16.02.2019 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Afghanistan: Russia Starts the True ‘Intra-Afghan Dialogue’


It wasn’t long ago when top U.S. military officials had accused Russia of supplying weapons to the Afghan Taliban, an accusation that the mainstream western media understood not just in terms of some ‘Russian plan’ to make sure that the U.S. meets a military defeat in Afghanistan but also that the war must drag on to inflict heavy damages on the U.S. military and economy. But this perception has met its demise rather quickly, not just because the Taliban have entered into direct talks with the U.S., but mainly because Russia has been able to organise and start the long sought after and long delayed ‘Intra-Afghan’ dialogue to end the 17 years long conflict. The importance of this conflict is paramount in that while the U.S–Taliban talks may bring the 17 years long U.S. ‘war on terror’ to an end, internal conflict in Afghanistan would still remain unresolved, possibly keeping Afghanistan’s problems lingering on for years to come, if nothing is done to resolve it.

In this context, Russia’s success in amassing mainstream Afghan politicians from diverse political backgrounds and the Taliban not only underscores Russia’s influence in the country, but also speaks volumes about how Russia is helping shape peace among the Afghan rather than fund the war against the U.S. Russia isn’t arming the Taliban; it’s bringing internal stake-holders together to the negotiating table to strive for peace.

Its most recent and perhaps the first major manifestation came in the two-day conference of mainstream Afghan politicians and Taliban representatives in Moscow on February 5-6. It brought politicians from otherwise as adverse political factions as former President Hamid Karzai, including prominent figures from the Northern Alliance, such as Atta Muhammad Nur, Yunus Qanooni and Muhammad Mohaqiq, Ahmad Wali Massoud and former National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar.

To the surprise of many, the joint statement that came out of conference showed not only a desire to end the conflict, but—most importantly—do so through a carefully chartered territory of dialogue and cooperation rather than the battle ground. This development has, accordingly, rightly been hailed as the awakening of the great ‘Afghan genius’ to resolve conflicts through consensus.

Crucially enough, the holding of these talks is a strong response to western propaganda that Afghanistan, after the U.S. withdrawal, would become a scene of civil-war and that conflict would spread. The nine-point agenda that the parties agreed does indicate an altogether different scenario taking place. The statement emphasised not only an Islamic system, but also an inclusive polity, guaranteeing a broad-based system of government with representation from all ethnic groups; assertion of national sovereignty; scrupulous neutrality towards conflicts in the region or beyond; adherence to Afghan national and religious values; and a unified and single policy.

Considering the range of points agreed, Zamir Kabulov, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s Afghanistan envoy, rightly remarked that “there won’t be [left] a vacuum in Afghanistan [after the U.S. withdrawal] ……when all Afghans, the authorities in Kabul and the Taliban, reach a peace agreement and won’t fight each other, then they’ll deal with ISIS in an Afghan manner.”

What this statement shows is that Russia, unlike the U.S., in mainly concerned with what transpires in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal. While Russia, most certainly, does want to see a U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, it also understands that a precipitous withdrawal done without reconciling Afghanistan’s internal groups would spell disaster only, something that would have serious consequences for the whole region surrounding Afghanistan, including Central Asia and Russia.

The momentum thus building within Afghanistan to resolve the conflict thus presents an ideal opportunity for all the stake-holders, including the U.S., to pick it and synchronise it with the peace process it has itself started with the Taliban, for until this is done, an all-encompassing resolution of the conflict might not be possible.

But the question is: will the U.S. want to do this? Answer to this question depends quite a lot on the U.S.’ true intentions about Afghanistan i.e., whether or not it truly wants to leave Afghanistan.

Given the U.S. president’s frequency in changing his policy about the U.S.’ military involvement in the world (read: Syria), the prospect of a full withdrawal remain uncertain. This uncertainty was quite evident in the U.S. president’s recently delivered state of the union speech in which he did express his desire to maintain limited military presence in Afghanistan to fight terrorism, although it is not clear as to what exactly he meant by limited presence or even terrorism. Plus there are hawks within the U.S. administration who continue to see withdrawal as a bad policy option that might bite the U.S. hard in terms of its global influence.

But whether or not the U.S. aims to make a full withdrawal, the Russian success in organising a truly ‘Intra-Afghan’ conference is most certainly a step in the right direction towards lasting peace and preventing yet another period of warfare. This will add to the pressure on the U.S. about making a full withdrawal, since this conference has emphatically shown that the Afghans are very much capable of finding common grounds to negotiate amongst themselves and that, too, without the U.S. help.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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