In Afghanistan, Putin courts China in search of ‘another Syria’

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A Russia-led initiative involving China and Pakistan that seeks a political settlement to Afghanistan’s civil war has the makings of a diplomatic alliance that could supplant the United States as the leading power in Central Asia.

The grouping was unveiled after a third meeting in Moscow late last month and may be expanded to include regional powers Iran and Turkey, which formed a separate tripartite grouping on Syria with Russia in talks preceding the parleys on Afghanistan.

The Afghan government reacted angrily to the Moscow meeting, to which it had not been invited, because the meeting proposed the relaxation of UN restrictions on the movement of key Taliban figures involved in pre-dialogue negotiations. This contradicted Kabul’s call in November for the UN to blacklist Taliban chief Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada because of his refusal to enter peace talks.

Instead, the tripartite talks in Moscow echoed one of two Taliban preconditions for dialogue with Kabul, reiterated by spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid earlier in December. The other condition is the withdrawal of US-led Nato forces from Afghanistan.

“This is a focused attempt to deal with the aftermath of Western withdrawal from Afghanistan and an opportunity that Russia senses might have opened up for itself in Central Asia. After West Asia, it’s Central Asia where [Russian President Vladimir] Putin feels he can reassert Russian authority and China is happy to provide a helping hand,” said Harsh V. Pant, a professor of international relations at King’s College London. “However, if we take the Indo-Pacific strategic landscape, there China is the leader and Russia will have to follow China’s lead.”

The emerging quid pro quo between Moscow and Beijing comes amid uncertainty over whether US president-elect Donald Trump will endorse an agreement reached last July by leaders of the Atlantic alliance to extend financial and military support to the Afghan security forces until the end of 2020.

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