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News Analysis

Russia plans to host international talks on the conflict in Afghanistan on April 14, in Moscow; a high-ranking Afghan official confirmed. However, he ruled out any participation by the Taliban, thus exposing the underlying fault lines between the regional powers.

Hanif Atmar, the Afghan president’s national security adviser, who was in Moscow to meet Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and other top officials, later told Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Free Afghanistan on March 18 that 12 countries, including the United States, EU and four Central Asian nations, have been invited to attend.

Read Also: Afghanistan Peace Conference to take place on April 14 in Moscow

Atmar, however, asserted that “no invitation” is being sent to the Taliban. Representatives of the Afghan Taliban, while talking to media in Doha, Qatar, however, maintained that they will be willing to participate in the talks in Moscow, if invited.

Read Also: Russia to host Talks on Afghan Conflict, Radio Free Europe

This clearly exposes the emerging fault line between the participating countries. “There is no agreement about the Taliban’s participation in any conference,” Afghan National Security Advisor, Hanif Atmar had categorically asserted, that the conference in Russia “is a meeting between states.”

Russian news agencies meanwhile, quoted Atmar as saying Kabul was prepared to engage in direct negotiations with the militant group.

The Taliban “should sit down at the negotiating table with the Afghan government, rather than participating in the conference,” Interfax quoted Atmar as saying.

The stage for the current talks was set by Russia in December 2016, in a trilateral meeting, in which Pakistan, China and Russia, participated. Pakistan and China strongly support direct talks with the Afghan Taliban, laying a groundwork for their ultimate inclusion in a power sharing arrangement in Kabul. Russia for the past one year has been signaling its softer stand towards Afghan Taliban; in December it officially admitted that it has been maintaining contacts with the Taliban.

Read: All Regional Players invited to Moscow to discuss peace in Afghanistan – GVS, Feb 2017

In December, Russia and China also said that they would consider  helping to lift certain UN sanctions on Taliban leaders. This comment was not taken well by the Kabul government at the time. Kabul also expressed serious concerns about Russian engagement with the Taliban. However, Hanif Atmar, has been reassured by the Russians that “Our recent contacts with the armed opposition [Taliban] are aimed only at encouraging the group to join the Afghan government-led peace process,”

With China’s one belt one road initiative and its first physical manifestation as CPEC, the convergence of interests between China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan is becoming visible. Thus a certain desperation on the part of these countries, to stabilize Afghanistan. Without a peaceful Afghanistan, the vision of the integration of trade and energy corridors in the region, will remain unfulfilled.

In recent months, Iran has also warmed up to this idea. Shia Iran has been a historical enemy of Afghan Taliban, who are ultra-orthodox Sunnis. In late 1990’s, after the hostage taking of Iranian diplomats, Iran almost came close to having a full fledged war with the Taliban lead government in Kabul. Situation was averted by robust diplomacy by countries like Pakistan and the UAE, but hostilities persisted. After 9/11, Tehran, along with Russia, has been supportive of US actions against the Taliban. There is evidence to believe that Iran shared intelligence with the US against Taliban during and after the US invasion of October 2001. However, over the past one year both Moscow and Tehran, have started indicating that they see ISIS as a greater regional threat to their interests, than an ethnic and Afghan centric ‘Taliban’. Russians diplomats and media also don’t hide their suspicions regarding the rather mysterious origins of ISIS in the region.

Read: Where does Pakistan fit in the emerging US-Russia conflict in Afghanistan – GVS

In the February talks in Moscow, a larger group of countries participated including: Afghanistan, India and Iran. India took an unusualy strong position against the participation of Afghan Taliban in the talks; it described them merely as “terrorists”. Afghanistan supported the Indian position that no talks were possible with terrorists and ‘killers of Afghan people’.

Without a peaceful Afghanistan, the vision of the integration of trade and energy corridors in the region, will remain unfulfilled. However, strategically these road, trade and energy corridors emerging in the north of Pakistan may diminish India’s regional influence. Will Trump administration continue to pander to Indian strategic needs or will define a way forward for all the region? Moscow Talks in April 2017 will thus be crucial.

Now, in March of 2017, with Hanif Atmar’s recent visit to Moscow, it is obvious that the Russian initiative that looks so promising in December is now becoming bogged down in inter-regional rivalries. When the US, the controlling and occupying force and the main financial backer of the Kabul regime, enters the talks, in Moscow, on April 14, two regional blocks will be clearly visible. One bloc – consisting of Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran and central Asian republics- that desires the inclusion of Taliban in the talks, with a view towards their ultimate inclusion in a power sharing arrangement in Kabul. The second block consisting of the US, India and Afghanistan.

Read: How terrorist sanctuaries in Afghanistan are posing threat to Pakistan? GVS, Feb 2017

The hostility of India and Afghanistan to the inclusion of Taliban is abundantly clear, and is on record. So the ‘trump’ card will be in the hands of the Trump Administration. Will the US participants be towing the Indian line or will be able to offer a compromise solution towards sustainable peace in the region.

Read: Pakistan warns US; Afghanistan could be the next Syria – GVS

Afghanistan, now represents longest combat engagement of the US anywhere, in its entire history. It finds itself in an unending war situation since October of 2001; in these 16 years it has spent more than a  trillion dollars in its efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and has lost thousands of soldiers. Despite this majority of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces are still effectively in control of Taliban who run their shadow governments, collect taxes and issue land decrees and approve commercial contracts.

Read: Pakistan Army Raids inside Afghanistan; Difficult Decision but Necessary – GVS

With China’s one belt one road initiative and its first physical manifestation as CPEC, the convergence of interests between China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan is becoming visible. Thus a certain desperation on the part of these countries, to stabilize Afghanistan.  Without a peaceful Afghanistan, the vision of the integration of trade and energy corridors in the region, will remain unfulfilled. However, strategically these road, trade and energy corridors emerging in the north of Pakistan may diminish India’s regional influence. Will Trump administration continue to pander to Indian strategic needs or will define a way forward for all the region? Moscow Talks in April 2017 will thus be crucial.

 

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