Intra-Afghan talks in Moscow
A long awaited interaction between the Taliban and their Afghan adversaries began in Russia, in a development that might prove to be the harbinger of a more focused and productive engagement, perhaps even an eventual grand reconciliation.
For the Taliban to talk to a cross-section of Afghan politicians, to meet face to face with them, to eat and pray alongside many of their former enemies is an unprecedented development. The two-day talks, though ostensibly sponsored by the Afghan diaspora in Russia had the full backing of the Russian government.
Former President Hamid Karzai and a number of former ministers and top ranked politicians attended the conference.
Not surprisingly, the focus was on the vision of Taliban leaders of a future Afghanistan, one in which they could share power with the government, other groups and factions. In a policy statement delivered by the leader of the Taliban delegation, Abbas Stanikzai, the Taliban clarified their views on key issues, top among them the rights of women.
The Taliban movement, Stanikzai iterated, had no agenda beyond the confines of Afghanistan. He emphasized that women would be given the rights that Islam had conferred on them and would be free to seek and get employment, education, engage in trade and commerce and find their own marriage partners. Most importantly, he declared that once the withdrawal of foreign forces was complete, the group would not seek a monopoly of power to the exclusion of other parties.
Mr Stanikzai also proposed an Islamic constitution, either by writing an entirely new document or making the changes needed to Islamize the prevailing constitution.
There was a remarkable and surprising convergence of ideas. The Kabul delegation showed tolerance and a great deal of accommodation towards their former rivals. The hope is that the ability of the interlocutors to reciprocate gestures of goodwill will lay the foundations of a constructive and sustained dialogue in the days to come.
No doubt, formidable obstacles lie ahead. President Ashraf Ghani’s government has been sidelined as both opposition Afghan leaders and the US embrace the Taliban in deeper engagements. His government will have to be brought on board to avoid further isolation and the possibility that more regime ‘loyalists‘ could reach out to the opposition and Taliban to ensure their continued relevance in the emerging political scenario.
Then there is the looming US-Russia rivalry in the backdrop of the peace talks in Moscow. The US diplomacy has already been at work to deny a substantive role by Russia in the peace process and in the event of a phased withdrawal of US troops. But the US is fighting a losing battle. The Taliban are continuing to gain ground, the Afghan economy is worsening by the day and public frustration has reached its peak as regional players from China to Iran and Russia emerge to take their place in a shifting political order.
As the political landscape changes, Islamabad does not seem to have a clue how to gain a strategic advantage. Admittedly, Pakistan would benefit hugely from the stability and peace of its western neighbour, but its India-centric approach in relation to Afghanistan could offset some of these advantages.
The Moscow dialogue has opened fresh avenues for an ongoing dialogue process. The Taliban have ended their seclusion and if nothing more, their perspective on future governance systems has been adequately projected to the world. In the same breath, a great many political leaders representing a wide spectrum of Afghan public opinion, appear to be sympathetic to their perspectives.
No matter what the critics say, this is a breakthrough. Building on it and carrying this spirit of openness forward to the next round of negotiations will be an important objective for all stake holders.
• The writer is specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade.