Moscow Takes Initiative in Tackling the Afghan Issue

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On October 20, the Russian capital hosted Moscow Format Consultations on Afghanistan, a meeting involving members of the Taliban (banned in Russia) as well as representatives of China, Pakistan, Iran, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The US welcomed the talks, saying though that it would abstain from this meeting. Russia was represented at the talks by the Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, while Afghanistan was represented by Amir Khan Muttaqi, the Acting Foreign Minister of the Taliban government.

Moscow talks were held despite the fact that no country (including Russia) had recognized the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate ruler.

The Russian Foreign Ministry statement after the meeting highlighted that engagement with Afghanistan needed to take into account the new reality, that is the Taliban coming to power in the country, irrespective of the official recognition of the new Afghan government by the international community. The Taliban is designated as a terrorist organization in most of the world, its activities and any official interaction with its representatives are prohibited in Russia. Nevertheless Moscow maintains relations with the movement’s leaders, with the latter having more than once come to the talks held in the Russian capital.

Amid the economic crisis that broke out in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover (which was caused, among other things, by the freezing of Afghan financial assets in foreign banks), the economic situation in the country was an important topic of the talks. Recognizing that economic and humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is in decline, the sides underlined that the international community should do its best to aid the country’s population. To raise funds the sides proposed to convene an international donor conference under the auspices of the United Nations. Meanwhile the sides underlined that the main burden of financing Afghanistan’s economic recovery and development should be borne by NATO members including the United States which had been maintaining military presence in the country for the last two decades, thus factoring heavily in the current state of Afghanistan.

The conference participants expressed respect for the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Afghanistan, the Foreign Ministry website says. They also reaffirmed their willingness to continue to promote security in Afghanistan in order to prevent the spread of terror organizations on its territory.

The countries participating in the talks called upon the Taliban to practice “moderate and sound” internal and external policies as well as to adopt friendly policies towards its neighbors.

The sides also demanded that the Taliban “take further steps to improve governance,” including forming an inclusive government incorporating all national ethno-political forces in the country.

This conference was the first one to be held at such a high level, for the first time since the Taliban takeover. The threat of renewed attacks by ISIS (banned in Russia) on the Taliban forces that would undermine the security commitments of the new Afghan leadership prompted Russia to come forward with an initiative to hold this conference. One of Moscow’s main objectives is to contain DAESH within Afghan borders preventing the militants from infiltrating post-Soviet Central Asian republics, a reality that incentives Russia to seek contacts with the Taliban despite traditionally complicated relations. Meanwhile in terms of relations with Taliban Moscow chose a two-faceted approach: on the one hand, it opened a dialogue hosting a Taliban delegation in Moscow in June while drawing several lines in the sand regrading border and security commitments. On the other hand, Moscow demonstrated that it is able to take a hardline approach when Russia recently conducted joint field training exercises with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. At the same time, Moscow is still mindful of the events of 1990s, when militants with close ties to the Taliban tried to bring jihad to Tajikistan. When the “holy war” failed, the main field commander moved to Chechnya.

Assessing the results of the Moscow meeting, the Swiss newspaper Le Temps stressed that it clearly testified to sidelining of the Western countries since the United States itself was invited to the meeting, but eventually did not show up citing “logistical difficulties.” Zalmay Khalilzad, US special Representative for Afghanistan, who had been negotiating the US military withdrawal, announced that he would step down, thus recognizing his failure in the office. Moreover, the newspaper cites an assessment recently published in The Economist saying that Afghanistan embodies the final collapse of the post-Cold war belief that the United States had the capacity to reshape the world in its own image.

“Today, time is playing directly into the hands of the new rulers in Kabul. For now, they do not make a lot of mistakes, with the diplomatic bows from the regional states, ostensibly, coming shortly,” says Süddeutsche Zeitung. In addition to this, the publication points out that in Moscow the Taliban shared the negotiating table with representatives of China, India, Iran and other neighboring countries. And this, again, spells victory for Moscow in its showdown with Washington in Central Asia. Unlike Americans, the British or Germans, Russian experts on the region had long understood that the Taliban takeover is a likely scenario. That is why they had been making efforts to forge consultative relations with them, speaking with Islamists but, at the same time, relying on militarily deterrence. In exchange for good behavior, the militants may be rewarded with some degree of cooperation, a helping hand in rebuilding the country, and, depending on the interests at stake, by occasional diplomatic support for the Kabul rogue regime. “Such policies will not shield Moscow from threats. But Russia, at least, now carries more authority and has more leverage in Hindu Kush, than the US does,” the media outlet concludes.

Valery Kulikov, political expert, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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