Russian initiative

The last couple of months have witnessed events that have the potential to shape the course of politics in Afghanistan. October marked the 17th anniversary of the United States’ invasion of the country. The Taliban marked the occasion by dramatically escalating the scale of its attacks and suicide bombings. The casualties suffered by the Afghan army reached intolerable levels. In September alone, more than 500 soldiers were killed. In the first week of November itself, more than 50 soldiers were killed in attacks by the Taliban in western Afghanistan and in the city of Ghazni. Morale in the Afghan army is dangerously low. In recent months, incidents of Afghan soldiers turning their guns on their American trainers and supervisors have spiked.

In the last week of October, the Taliban almost succeeded in its mission to assassinate the commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller. The Taliban, however, succeeded in killing the high-profile Afghan police chief, Gen. Abdul Raziq Achakzai. He was the man responsible for keeping the Taliban away from Kandahar city. Top U.S. military officials led by Miller were holding talks with Raziq in a high-security compound when the attack was carried out by an insider who was part of the police chief’s security detail.

The Taliban was quick to claim credit for the operation. There were many failed attempts on the life of the Kandahar police chief. , After defecting from the Taliban, Raziq became one of the most powerful warlords in the country. U.S. Army Brigadier General Jeffrey Smiley, who is in charge of NATO’s military advisory mission in southern Afghanistan, was seriously injured in the attack, and another senior U.S. military officer was killed. In the 2006-17 period, Afghanistan witnessed 96 insider attacks that resulted in the deaths of more than 150 foreign soldiers.

Parliamentary elections were finally held in the country in October. During the course of the campaign, election rallies were frequently targeted by the Taliban and the Daesh (Islamic State). Ten candidates and hundreds of civilians were killed in election-related violence. The elections were originally scheduled to be held in 2015.

Voting had to be postponed in Kandahar and a few other places where the Taliban and other insurgent groups launched big attacks. Despite the fact that the Afghan government barely controls 55 per cent of the country’s 407 districts, the elections were more transparent than previous elections. Election observers did not witness rigging on a mass scale. Massive rigging and ballot stuffing had characterised elections held in Afghanistan after 2002.

Among the 2,500 candidates contesting for elections to the 249-member Lower House of parliament, there were 417 women. Most of the candidates stood as independents. There were glitches galore, with ballot papers not arriving on time in many constituencies and polling staff remaining absent. Some 22 million voter ID cards were distributed despite the eligible voters numbering only 14 million. There were attacks on polling staff and on soldiers guarding the polling booths. According to the Afghan electoral commission, more than four million Afghans cast their votes in the elections.

The Taliban had warned Afghans against voting in the “sham elections”. The results of the elections will not have a positive impact on the National Unity government, which remains in gridlock owing to the rivalry between President Ashraf Ghani and the Chief Executive, Abdullah Abdullah. The two of them are still jostling for supremacy as the politics of ethnicity continues to dominate Afghan politics. Ghani belongs to the Pashtun community, the biggest ethnic group, while Abdullah represents the influential Tajik minority.

Meanwhile, even as the Taliban gains military and political momentum, efforts are under way to get it to the negotiating table for meaningful talks to end the long-running bloodshed and chaos in the country. Developments in the last few months show that the Taliban has emerged out of the cold and is now being slowly engaged by the international community.

U.S. President Donald Trump said on the campaign trail during the presidential election that getting American troops out of Afghanistan was among his top priorities. But on the advice of his Defence Secretary, James Mattis, and the U.S. military top brass, he allowed the deployment of more troops and toyed with the idea of privatising the Afghan war by letting American military contractors (read mercenaries) take over the job of “pacifying” Afghanistan.

But in September this year, Trump again decided to try the option of securing a face-saving exit from Afghanistan. He appointed the veteran American diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad as his special envoy. Khalilzad, who was born in Afghanistan, is also close to the Afghan President. One of the first things he did was to resume talks with the Taliban.

The previous Barack Obama administration had allowed the Taliban to open a political office in Doha, Qatar, to facilitate peace talks. It is another matter that the efforts to kick-start talks with the Taliban was aborted owing to a variety of reasons. Pakistan got offended as the Americans did not completely keep it in the loop about the planned talks with the Taliban.

Khalilzad met Taliban officials in October, soon after his appointment, for preliminary discussions. American officials had already had one preliminary meeting with the Taliban after Trump ordered his officials to explore the possibilities of holding direct peace talks with the Taliban.

The Taliban, on its part, has not wavered from its stance that it will only negotiate directly with the U.S. government. It views the government in Kabul as a “puppet” government. However, it has said that it is willing for talks with the Afghan government if all the occupation forces leave the country.

The U.S. is saying that its attempts at engaging with the Taliban are aimed at convincing the group to negotiate with the government in Kabul. This time, the Americans are keeping the Pakistanis informed about the talks. Khalilzad visited Islamabad after his talks with the Taliban in Doha. The Trump administration is no doubt aware that a graceful military exit from Afghanistan can only be possible with the cooperation of the Pakistanis.

Talks in Moscow

Meanwhile, Russia is doing its own spadework to prepare for meaningful peace talks on Afghanistan as the Americans prepare to leave the country. In the second week of November, Russia hosted talks known as the “Moscow format”, which representatives of the Taliban and diplomats from 10 countries attended. Russia had invited the five Central Asian republics and the U.S., China, Iran, India and Pakistan to attend the talks. Only Turkmenistan did not send a representative.

Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, expressed the hope that the joint efforts of all the countries present would help in the opening “of a new page in the history of Afghanistan”. Lavrov warned that the Daesh was trying to turn Afghanistan “into a bridgehead” to destabilise the Central Asian region. The Russian Foreign Minister, however, did admit that “obstacles” still remained in the path of an intra-Afghan dialogue.

The Afghan government did not send an official delegation since the Taliban has refused to engage in a dialogue with it. Instead, a delegation from the High Peace Council (HPC), a body appointed by the Afghan government and given the responsibility to initiate dialogue with the Taliban, was dispatched to Moscow. The HPC delegation once again conveyed to the Taliban the Kabul government’s offer to hold direct talks. The offer was again rejected by the Taliban, with its spokesman saying that the group did not recognise the government in Kabul “as legal”.

Taliban officials have again reiterated that meaningful talks with Kabul can only take place after the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan. Russia, China and Iran also tacitly support the Taliban’s stance on this issue.

All the same, it was the first time the Taliban had participated in a high-level international meeting. The leader of the Taliban delegation to the Moscow talks, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, said that the main purpose of the meeting was to discuss issues relating to the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Stanikzai indicated that matters relating to the constitution and the formation of a future government could be discussed with the government in Kabul at a later time when all foreign troops had left the country and the U.S. had disbanded its military bases.

The Russian President’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, told the media after the conference that the Taliban was ready to talk to the Afghan government “only after reaching an agreement with the Americans on the schedule of withdrawing all foreign troops from Afghanistan”.

Kabulov said that “as a confidence-building measure”, the Taliban also wanted the U.S. to release all political prisoners and lift the sanctions imposed on its leaders since 1997. Kabulov stressed that Russia was not competing with the U.S. in Afghanistan. Russia, he said, was interested in stabilising the situation in Afghanistan because the national interests of Russia and its allies were at stake. He pointed out that the Taliban today controlled more than 60 per cent of the territory in Afghanistan 17 years after the U.S. invaded the country.

Backchannel diplomacy between the Taliban and countries such as Russia and Turkey has been going on for some time. India was among the few countries that insisted on keeping the Taliban at arm’s length after the events of September 9, 2001.

Russia launched the “Moscow format” in 2017 as part of its efforts to resolve the Afghan problem politically. India’s decision to participate in it indicates that there is a rethink going on in the corridors of power in New Delhi on the question of engaging with the Taliban. The Indian government sent only two retired diplomats, T.C.A. Raghavan, the former High Commissioner to Pakistan, and Amar Sinha, a former ambassador to Afghanistan. Both of them also happen to be heading government-supported think tanks and are experts on the region.

The External Affairs Ministry emphasised that the Indian presence was at an “unofficial level” and that the decision to participate was taken after consultations with the Afghan government. The Ministry spokesman said that India supported an “Afghan-led” peace process.

In the late 1990s, when the United Front government was in power at the Centre and the Taliban was ruling in Kabul, initial contacts were made by the two sides. The U.S. had warmed up to the Taliban and there was grandiose talk about the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline.

The scenario changed dramatically after the 9/11 terror attack in 2001 and the Taliban government in Kabul became an international outcast. Things have come full circle now, with the Taliban once again on the verge of a comeback. The international community, whether it likes it or not, will have to deal with the Taliban, and India cannot be an exception.

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