The most significant remark made by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the second meeting of the Moscow format consultations on Afghanistan held in the Russian capital on November 9 was when he said, “We must not think in terms of geopolitical games, which can only make Afghanistan an area of international rivalry with grave consequences for the people of Afghanistan and their neighbours.”
It was an audacious remark singularly devoid of bitterness, since Russia has been the victim of geopolitical rivalry during the 17-year old Afghan war. Paradoxically, Russia was manifestly eager all through to facilitate the American intervention in Afghanistan but the US chose to do cherry picking.
Notably, the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), established in 2009 in response to the increased risk of sending supplies through Pakistan, stands out. The most commonly used route started at the port of Riga in the Baltics and ran for 5,169 km by train southwards through Russia, using railroads built by Russia in the 1980s for supplying the Soviet troops deployed in Afghanistan.
Originally only non-lethal resources were allowed on the NDN, but in July 2009, shortly before a visit by President Obama to Moscow, Russia announced that US troops and weapons could also use its airspace to reach Afghanistan.
Moscow was forthcoming with a positive attitude despite the US repeatedly stonewalling Russian offers that the Collective Security Treaty Organization was prepared to contribute to the ‘war on terror’. The raging rivalry was entirely geopolitical.
The recap of history is useful and necessary to underscore that the US’ seething sense of rivalry and its ‘winner-takes-it-all’ approach – not only vis-à-vis Russia but also with some other regional states – lie at the heart of the present impasse in Afghanistan.
The US failed to win the war and has run has itself aground as the lone ranger, whereas, it could have tapped into the goodwill in the region toward any sincere effort to stabilize the Afghan situation and establish durable peace.
Therefore, the most significant thing about the Moscow conference may be that it prompts Washington to do some soul-searching as to where it lost the plot.
Washington by now ought to realise that the West has been defeated in the war and that any meaningful intra-Afghan dialogue (“Afghan-led, Afghan-controlled”) can happen only after it commits to a timeline for withdrawal of troops. The Taliban delegation at the Moscow conference was categorical:
“For real peace, the will of the people should be adhered to; occupation should be ended, because history has proved that Afghan nation has never surrendered to occupation. Occupation is mother of all the miseries. Peace in Afghanistan and withdrawal of foreign troops are tied with each other, because withdrawal of foreign troops practically paves the way for peace.”
It is now known that US officials have held “scores of clandestine meetings” with the Taliban representatives, but the latter refused to budge from their pre-condition regarding foreign occupation of their country.
The Taliban delegation at the Moscow conference also listed four “preliminary steps” that would constitute “confidence-building measures”: removal of sanctions list; release of detainees; formal opening of a Taliban office; and, stopping “poisonous propaganda”. Equally, the Taliban delegation listed as “obstacles to peace” the following: absence of an Islamic system in Afghanistan; lack of international guarantors for peace agreements (Taliban suggested that the UN, major powers, members of the Islamic Conference and facilitating countries “must guarantee implementation of agreements”); and, replacement of the present constitution (“copied from the West and imposed on Afghanistan’s Muslim society under the shadow of occupation”).
To be sure, the path leading to a settlement is littered with obstacles and some heavy lifting by the regional states – especially, Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran – becomes crucial.
The heart of the matter is that Russia is today uniquely placed as an influential major power in the emergent Afghan scenario. It instills confidence in the Taliban leadership while also enjoying excellent friendly relations with all the facilitating states surrounding Afghanistan – China, India, Pakistan and Iran.
Moscow describes last week’s conference as “a modest first step toward full-fledged peace talks.” And it candidly acknowledges the raison d’tre of the event: “Afghanistan is close to our underbelly so national interests of Russia and its allies are at stake. 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… the presence of the US and NATO hasn't only failed to solve the problem but exacerbated it."
Ironically, that is also how the American public would view the Afghan war. A YouGov poll last month revealed that 61 percent of American public support the president removing all troops from Afghanistan. Some 69 percent of US war veterans supported the idea. Everyone surveyed agreed that the process of withdrawal should begin soon – 63 percent of the general public and 64 percent of vets want to see “some or all” of the US troops stationed in Afghanistan home within five years.
There seems to be some churning going on in Washington Beltway. Possibly, Washington is taking note that the Moscow conference was neither a diplomatic coup by the Russians nor an act of one-upmanship, but rather a purposive initiative to contribute to the creation of favorable conditions for the launch of direct talks between the Afghan government, the Taliban and representatives of broad public and political forces in Afghanistan.
Simply put, Moscow hopes to work together with its regional partners and Afghanistan’s friends as well as the broader international community, especially the US, to help launch a constructive intra-Afghan dialogue.
Therefore, the American decision to nominate a “observer” to the Moscow conference was an encouraging step. Importantly, the US special representative on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad intends to visit Moscow in early December. Moscow has promptly signaled that it is willing to work with Khalilzad and even discuss drawing up a road map on a settlement in Afghanistan, if only he showed readiness for that.
Of course, that is a big “if” – considering the pervasive resistance within the US establishment to the very idea of working with Russia constructively to settle regional conflicts, apart from Khalilzad’s own neoconservative proclivity. But with the spectre of an Afghan quagmire staring at the face, realism may prevail in Washington.
The Moscow conference should be seen as a lifeline that helps the US to avoid an Afghan quagmire. The regional states welcome it.