The author Sitwat Waqar Bokhari is a Research Fellow at the Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS)
Russia announced this week that it is going to convene a six-party conference on Afghanistan with high level representation from regional powers in mid-February. It reiterated its stance to include the Taliban in the constructive dialogue. This time the leading regional stakeholders include the Afghan Government, India and Iran, in addition to China and Pakistan, which had been part of the first round of trilateral talks held in Moscow on December 27, 2016. The announcement was made by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a press conference on February 7 in the presence of his Afghan counterpart Salahuddin Rabbani who was on a trip to Moscow at the time.
Back in December 2016, the Afghan Government had been upset for not being invited to the trilateral meeting which ostensibly discussed “the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan” but also expressed support for the ‘reintegration of armed opposition into peaceful life’ as a way to facilitate an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and conciliation process. In the joint statement released after the first trilateral talks, China and Russia, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, even confirmed their “flexible approach to delisting Afghan individuals from the UN sanctions lists”, a condition put forth by the Taliban for engaging in reconciliation talks. This came at a time when the militant Islamic State group had expanded its presence in Afghanistan, battling against not only the Afghan Government but also some of the Afghan Taliban factions.
Following reports about a growing Russia-Taliban thaw, the Afghan Government raised concerns over such moves. However, Russia has claimed to be concerned about the expansion of Daesh operatives in Afghanistan and has argued that the meeting with the Taliban is to combat Daesh in Afghanistan. Russia has made it clear that it fully backs the present government in Kabul but condemns the growing terrorism in Afghanistan. In Russia’s view, including the Taliban on the peace table is an essential prerequisite in carving out a peaceful solution, and halting the worsening violence in the war-torn country. The Taliban insurgents would be brought to the peace table on the basis of the UN Security Council resolutions. In the upcoming talks, this is the common stance of all participating regional partners some of whose high level representatives had already confirmed their country’s participation at the time the Russian Foreign Minister made the announcement. According to Russia and China both, the growing presence of the ISIS in Afghanistan continues to worry all neighboring states.
In mid-January, 2015, the ISIS’ chief spokesperson in Afghanistan declared the establishment of Wilayat Khorasan, a branch of the group “encompassing Afghanistan, Pakistan and other nearby lands.” Since its formation over two years, Wilayat Khorasan¸ also known as ISIL-KP (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province), has struggled to maintain a footing in an ever-vying jihadist landscape and pursued a campaign of expansion and consolidation in the region. In 2016, the ISKP claimed several deadly sectarian strikes, including three major attacks in Kabul which inflicted a disproportionate number of mass casualties and signaled the possible resurgence of the group in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The terror group gained more strength through forging alliances with other local sectarian pro-al-Qaeda or Taliban militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al Alami (LeJ-A), Lashkar-e Islam (LeI), or discontented Taliban factions such as Jundallah and Jamaat ul Ahrar (JuA) while also reportedly recruited operatives from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). As per Afghanistan’s Vice President General Abdul Rashid Dostum in October 2016, ISIS foreign fighters also include Chechens, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Iraqis, Syrians, Libyans and Lebanese militants. This exhibits the widespread reach of the ISKP in not only Afghanistan but also the regional countries posing a credible threat to not only Pakistan, Russia, China but also Iran and Central Asia.
Civilian casualties recorded last year reached over 11,500 in Afghanistan; the highest figure documented since the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) began its systematic documentation of casualties in 2009. Out of these, 899 civilian casualties (209 deaths and 690 injured) were accounted for in attacks carried out by the Islamic State group which particularly targeted the Shia Muslims in Afghanistan and whose attacks reportedly increased tenfold in 2016. According to a UN report, the group is believed to have around 2,000 to 3,500 fighters overall in Afghanistan, a number that has not dropped significantly despite some heavy losses also sustained by it in 2016.
Over the past 12 months, however, the group has faced financial constraints and lost a considerable amount of territory in eastern Afghanistan. Its ability to take and hold territory has been mainly affected by clashes with Taliban fighters who are also competing for local influence, especially for resources, funding and manpower. This has been proposed to the regional countries that the Taliban could pose a serious obstacle to the Islamic State’s expansion in Afghanistan and, before the security situation crumbles, managing the Taliban as a counter-force against the growing footprint of the ISKP may be the way forward to curb this menace.
China and Russia fear that Afghanistan may become a safe haven for the ISIS from where it would spread to their borders and threaten Russia as well as the Xinjiang province of China. While Russia opposed Afghan Taliban for years, contacts between Moscow and the Taliban are reported to have surged in recent years to the extent that the two have even shared intelligence about the ISIS. In the view of Russia, the Taliban are only a local nuisance that are no longer fixated on the idea of global jihad while the ISIS are the new global jihadists now. In fact, according to Vladimir Putin’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, who will be chairing the upcoming talks, as far as fighting the ISIS is concerned, “the Taliban interest objectively coincides with ours.”
The Chinese Government, too, has had contacts with the Taliban since the Taliban were in power in the 1990s and never hesitated in explaining that it was essential due to Chinese investments in Afghanistan (Mes Aynak copper mine being one of such investments). Pressing on the need to include Taliban on the negotiating table, the Chinese Government also pushed Kabul for holding negotiations with the Afghan Taliban the way it had held with leader of Hezb-e-Islami, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. According to China’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, Deng Xijun, who met with President Ashraf Ghani last Sunday, starting a dialogue with the Taliban is the only way forward to ensure that the ISIS does not gain a greater foothold in the region. During its meetings with the Taliban, the Chinese have clearly conveyed that it recognizes the Afghan Government and the President and that talks are the only option for both Taliban and the Afghan Government now.
India confirmed its participation earlier in January when Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval visited Moscow, however, announced on 9th February, two months after Moscow ignored New Delhi in favor of Islamabad and Beijing during the last round of talks.
Pakistan, which was part of the first round of talks, did not give any immediate reaction over the announcement made by the Russian foreign minister. Although, both Pakistan and India are part of the Heart of Asia Istanbul initiative, this is the first time India has been invited to talks exclusively centered on peace negotiations between the Afghan Taliban and the government. This is an unprecedented development for the two arch-rivals as Pakistan has always opposed India’s role in Afghanistan which originates from fears that Indian intelligence agencies use the Afghan territory to create instability in Pakistan. India also alleges Pakistan of supporting the Afghan Taliban for its own interests. Given their divergent interests as well as strained relations, it is yet to be found how the two would come together on the issue of Afghanistan in the upcoming talks. While Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran are all in favor of engaging in direct talks with the Afghan Taliban, India is the only party reluctant to support such a move for fear that it would provide legitimacy to Afghan insurgents.
The support to peace efforts by two key international players such as Russia and China, nevertheless, is seen as a diplomatic victory for Pakistan. Last week, as a good will gesture, Pakistani authorities handed over four suspected Islamic State militants to Afghanistan who had crossed into Pakistan after being injured in a clash with the Afghan Taliban in the Nangarhar province. According to a UN report, ISIS fighters could be able to recruit from the Pak-Afghan border region, and the growing refugee population in Afghanistan may provide a breeding recruitment group, a factor that adds to the concerns of Pakistan and China both due to their joint CPEC project.
A significant aspect of the Moscow talks is that these consultations are emerging at a time when America’s plans for Afghanistan under President Donald Trump are largely unclear and when US combat operations of 15 years have finally come to an end without having meaningfully weakened the Afghan Taliban. The United States, a major stakeholder with thousands of troops still stationed in Afghanistan, has not been invited to even the second round of meetings hosted by Russia in what appears to be a symbolic move proposing that Russia and China are now seeking a regional solution to the Afghan problem. Russian Foreign Minister has been quoted as saying that Moscow hopes to improve ties with the United States and that the new President could join the six-nation talks once his administration has determined its policy on Afghanistan.
Russia has been increasingly flexing its muscles as a key broker on the world stage ever since its direct military intervention in the Syrian war in 2015 and earlier in Ukraine vis-à-vis the United States. Unlike the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), where the United States was in charge, Moscow talks are clearly being brokered by Russia as an alternative bloc to the US-led coalition to push for a political settlement to the Afghan debacle and also eliminate the threat of the ISIS from the region, a menace the US failed to neutralize in the Middle East. Indeed, recent moves by Russia represent Afghanistan as another arena where Moscow is pointedly working at odds with Washington’s interests. However, disregarding Russia’s interests in relation to the US, Moscow talks in concert with representation from concerned regional countries could offer the effective approach to bringing a peaceful political settlement in Afghanistan that the war-ravaged country and its people have been waiting for.