Afghanistan peace conference was all about Russia
Officials from nearly a dozen countries sat down to talk with Taliban representatives in Moscow last week. The putative goal was peace or, more specifically, how to get the Taliban to agree to launch peace talks to end the war in Afghanistan.
In reality, the Moscow conference was all about Russia. It was an opportunity to showcase Russia’s deepening role in Afghanistan — nearly 30 years after the Soviet Union ended its decade-long occupation of the country.
The US may have the deepest pockets of any foreign donor in Afghanistan, and it may have the deepest footprint of any foreign military in the country. But its efforts to tame the Taliban on the battlefield and to coax it to the negotiating table are struggling, and its future role in Afghanistan is uncertain.
Russia is taking full advantage of this period of flux. Last week’s conference marked an attempt by Moscow to steal Washington’s thunder.
In their public statements, Russian officials took pains to ensure that the conference was not meant to undercut Washington. But they also took pains to highlight US failures in Afghanistan, and to telegraph their determination to take an active role in addressing those failures. “The West has lost the war in Afghanistan, and it is reluctant to acknowledge that obvious fact,” proclaimed Zamir Kabulov, Moscow’s presidential envoy for Afghanistan. “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.”
Indeed, instead of being content to “just sit back,” the Russians brought key South and Central Asian regional players to Moscow to engage with the Taliban. And, unlike most other bilateral or multilateral engagements with the insurgents, this one was very public. And that’s no surprise. After all, it’s hard to showcase your regional clout and strong convening power if it’s all happening in the shadows.
Top US strategic rivals are deepening their footprints in a country where America’s current policies are failing.
To be sure, Moscow has good reasons to step up its role in Afghanistan that go beyond a simple desire to one-up America. It worries about a rapidly destabilizing nation in its broader backyard, and about the consequences — particularly refugee flows and a robust narcotics trade — that emerge from such destabilization. It worries about the Taliban, but also about the Afghanistan chapter of Daesh, which features some fighters from Central Asia. Like China and Iran — two other key players deepening their role in Afghanistan — Russia has interests to pursue, and it is ready to actively pursue them. This has entailed, over the last few years, stepped-up Russian development and military assistance to Kabul.
The emerging reality for Washington is stark and sobering: Top US strategic rivals are deepening their footprints in a country where America’s current policies are failing, and where its future role is uncertain.
This isn’t to say Russia has a plan that’s working. Kabulov said the Moscow conference represented an attempt to “take a modest first step toward full-fledged peace talks.” Actually, that’s an overstatement. The conference didn’t bring the sides any closer to launching talks.
Indeed, the same old disconnects were on full display. While representatives from Kabul said they were ready to start direct talks with the Taliban, the Taliban contingent insisted it would only talk to the Americans, because it regards the current government in Kabul as illegitimate and a mere stooge of the US.
More broadly, no progress was made toward addressing a fundamental but, to this point, unanswered question: How can you convince the Taliban to stop fighting when it thinks it is winning the war? In other words, why would the insurgents, who believe they are winning, want to quit while they’re ahead? The Taliban has an answer to this question: If US troops withdraw from Afghanistan, we’ll be ready to talk.
In reality, while an impatient President Donald Trump may be willing to withdraw unilaterally down the road if peace talks haven’t begun, the idea of Washington simply giving in to the Taliban’s core demand is fanciful. So is the prospect of Washington and Kabul agreeing to other hypothetical Taliban preconditions, such as formally ceding to the insurgents the territory they currently control — a gesture that would be tantamount to surrender.
In effect, after the Moscow conference, the Taliban isn’t any closer to getting what it wants. But, for the Russian hosts, that is immaterial. For them, the conference was a grand success simply because it took place. Even amid a frenzied news cycle, it attracted ample international news coverage. The world saw a major power preside over a high-profile symposium on Afghanistan’s future — with the US role limited to the participation of an observer from its Moscow embassy.
Nearly three decades after a humiliating defeat in Afghanistan, Russia is once again ensconced in the catbird seat. The geopolitical tables have turned in a big way.
Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Twitter: @michaelkugelman