The regionalization of Afghan peace talks
Just as Taliban and US officials seem closer to a deal on core issues that could clear the way for peace negotiations, Afghanistan’s neighbors, Russia, Iran and China, have begun springing into action.
Next week, Moscow is hosting Taliban officials and Afghan opposition leaders. It is an interesting mix: Afghan president Ashraf Ghani is not invited but former President Hamid Karzai is attending as are many prominent critics of Ghani’s government. Still, the intra-Afghan dialogue is generally seen as a positive development.
Ostensibly, the meeting is being organized by an Afghan diaspora group but the Russian government’s support for the get-together is very telling. Media reports speculate that Zamir Kabulov, the Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan, could be behind the initiative.
This is not the first time that Moscow is playing host to such gatherings. Last year, Russia brought together disparate Afghan groups including the Taliban and regional players and described it as the ‘Moscow Format”. It was a Russian initiative to find a regional solution to the protracted Afghan war. It was also the first time the Afghan Taliban were invited to an international forum and most significantly, shared a platform with Afghan delegates.
Although the Kabul government did not officially participate in the talks, the presence of members of the High Peace Council, which oversees peace efforts, and individual Afghan leaders was significant. The US, too, had sent observers. The conference may not have broken the stalemate but it was a diplomatic triumph for the Afghan Taliban.
A major fear is that a hurried American withdrawal could lead to a new round of civil war in Afghanistan with regional countries getting involved in the conflict.
The Moscow format cannot be seen as a parallel peace move; it aims at building greater regional understanding and signifies a certain shift in Russian policy to adopt the role of a more proactive player in Afghanistan and the region. The regionalization of Russia’s policy on Afghanistan is dictated by the shifting power dynamics of the area.
Meanwhile, Iran too has intensified its diplomatic efforts to keep its relevance as a major regional player in Afghanistan. A high level Afghan Taliban delegation visited Tehran for what the Iranian authorities describe as the second round of peace talks and is aimed at bringing an end to the Afghan war.
Although it has maintained contacts with the Taliban for years, Tehran has become more active in Afghan affairs since President Trump indicated a troop pull-out from Afghanistan. An Iranian government spokesman said Iran was trying to help “facilitate negotiations between Afghan groups and the country’s government.
But Iran’s move may raise concerns among American officials, reinforcing their fear that the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan will help Tehran expand its regional influence. The concern may be exaggerated but like other neighboring countries, Iran’s diplomatic push is driven by a desire to protect its interests in the event of American withdrawal. Iranian involvement is most prominent in western, central, and northern Afghanistan, where local Afghans share common history, culture, religion, and language with Iran.
China has already been part of the quadrilateral forum deeply involved in the Afghan peace efforts. China’s military, economic, and political engagements in Afghanistan are driven by domestic security concerns that terrorism will spread across the Afghan border into China. Another reason for China’s increasing interest in Afghanistan is aimed at protecting its regional economic investments.
Exiting Afghanistan will remain the biggest foreign policy challenge for Washington and complete withdrawal will bring its own complications.
A major fear is that a hurried American withdrawal could lead to a new round of civil war in Afghanistan with regional countries getting involved in the conflict. For lasting peace, there remains the need for a regional agreement guaranteeing non-interference in Afghanistan.
— Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC.