The Moscow Format for Afghan reconciliation: The perspicuity of the Taliban’s demands is not matched by those of its interlocutors
Following up on its role as a persuasive power-broker in Syria and intent on shaping outcomes in its more immediate neighborhood, the Kremlin on 9 November organized a significant meeting of what has come to be termed as the Moscow Format of engagement aimed at finding a negotiated settlement to the decades-long violent conflict in Afghanistan. While this endeavor, as also other attempts to sit across the table with the Taliban in search of the long-elusive peace in Afghanistan, are welcome developments, the absence of insistence that the terrorist outfit eschew violence prior to ushering it onto the table does raise serious concerns.
Russia has expended considerable time and effort in the last few years in jostling itself back into a position in which it could potentially re-emerge from its Soviet-era debacle in Afghanistan to once again have a prominent say in the Afghan narrative. Already much closer aligned than the United States (US) to other regional powers such as Iran and China, Russia embarked on painstakingly overcoming the distrust and antagonism it bore towards Pakistan and the Taliban in the interest of its larger objective of securing itself and its neighborhood and of emerging as the most acceptable intercessor for regional stakeholders. Moscow recognized that Pakistan, as the prime supporter and harborer of the Taliban, was the root of the problem that needed to be humored if any consequential talks with the Taliban were to be held.
Russia also benefitted from the inability of the US-led coalition to engineer either a military vanquishment of the Taliban or an arbitrated solution with it. Fatigued after a violent and exacting 17-year entanglement half the world away in Afghanistan in which it has lost over 2,040 military personnel, and with the tug of war with the Taliban having reached a near stalemate with neither side being in a position to force a decisive victory, the US is keen on a fleet-footed exit. The US Special Envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad was, consequently, laboring to set up talks between the Taliban and the Afghan Government even as the Moscow meeting got underway. Despite the souring of relations between the US and Russia in recent years, the US chose not to wriggle its way out of the Moscow meeting, with State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino elucidating that “the United States stands ready to work with all interested parties to support and facilitate a peace process”.
A first secretary of the US Embassy in Moscow was, accordingly, deputed to observe the 9 November meeting that was attended by a five-member Taliban delegation led by Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai of the outfit’s Doha office. The Afghan Government did not depute a formal delegation, instead sending an unofficial four-member team from its High Peace Council that was led by Haji Deen Mohammad. China, Pakistan, Iran and the Central Asian republics bordering Afghanistan were represented by formal delegations. India, in consultation with the Afghan Government, sent non-official representatives.
The expectations from the meeting were laid down by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in his opening statement, “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 all possible assistance to facilitate the start of a constructive intra-Afghan dialogue. Russia stands for preserving the one and undivided Afghanistan, in which all of the ethnic groups that inhabit this country would live side by side peacefully and happily”. He also said that "The participation of the Taliban movement will be a large contribution to the formation of a good environment for the direct talks between the government, the Taliban movement and representatives of wide civil and political circles of the country".
There were, however, no noteworthy breakthroughs during the meeting. Haji Deen Mohammad told the media that "agreement was not reached on holding direct talks" with the Taliban. Nevertheless, the mere fact that a publicly announced meeting involving participation of both the Taliban, and even if informally, the Afghan Government, was arranged is in itself an accomplishment that bodes well. Earlier engagements of the US, Iran and Saudi Arabia, amongst others, with the Taliban have always been veiled in secrecy. As Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s presidential envoy for Afghanistan and one of the key players driving the shift in Russia’s policy, put it on 12 November, the meeting was “a modest first step toward full-fledged peace talks… Afghanistan is close to our underbelly so national interests of Russia and its allies are at stake. We can’t just sit back and watch impassively what’s going on, and we have let the US know that it doesn’t appear to be successful in settlement efforts”.
Judging by Taliban statements both prior to and following the Moscow meeting, it had laid out its demands lucidly. The crux of its stand was reiterated by Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, “Considering our main demand is the withdrawal of foreign troops, we will discuss peaceful settlement with the Americans, we do not recognize the incumbent government as legitimate”. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the meeting was “not about negotiating with any particular side but about holding comprehensive discussions and ending the American occupation”. He added, “Taliban political envoys will attend the meeting, but the participation does not mean they will hold talks with anyone. This is a meeting to debate the current situation in Afghanistan. The meeting will discuss the end of American invasion, identify problems and deliberate on regional peace”. The Taliban demand, in addition to direct talks with Washington, included removal of international sanctions against them, release of Taliban detainees, and reform of the Afghan constitution "based on principles of Islamic religion, national interests, historical achievements and social justice".
The mellow statements emanating from the High Peace Council and the Afghan Government contrasted sharply with these specific demands laid down by the Taliban. A High Peace Council spokesman informed that "we discussed the subject of direct talks with the Taliban and asked them to choose the place and the starting time". Habiba Surabi, deputy head of the council, said before the talks that she would suggest that the delegations hold Afghan-to-Afghan talks without foreign interference. Following the meeting, she revealed that the two delegations had spoken, but just exchanged pleasantries: "Just friendly talk. Nice talk". The Afghan foreign ministry said in a statement that "the government hopes that this meeting leads to direct talks between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban and that the Taliban are not allowed to instrumentalize this meeting”. There was no indication in these statements of the demands that they had put before the Taliban, nor whether they had sought to ascertain the outfit’s views on democracy, power-sharing and the rule of law.
The Afghan Government’s apprehension of the Taliban “instrumentalizing” the meeting is shared by some seasoned observers, who believe that its participation in the Moscow Format was aimed at gaining legitimacy without having to make any sacrifice in return. They believe that the Taliban is not interested in peace and security. It believes that it will win the war in Afghanistan and till it does so, is using negotiations with regional and international powers to improve its standing. The Taliban went to Moscow in a position of relative strength. The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction recently revealed that the Taliban and other insurgent groups now control more populated areas and districts of Afghanistan than they did in August 2016.
Bill Roggio, an expert on Afghanistan at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies Think-Tank, aptly pointed out that the Taliban has not changed character and it still carries out the same brutal insurgency that has terrorized and killed thousands over decades. Despite this, the US is desperate to talk to Taliban negotiators due to its position of strength. Roggio underlined that “The Taliban can continue this insurgency indefinitely” while the resolve and fortitude of the US and its allies is dwindling. He says, “We look tired. We’re the ones who’ve withdrawn, we’re the ones who say we need to negotiate peace. The Taliban isn’t saying that. The only thing the Taliban is saying is that it will have peace when the US withdraws”. The Taliban is convinced of its ability to forcibly wrest back power once the US withdraws from Afghanistan. It, however, lacks the national and moral legitimacy to represent the Afghan people. The Asia Foundation’s latest ‘Survey of the Afghan People’ found that 73% of Afghans reported a lot of fear while encountering the Taliban, while 80% of Afghans explicitly reported no sympathy at all for Taliban.
The fact that the US, Russia and several other regional players are making a beeline to talk to the Taliban is bolstering the feeling of invincibility and superiority in the outfit. It is also providing the Taliban the opportunity to sow confusion and discord by playing one eager interlocutor against another. The Taliban is in the enviable position where without having to give up its terrorist activities it is being wooed actively by major powers that normally do not negotiate with those pointing guns.
It is unrealistic and unfair to expect the Afghan Government to meaningfully talk peace in these circumstances.
While all steps aimed at bringing about peace and normalcy in Afghanistan are laudable, it is about time that the demand to lay down the gun is spelt out in no uncertain terms to the Taliban as a precondition to holding any talks with it.
If that appears unviable, so will Lavrov’s vision of a ‘constructive’ intra-Afghan dialogue be.