Moscow Meeting: A Singular Hope for talks with the Taliban
Three months after hosting the “Moscow Format” conference that brought together officials of 12 countries and a high-level delegation of the Afghan Taliban, Russia holds center-stage again.
Earlier this month, a Kremlin-owned hotel in Moscow hosted a major event for the Taliban and Afghan opposition leaders. It was an unprecedented gathering. As many as 50 well known Afghans, many of them rivals, former communists, warlords, mujahideen and Taliban commanders sat around a table to listen to each other’s views. They shook hands, ate and prayed together and agreed to issue a joint statement outlining the shared principles that could lead to a negotiated settlement to end the Afghan war now entering its 18th year.
Former president Hamid Karzai and Hanif Atmar, an important presidential candidate for the July 20 polls, were in attendance. So was the former parliament speaker Mohammad Younas Qanooni, influential northern Afghanistan politician Ata Mohammad Noor and Shiite Hazara leader Mohammad Mohaqqiq, all prominent and outspoken critics of President Ashraf Ghani. There was representation from only two women campaigners and though their concerns earned a commitment from the Taliban to respect women’s political, economic and social rights once the war ended, not everyone seems convinced given their past record of closing down and destroying girls’ schools and the strict absence of women from all public spaces.
Since 2017, Russia has taken an increasingly active and ironic role as a peacemaker there. And though the Moscow meeting was not expected to help end the Afghan conflict, it showed one way it could be done by organizing multi-party gatherings to narrow down differences about Afghanistan’s future.
Thirty years ago, the then Soviet Union exited Afghanistan after failing to defeat the Afghan Mujahideen. The subsequent collapse of the USSR further diminished Russia’s role in the region, particularly in Afghanistan. But since 2017, Russia has taken an increasingly active and ironic role as a peacemaker there. And though the Moscow meeting was not expected to help end the Afghan conflict, it showed one way it could be done by organizing multi-party gatherings to narrow down differences about Afghanistan’s future.
The joint statement issued after the Moscow meeting took note of demands from all sides. Taliban demands for withdrawal of all foreign forces, removal of its members’ names from the UN Security Council ‘blacklist’ and opening a formal office in Doha were all supported.
More importantly, the Taliban-US peace talks were unanimously supported, negating to an extent, the perception that Russia was trying to complicate Washington’s peace process in Afghanistan.
Agreed, the Moscow meeting cannot be an alternative to the Doha peace talks between the Taliban and the US. But it could be a supplement to the Doha peace process, a singular hope that the deadlocks can be talked through, and that there could be a negotiated intra-Afghan settlement to a long and exhausting war.
Now, when the American and Taliban negotiators reconvene in Doha on February 25, renewed focus is likely to be on the draft of the framework of the peace deal that Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghan reconciliation, revealed has been agreed upon in principle. And the conversations in Moscow will no doubt have an impact on the attitudes of the insurgent group.
The Taliban have made it clear that a cease-fire is only on the cards if foreign soldiers begin leaving Afghanistan. The US, for its part, has linked the withdrawal of its forces to the inking of a peace deal.
Though Khalilzad has expressed optimism that a peace deal could come about by July when Afghanistan’s presidential election is due, it is in great part due to the Moscow meeting that there now seems a more practical hope for the Doha talks; for the previously impossible idea that an eventual conclusion to the peace process could be endorsed by intra-Afghan debate.
– Rahimullah Yusufzai is senior political and security analyst of Pakistan. He was the first to interview Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and twice interviewed Osama Bin Laden in 1998.