Afghanistan in Russia: An Emerging Peace and Power Broker?
Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Russia Abdul Qayyum Kochai met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Murgulov on Monday amid questions of whether or not Afghanistan would participate in Russia’s proposed peace talks with the Taliban. Early last week, Moscow invited eleven countries – the United States (U.S.), Afghanistan, China, Iran, Pakistan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – and Taliban representatives to Moscow on September 4th to negotiate an end to the 17-year-old conflict between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The U.S. declined its invitation, saying that the efforts were unlikely to lead to peace.
The Afghan Foreign Ministry initially also declined, saying that peace talks should be Afghan-led. A follow-up statement on Facebook added that Afghanistan would not attend a meeting when the Taliban have not displayed a “commitment for peace negotiations.” These comments are likely alluding to the group’s repeated rejections of President Ashraf Ghani’s peace offers over the last several months. A successful three-day truce during religious holidays in June encouraged President Ghani’s regime to pursue further engagement. More recently, the administration offered the Taliban a similar ceasefire during Eid al-Adha, but their offer was ignored. Instead, the Taliban have been ramping up the frequency and violence of their attacks, even launching mortars at the President during his televised Eid al-Adha address last week.
However, the Ambassador’s meeting with Deputy Minister Morgulov was followed the same day by a phone call between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and President Ghani. Russia then announced that Ghani now supported a meeting, and had asked to postpone it due to “ongoing personnel changes in the leadership of the Afghan ruling bloc.” On Tuesday, the Afghan Foreign Ministry reported that they were co-chairing the talks with Moscow, and planning was underway to settle a timeline and agenda.
The Ministry’s representative also noted that their initial opposition was not “not about who talks with the Taliban and how we react to it. The point is whether we can accept the fact that the Taliban attends (the talks) as a (single) party at a multilateral discussion where independent countries are attending?” It would be the first time the Taliban attended such a meeting. The Afghan High Peace Council, a body created in 2010 to negotiate with the Taliban, added that all countries who had previously met with the Taliban had first asked the Afghan government’s permission; in this instance, Russia had not done so.
Russia’s intentions and alliances in Afghanistan have long been murky. Just last week, Ambassador Kochai accused Russia of holding the talks because it wanted to partner with the Taliban against ISIS. Foreign Minster Lavrov vehemently denied Ambassador Kochai’s statement, saying he “can’t even hypothetically imagine how Russia could use the Taliban for fighting the IS,” and calling the accusation “deplorable.” Similar claims about Russia’s influence in Afghanistan have circulated since 2016, when Russia’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan remarked that Taliban interests “objectively coincide” with Russia’s. Top U.S. military officials have never confirmed, but also refused to deny, rumors that Russia was furnishing Taliban militants with weapons.
While there is no evidence to support those rumors, it is true that Russian interests in Afghanistan revolve around ensuring that extremism is not exported to Russia, and they have more to fear from ISIS than the Taliban in that regard. Russia has long been wary of ISIS militants training Uzbek and Russian extremists to establish a Khorasan Khanate in Central Asia. Last month, ISIS claimed its first attack in Tajikistan, a move north that certainly made Russia uneasy. Russian efforts to take more control over the Afghan peace process could also be an attempt to undercut NATO, whose influence in the region Russia finds troubling. General John Nicholson, who has led the U.S.’s NATO presence in Afghanistan since 2016, will turn over command to Lieutenant General Austin Miller next month, and the transition could open a door for Russia to become more influential.
As of now, there is no date set for the meeting, and it may never come to pass. However, the Taliban’s immediate willingness to meet in Moscow, followed by Afghanistan’s decision to join the talks as well demonstrates the increasing success Russia’s diplomatic ventures are having in the troubled country.