German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Moscow visits invariably draw apt attention as she has performed a unique role as an intermediary between the West and Russia during her 16 years in power.
Even in the most trying times in Europe’s ties with Russia, Merkel could get through to Vladimir Putin, and the Western capitals looked up to her for moderating tensions from reaching a flashpoint.
Putin also saw Merkel as an irreplaceable interlocutor who was among the most authoritative European leaders and could be of help to put across Russian viewpoints. Therefore, their exchanges inevitably became occasions to coordinate positions on the challenges of global politics.
Putin and Merkel prioritized the issue of Afghanistan when they met in the Kremlin on Friday on what was also the latter’s farewell visit to Russia before retirement from politics next month.
After the talks, at their joint press conference, President Putin spoke about the dramatic developments in Afghanistan. Quite obviously, he was addressing the Western audience. In Putin’s estimation:
- The Taliban now control “almost the entire territory” of Afghanistan, including Kabul. This is the reality that is crucial for the preservation of the Afghan state.
- A prescriptive approach to impose Western democratic values is “irresponsible,” given Afghan historical, national or religious specifics. The Soviet Union tried to “modernize” Afghanistan but failed, and it proved “counterproductive.”
- The Taliban’s behavior gives reason for hope. Armed hostilities have ended, social order is being restored and personal safety of Afghans and the security of diplomatic missions is being guaranteed. The West should take note, and the United Nations could play a “coordinating role.”
- Western elites are beginning to realize that political standards and norms of behavior cannot be imposed on Afghanistan ignoring the country’s ethnic and religious structure and historical traditions. This understanding, it is hoped, will lead to realpolitik.
- Afghans should be allowed “the right to determine their future,” and even if some developments are not to the liking of outsiders, the accent should be on building good-neighborly relations with respect for each other’s interests.
- Russia is willing to “team up” with the US and European countries to pursue robust efforts to help normalize the Afghan situation and establish good-neighborly relations.
Putin refused to discuss the US defeat in the war, saying “concentrating on it for too long, emphasizing this failure does not serve our interests.” He sounded cautiously optimistic about Western opinion leaning toward dealings with a Taliban-led Islamic Emirate.
Russia probably senses that the direct contacts between the US and the Taliban are assuming a constructive spirit.
Indeed, US President Joe Biden’s lengthy remarks on Saturday regarding Afghanistan contained no condemnatory references to the Taliban. Biden took note that “as we continue to work the logistics of evacuation, we’re in constant contact with the Taliban, working to ensure civilians have safe passage to the airport.”
Biden said “potential terrorist threat at or around the airport, including from the ISIS affiliates in Afghanistan,” remains a cause of concern, and he highlighted that ISIS is “the sworn enemy of the Taliban.”
Biden repeated: “We’ve been in constant contact with the Taliban leadership on the ground in – in Kabul, as well as the Taliban leadership at Doha, and we’ve been coordinating what we are doing. That’s why we were able – for example, how we got all of our embassy personnel out, how we got everyone out of the embassy safely that was at a distance.
“That’s how we helped get the French out and – out of their embassy … To the best of our knowledge, the Taliban checkpoints – they are letting through people showing American passports … we have an agreement that they [Taliban] will let pass through the checkpoints that they – the Taliban – control. They’ve let Americans through.”
On Saturday, the Taliban’s political head Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar made overtures for a relationship with the US. He tweeted: “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan wants diplomatic and trade ties with all countries, particularly with the United States of America.”
Baradar denied media reports that the Taliban have no intentions to have diplomatic and trade ties with the United States. “We never talk about cutting off trade ties with any countries. Rumor about this news has been a propaganda. It is not true,” he said.
Significantly, Biden had a call with Qatar Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on Saturday. The White House readout said Biden reaffirmed the “long-standing friendship” between the two countries” and “thanked the Emir for the important role Qatar has long played to facilitate intra-Afghanistan talks. The two leaders underscored the importance of continued close coordination on developments in Afghanistan.”
The working relationship at Kabul Airport is indeed generating the critical mass for broader US-Taliban cogitations. Qatar has a key role to play here.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.