence of their interests.
After the Taliban’s visit to Moscow in January 2021, Russian president’s Afghanistan representative, Zamir Kabulov, referred to the Taliban as Afghanistan’s “national movement” and portrayed how the Russians see the Taliban:
“We see it as a national movement with its own political and ideological goals. Like any national movement, it has a right to exist, especially since the Taliban have proved their vitality and role during 20 years of war in Afghanistan, including against foreign troops:
“We believe that it has a certain social support in Afghanistan, not in the whole country, of course.
“That is why we treat the Taliban as a real military and political force, which is now pursuing its goals mainly by force, but we are in favour of this movement coming to a purely political settlement.
“About a third of the militants and field commanders are mostly young people who have not fought, and are not fighting out of mercantile interests, but believe that they are fighting for Islam, for the independence of Afghanistan, for the liberation of it from foreign occupiers, true to the ideas of global jihad.”
As it stands, as Kabulov explained further, Russia wants to see real intra-Afghan negotiations towards reaching a political settlement.
This ambition, however, has little possibility of realization through the Doha track, where the Afghan government and Taliban have been merely talking about talks for months while violence escalates on the ground in Afghanistan.
Russia is not only increasingly coordinating with Pakistan and China – as well as the US – to devise a new platform for talks, but is also offering a “Moscow mechanism” for genuine intra-Afghan talks.
One reason why Russia is willing to expand its efforts and make the “Moscow mechanism” multilateral is that it understands Afghanistan is too complex a puzzle to be resolved unilaterally.
The fact that even the US no longer views Russia’s influence in Afghanistan as malign and has recently proposed to ask the UN to convene a multinational meeting on the matter including representatives from Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and India shows that the Biden administration is willing to give Russia a prominent place at the final negotiating table.
With its perceived as pro-Taliban position, Russia is preparing to consolidate its position in Afghanistan in the coming months.
Not only does Russia’s positive view of the Taliban have implications for the Taliban’s position vis-à-vis the US and Kabul in negotiations, especially in terms of making Afghanistan into an Islamic Republic which, as Kabulov said in an interview, is not a problem from Moscow’s view – it will also allow Russia to ensure the US and NATO have minimal influence in post-war Afghanistan.
In that non-NATO context, Russia would apparently be more willing to help beef up Afghan security forces to make sure they have enough capacity to tackle terrorist threats coming from ISIS, known as IS-K in Afghanistan, and prevent its expansion in the Central Asian states and into Russia itself.
Significantly, that is one of America’s chief goals for a post-war Afghanistan as well.