By Muhammad Taimur Fahad Khan
“The United States, not the Taliban, breaching the Afghan peace deal.” This was stated by Russia’s Presidential Envoy to Afghanistan Ambassador Zamir Kabulov on February 17, 2021. This statement came hours before the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) defence ministers’ meeting which deferred the possibility of forces’ withdrawal from Afghanistan by the US-appointed May 1, 2021 deadline.
There seems to be a change in the policy orientation and attitude of Russia towards the peace process in Afghanistan.
Despite allegations of playing the role of an antagonist for peace in Afghanistan, Russia, a former invader of Afghanistan, has adopted a positive policy approach towards the country in general and the on-going conflict in particular. Russia has been making some genuine efforts towards the cessation of hostilities in Afghanistan and the establishment of peace and security in the war-ravaged country.
While fully supportive of the international effort to eradicate terrorism from Afghanistan since 2001, Russia also initiated the “Moscow Format” of consultations for deliberations on establishing peace in Afghanistan and providing an inclusive platform for all important stakeholders to reach a common understanding that can finally bring an end to the protracted war.
The Moscow Format was an important platform where representatives from 11 countries from across the world were in attendance, including members of the Taliban political office and various Afghan groups and factions. It was the first time that the Taliban were invited to an international forum for discussion on peace in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, Russia was also an active part of the “Four Party Talks” that were initiated to resume US-Taliban negotiations and ensure that the settlement protects the human, political and economic rights of Afghans as a priority. These talks included Russia, China and Pakistan. In these talks, US was represented by US representative for Afghan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad.
Moreover, the Russian leadership, especially President Vladimir Putin has stated on several occasions that Russia is ready to work with all stakeholders in Afghanistan, especially the US, for the resolution of the conflict. He has stated, however, that the US presence in Afghanistan is not seen as a threat to Moscow’s external interests.
Russia, since the US invasion, has adopted a very mature approach towards Afghanistan and also started to be actively involved in Afghan affairs. It is a strong advocate of a peaceful, political settlement of the Afghan conflict, a settlement that is Afghan-owned and Afghan-led.
Besides the political and diplomatic support extended by Russia to Afghanistan, the former has also contributed materialistically in Afghanistan by investing substantially in the agriculture, transport, mining, and development sectors.
This policy approach towards Afghanistan in general and the Afghan conflict, in particular, is practical, mature, and simultaneously extremely beneficial for Afghanistan as well. Such a policy discourse is instrumental for Russia’s long-term interests vis-a-vis Afghanistan and the region.
With horrific experiences with militancy and terrorism in the Middle East (case in point Syria), it is in Russia’s benefit not to let the same experience get translated in Afghanistan with spill-over effects to Central Asia that is practically Russia’s backyard. Elimination of the illicit trade of narcotics emanating from Afghanistan is a Russian policy goal that is only possible with the establishment of peace and stability in the country, hence the Russian efforts for peace in Afghanistan.
Russia seems to be mainly following the US lead and supporting the current Doha Format and its consequent Intra-Afghan Dialogue. It can be observed from the statements given by the Russian leadership that they are following the ‘wait and watch’ policy with regard to Afghanistan. While they want peace, but they are also anxious about what will become of Afghanistan post-US withdrawal.
In line with this policy, Russia has once again sought the help of concerned partners, particularly the “enlarged troika” (countries with the most influence on the Afghan Peace Process such as the US, China, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia), to help facilitate the stalled Afghan Peace Process by hosting a new meeting of the stakeholders in Moscow in the coming days.
According to Ambassador Zamir Kabulov, the US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has also agreed to the proposition of holding such a meeting in Moscow as well. Russia already enjoys China, Pakistan, and Iran’s confidence in this regard. – –
To sum up the earlier discussion, Russian efforts for lasting and durable peace in Afghanistan seem to be genuine and sincere out of sheer political, strategic, and economic necessities (if nothing else). Russia is strictly against any abrupt withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan without a workable and mutually agreed post-withdrawal plan. It is constantly advising caution to the US and its coalition partners as was evident from the statements made by Ambassador Kabulov during the recent visit to Islamabad and Russian Ambassador to Pakistan H.E. Danila Ganich at a webinar that said that Russia made mistakes in Afghanistan earlier which it never wants to repeat and so shouldn’t the US now!
Note This article was originally published in issue Brief-March 2021 of Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad.