Moscow meeting shows that efforts for peace in Afghanistan are gaining momentum

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Moscow meeting shows that efforts for peace in Afghanistan are gaining momentum

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By all measures, 2018 is proving to be a unique year for Afghanistan. It has seen an unprecedented escalation in the 17-year-old war, waged by the resurgent Taliban group who have spread their influence in almost 43 percent of the country’s districts. 
Simultaneously, the year has also seen equally unprecedented levels of diplomatic efforts to end the war through a negotiated political settlement. Last week, Russia hosted a meeting in Moscow which marked another turning point: it was the first time that the Taliban’s official delegation from its Qatar office shared a conference table with 11 other countries and sat side by side with the delegation from the Afghan High Peace Council -- a government-nominated body which is leading the peace talks with the militant group. 
Despite initial reservations, in the end, both the Afghan government and the US agreed to send their representatives – albeit from a lower level of hierarchy -- to the Moscow meeting. This in itself was evidence of the importance attached to the pursuit of peace by all parties involved. It also marked the first time an Indian delegation participated in an international meeting which was attended by the Taliban. 
Efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Afghan war were reinvigorated this year when, in July, senior US diplomat, Ambassador Alice Wells held direct US-Taliban talks in Doha, Qatar for the first time. This indicated a significant change in the US’ position as earlier Washington had refused to negotiate directly with the Taliban. Instead, it had sought a one-to-one format, insisting that peace talks must be Afghan-led and include the Afghan government. 
That led to US President Donald Trump nominating Zalmay Khalilzad -- an experienced Afghan American diplomat as the US’ Special Representative for Afghanistan’s Reconciliation -- to kickstart a peace process and bring an end to the longest war in US history. 
Sensing a shift in Washington’s view of the war in Afghanistan and keeping the growing presence of Daesh in mind, Russia in recent years has sought a more proactive role as a peacemaker. Recently, groups affiliated with Daesh have expanded their presence in northern Afghanistan which borders the Central Asian states.  Moscow has traditionally viewed Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan as its "near abroad" and its first line of defense against terrorist and militant groups based in Afghanistan. 
Moscow in recent years has stepped up its chain of communication with the Taliban and indicated its willingness to follow a more assertive foreign policy in the region. While inaugurating the Moscow meeting on November 9, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he hoped the summit could provide the ground for direct talks between Kabul and the Taliban. “Russia, as the organizer of this session, sees its role in working together with Afghanistan’s regional partners and friends who have gathered at this table today to extend a possible assistance to facilitate the start of a constructive intra-Afghan dialogue,” he said.

The meeting in Moscow was a timely initiative to get all regional partners together to guarantee support for an eventual political settlement.

Dr. Simbal Khan

The meeting in Moscow produced no significant breakthrough as the Taliban remained opposed to any direct negotiations with the Afghan government. Russia’s initiative, however, broke new ground by bringing all the key actors together on a single platform.
Moreover, it also provided some insight into what has so far been discussed in earlier meetings held between Khalilzad and the Taliban in Doha. Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, a Taliban representative who attended the meeting on Friday, gave clues as to what the Taliban may have been proposing. According to Stanikzai, the Taliban view the peace process as double layered -- in the first stage, the talks have to be focused on issues with the US, to be followed by a dialogue with the Afghan government. The Taliban’s talks with the US are at the moment focused on a three-point agenda: Withdrawal of US troops, releasing Taliban prisoners and lifting all anti-Taliban sanctions.
Most of these demands are well-known and so far the key condition continues to be the withdrawal of US troops. Following the Moscow meeting, Khalilzad has returned to Afghanistan and is currently meeting with several Afghan political figures in the country before he leaves for Doha for the next round of talks with the Taliban. 
There are indications that the next set of US meetings with the Taliban may focus on a conditions-based timetable of the withdrawal of US forces. These conditions may be linked to the cessation of Taliban attacks, starting peace talks with the Afghan government, and ensuring progress towards a negotiated political settlement. Against this backdrop, the meeting in Moscow was a timely initiative to get all regional partners together to guarantee support for an eventual political settlement.
The Afghan government and its neighbors remain opposed to a disorderly withdrawal and sudden disengagement of US troops from Afghanistan. They are hoping that these current diplomatic initiatives can create conditions, which allow for an orderly withdrawal of foreign troops without creating a security vacuum and pushing the Afghan state into another cycle of civil war. Most importantly, a condition-based withdrawal and peace process in Afghanistan must be tied to international guarantees of continued support for the reconstruction and peace-building process in Afghanistan in the years to come.   
– Dr. Simbal Khan is a political and security analyst and a South-Central Asia specialist, with experience in regional security and development spanning 20 years. Her work has focused on issues related to trans-border militant movements in South-Central Asia and the geopolitics of border spaces. She is also a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) Islamabad. Twitter: @simbalkh

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