Afghanistan

Expanded Afghan Talks – a Positive Move: Mian Sanaullah

china-president-xi-jinping-nawaz-sharif-russia-putinThe Russian government will shortly be hosting six-nation talks on Afghanistan. The participants will include Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and India.  According to Russian Foreign Minister, high-level participation from these countries has already been confirmed.

Given the existing rivalries and divergent policies of these six nations regarding instability in Afghanistan, the development has assumed exceptional significance. Would the outcome go beyond reiterating pious hopes, tired clichés and nice diplomatic rhetoric? There are hardly any tangible reasons to anticipate regional consensus essential to sustain Afghan national reconciliation process.

China, Russia and Pakistan have been claiming to promote Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process. But their conflicting practices and methods have so far led to nullifying efforts to secure peace and stability in Afghanistan.

Obviously, Russia and China are the primary movers for the expanded talks. Moscow is concerned about rise of ISIS and apprehends an imminent threat from around 2000 ISIS Russian veterans fleeing from Syria. It has increased its contact with Taliban as the latter could neutralize ISIS.  At the same time, it supports the Afghan government’s reconciliation process but wants the Afghan government to accept Taliban as political force.

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Photo Courtesy: VOA News

China is a major regional power, which has high stakes in the success of the proposed Moscow talks. Chinese are concerned about ISIS and its growing influence on Chinese Uighurs fighting against NATO forces and Afghan government. They fear that trained and motivated Uighurs may return to Xinjiang, fuelling new traction in the existing instability there.

If Pakistan is the invisible pusher for the meeting, its interest is understandable. After Afghanistan, Pakistan is the direct major affecttee of the Afghan imbroglio. Its priority is to regain the lost trust and confidence of both Taliban and the Afghan government.

Technically the proposed meet is the expanded version of the Moscow Tripartite Talks on Afghanistan, held on December 27, 2016. The decision to hold these talks is the direct outcome of a meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Afghan counterpart, Salahuddin Rabbani, (on February 7, 2017). In view of Afghanistan’s readiness to sit with Russia and Pakistan gives confidence that archrivals and those organizing proxies against each other will refrain from acerbic accusations.

The Amritsar Heart of Asia Conference (on December 4, 2016) episode is still very fresh. India and Afghanistan held Pakistan responsible for continued proxy wars in Afghanistan and terrorism in India. One wonders how Moscow intends to reconcile the prevalent huge gap in perceptions, policies and practices of the six states, especially among Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.

If we go by the joint statement of the Tripartite Moscow meeting, Russia, China and Pakistan had agreed to expand their tripartite consultations on Afghan conflict. The Moscow meeting attracted media glare, because it was seen as a snub to the Afghan government and a response against the strengthened co-operation among US, India and Afghanistan, as demonstrated by their meeting in New York in September last year.

The US was upset that it was not invited to the Moscow Tripartite Talks held last year. But the Afghan government, which was already seething with anger over increased contact between Russia and Taliban, felt stabbed by Russia over their omission. Spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry, Ahmad Shekib Mostaghni, cautioned that no initiative relating to Afghanistan could succeed without its involvement. Taking the cue from the government, Afghan leaders, declared it as “meddling in Afghanistan’s internal affairs”, “illegitimate” and “dubious” Russian policy.

The spread and scale of agitation suggested that Kabul even when invited might not attend the next expanded tripartite meeting. Nevertheless, the recent meeting between two Foreign Ministers in Moscow has soothed the ruffled Afghan emotions. Kabul agreed to attend the meet. To placate Afghanistan, Russia and China as the UN Security Council permanent members facilitated delisting of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hezb-i-Islami group in Afghanistan from the UN sanctions list as their contribution to the efforts aimed at launching a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and Taliban. Earlier Russia had “suspended” the delisting method. How Russia and China will react to Afghanistan’s request to UN to add Taliban’s new leader, Maulvi Haibatullah, to its sanctions list is not yet clear.

Russia and China have become very active to ensure credible participation from all invitees. They are aware of the difficult challenge to reconcile differing views and interests. Both these powers seem to have a renewed faith in regional solution. Russia wants Iran’s inclusion in the group. They hold identical views about ISIS and have been allies in the fight against ISIS in Syria.  In collaboration with Turkey, they have recently formed another troika “to jointly fight the IS”.  China has added reasons to end instability, as it wants to protect its heavy investment in Afghanistan.

On ISIS in Afghanistan, Pakistan echoed the Russian thoughts, saying “Afghanistan is infested with most terrorist organizations due to the instability there, which has created space for these terrorist elements”. However, Pakistan may be upset over inclusion of India, perhaps on the insistence of Afghanistan and with the nuanced Russian support. Pakistan may not accept a meaningful Indian role in Afghanistan due to Indian self-revealed anti Pakistan activities but it will have to sit with the archrival and hope to convince Indians for start of bilateral talks.

The US has again been ignored, though the possibility has been kept open for them to join the expanded group. USA is a major stakeholder and its exclusion from talks on the future of Afghanistan does not make any sense.

Iran must be pleased over its inclusion. Along with Russia and India, it has supported the Northern Alliance against the Taliban between 1996 and 2001. Now it has balanced its policy and has been in contact with Taliban. Like Russia, Iran finds ISIS more dangerous and its first priority is to eliminate them as a threat.

With ISIS rising in Afghanistan, Indian interests have diverged from those of Russia and Iran. Nevertheless, with India, Russia has agreed to launch a joint counter-terror action plan and de-radicalization initiative to combat international terror. This is the outcome of   National Security Adviser Ajit Doval’s visit to Moscow and a high-level counter-terrorism dialogue between India and Russia held in Delhi recently.

India continues to treat Taliban and Pakistan as bigger threats than ISIS to Afghanistan. It, therefore, eggs on Afghanistan to decide the pace of talks with Taliban on its own terms and conditions, ignoring Pakistan concerns. It does not share the sense of urgency displayed by Russia and Iran to act against ISIS.

There are no easy solutions to deal with the kind of mess one finds in Afghanistan. No doubt such talks offer no immediate real opportunity for a permanent solution. Countries having a stake in regional peace and stability bear the obligation to attend such meets to avoid the expected intense fighting during the incoming spring season.

Russia and China seem prepared to cooperate with the United States and other NATO powers to secure this mutual goal. What appears from the recent US Congress hearing on Afghanistan is that US would like to work with Pakistan to stabilize Afghanistan and defeat extremists. The question remains how they will mutually address US concerns about the issue of safe havens and when will Pakistan, Iran and India agree to stop their proxies to break the stalemate.

The author Mian Sanaullah is a former Ambassador, political analyst and Advisor to Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS). He can be reached at mian.sana@gmail.com.

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