Russia hosted a six-nation conference on Afghanistan’s future in Moscow last week that saw participation from India, Iran, Pakistan, China, and Afghanistan. This was Russia’s second initiative, after the first trilateral conference in December last year which only included China and Pakistan. These Moscow-hosted talks come almost 38 years after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 and underscored a significant shift in Russia’s Afghanistan policy.
After facing flak for not inviting Afghanistan to the December conference on the nation’s future, Russia decided to broaden its outreach by inviting India, Iran, and Afghanistan. The Afghan government had registered strong protest after its exclusion from the December conference, underlining that regardless of the intentions of the participants, excluding Kabul from talks would not help the situation in the country. “Even if such talks are organized with good will, it cannot yield any substantial results because no one from the Afghan side is there to brief the participants about the latest ground realities,” Ahmad Shekib Mostaghni, a spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry, had said.
This became even more significant as the December conference agreed upon “a flexible approach to remove certain [Taliban] figures from [United Nations] sanctions lists as part of efforts to foster a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban movement.” The three states also underscored their concern “about the rising activity in the country [Afghanistan] of extremist groups, including the Afghan branch of IS [the Islamic State]” and underlined that the Taliban was a necessary bulwark in the global fight against the IS. This took Kabul as well its other partners like New Delhi by surprise.
This time Moscow was more careful. It invited most of the regional stakeholders even as the United States and the NATO were pointedly left out. It was left to Afghanistan to underscore the centrality of the United States in the unfolding dynamic in the country by pushing for Washington’s inclusion as one of its most important partners to “end war and usher in sustainable peace in Afghanistan.”
Afghanistan also took on Pakistan at the conference when it underlined the need to “effect a change in the behavior of certain state actors” in order to end the violence that has reached record levels in the last year. In fact, Afghanistan strongly pushed back against the “good Taliban, bad Taliban” discourse being championed by Russia, China, and Pakistan when its representative at the talks, M. Ashraf Haidari, argued that “the key challenge to the process remains a policy selectivity by some to distinguish between good and bad terrorists, even though terrorism is a common threat that confronts the whole region, where if one of us doesn’t stand firm against it, others’ counter-terrorism efforts will not bear the results we all seek.”
This was of course welcomed by New Delhi, which also underlined the need for Afghan-led and Afghan-owned reconciliation effort only to be facilitated by “friends and well wishers of Afghanistan.” India also reiterated that denying “safe havens or sanctuaries to any terrorist group or individual in countries of our region” remains central for the long-term stability of Afghanistan.
It was ironic that the Moscow conference happened at a time when Afghanistan-Pakistan ties have hit a new nadir. Speaking at the sixth Heart of Asia ministerial conference in December, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani urged Pakistani authorities to act against the militants’ sanctuaries in their country’s northwestern tribal areas. Ghani had said the $500 million in aid that Islamabad pledged for the reconstruction of Afghanistan would be better spent on eradicating terrorists that continue to launch attacks in Afghanistan from Pakistani soil. More recently, after a spate of terror attacks in its territory, Pakistan accused Afghanistan of not doing enough to go after armed groups that launch attacks on its territory. The Pakistan Army has even moved heavy artillery to the Pakistan-Afghan border.
As Washington remains distracted by the seemingly never-ending drama in the White House, Russia wants to fill a vacuum in South Asia by taking a lead on Afghanistan. Its engagement with Pakistan has been gathering momentum and its partnership with China is aimed at forming a global bulwark against the West. It is in this wider context that emerging fault lines in South Asia become important. It is not simply Afghanistan, but the very future of South Asia that is at stake.