Moscow hosted a peace conference in Afghanistan this week with a purported aim of achieving peace and reconciliation among the warring parties. Though the conference, attended by 11 regional players including, US who sat as an observer, a high-level delegation from Taliban, a government-backed peace council delegation from Afghan government, Pakistan, India, China and central Asian states, was not expected to achieve peace or even ceasefire, still it sent out few very important signals across the world. It was a significant regional development in more than one way for many countries and underlined some important points that could lay the foundation of a final negotiated peace settlement with Afghan-US dispensation and the rest of the region.
The talks called Moscow Format were held behind closed doors at a Moscow hotel and there was no joint statement expected at the end with Russian Foreign Minister Sergie Lavrov outlining the mission statement. Let’s have a look at what is at stake for each stakeholder in the broader regional context and what they want to achieve out of these peace talks. Also, a fundamental question. Has the time finally arrived to end this 30-year long war and are the regional players who fought this war directly or through their proxies wary and tired enough to work sincerely towards peace in Afghanistan?
For Afghanistan and its people, end of this bloody conflict could open up the possibility of a long-term peace that could lead to stability and ultimately economic benefits. But Kabul would obviously not want to walk away handing over reins to Taliban and sign a surrender deal. It wants to make sure that a) Afghanistan maintains the modern political and economic outlook it seeks and keep Taliban that she sees as Pashtun religious fanatics from the south out of Kabul and Afghan urban centers as far as possible. It would like to get back into business of regional trade and would like to adopt western democratic outlook to reap the benefits of post-war peace. Here, the key for any architect of peace would be to strike a visible balance between the northern ethnic groups and Pashtuns which is not of course easy to attain. We have been on this road several times and the moment the signs of a power shift towards one ethnicity appear, the war will be popular again in rural areas. To pacify its south, Kabul will have to keep military in Islamabad happy which only US, China and to an extent India could guarantee. Then there will be political and economic sharing involved after the war and who gets what in that pie will be a source of permanent headache for Kabul. But again these peace conferences are exactly about all this.
Taliban are major players of conflict but they are not a political entity and even militarily they are absent from the north and west and from almost entire urban Afghanistan. But they would like to play big and punch above their weight as they and their backers know without them peace is not achievable in the country. They would like to demand the biggest share of the pie but the world around them has changed. Pakistan, their main supporter and financier is not as potent as it used to be and the power of other reginal players of the conflict has considerably increased. If they have the ability to look into this new reality they can walk away getting maximum from this or any future negotiating table. They will also have to realise they too are not a homogenous force they used to be. They are torn and eroded by years of factionalism and within competing interests have emerged that serve other regional players too apart from Pakistan. The factionalism and emergence of other power centers on top of Pakistan within Taliban will play a crucial role in the success of any negotiated settlement in future.
Washington is the elephant in the room. You ignore it at your peril. It is the only player present in the field and has higher stakes than anyone else. The reason why the US is on the table at all is not entirely Taliban insurgency in rural areas. The reason perhaps is it wants to move on from Afghanistan, not physically though. The new and pressing problems have emerged in the region that relate to China and Iran and to an extent the Middle East. Those needs to be fixed first and fast. Afghanistan has become a distraction. If someone is putting down his money on the US leaving Afghanistan in the aftermath of a any settlement, it’s a bad bet. A relatively peaceful Afghanistan where the US boots are not engaged is an ideal outcome for Washington so that it could concentrate on the bigger picture emerging in the region vis-à-vis China and Iran. Afghanistan and South Asia are at the centre of a new balance of power that is emerging in the Middle East and Indian Ocean. To keep this balance favourably tilted towards Washington, Afghan question needs to be settled and to settle it parties want their say and share. These negotiations will be an opportunity for the US to keep the regional allies aligned using the bargaining power in Afghanistan. And remember, being the only player that holds territory and geography it has the maximum bargaining power.
Once the most potent and powerful player on ground, Pakistan has lost more than three-fourth of influence on Afghanistan and along with it on Taliban. For Pakistani military and security agencies, it took 30 years to realise that they were powerful because they drew power from the US in Afghan affairs. The moment they thought they have amassed enough power and influence on Taliban and through them on Afghan affairs, it started to knock holes in their Afghan strategy exposing all kinds of fissures and fault-lines. Like Taliban they always want to punch above their weight due to their grand regional ambitions. But again for them the realities have changed and now the military in Pakistan is learning the hard way to cope with new realities. Like Taliban, Pakistani military and security agencies are not as homogenous as they used to be and this will work in their disadvantage. Holding Beijing’s finger will not help in this arena. This is a game where one gets what it can deliver. At the moment they hold partial influence on Taliban which is not enough. And on ground their presence is restricted to rural areas of south where Taliban and their Pakistani backers are frequently challenged by ISIS. Keeping in view the current power equation, Pakistan will have to contend with far less political and economic share, their grand regional aspirations notwithstanding. It looks hard to use their nuclear card for leverage because it would mean losing whatever regional support they might still have including China. Pakistani security establishment needs an introspection here because once again they are standing at a position of 1992 when the power was re-arranged in Afghanistan and they lost everything to northern alliance. They dis struck back with Taliban takeover in 1996 but can they something like that now? Highly unlikely.
The main beneficiary of Afghan end-game looks like Russia. Of all regional players, it entered the arena very late and now has the diplomatic capacity to bring together Kabul representatives and Taliban under one roof. Taliban always refused to talk to Kabul government saying that they preferred direct talks with the US. That too are under way but Russia is scoring diplomatic victories at a noticeable pace. Moscow’s have to axes to grind here. One, it wants to eliminate the threat of ISIS gathering on the central Asian borders and two like all other regional players it wants a government in Kabul that is not hostile to Russia. Both objectives are closely linked. You get one and there is a chance of getting the other as well. By entering the Afghan peace settlement headlong, Russia would also like to minimise the US influence in the region after the settlement. This is entirely a different ball-game and a long one too. The last thing the US would want is to leave the region to the influence of Russia, China and Iran. It might be prone to award concessions to Russia in terms of accepting Moscow’s influence on its central Asian backyard but then it would like Russia to stay away from Middle East and Indian ocean. How the interests of Russia and the US would reconcile here. It’s hard to see.
For Iran, it would like to maintain and hold on to its influence in the western region of Afghanistan and adjacent port of Chahbahar. Anything more than that is welcome but odds are stacked against Iran in the bigger picture. To get a hand into Afghan pie, it will have to take hand out from Middle Eastern hot pies which Tehran sees against its national interests and too hard a price to pay. In the end Tehran and Delhi could work towards something for themselves in future Afghan political and economic dispensations. Remember, Iran holds considerable influence on a large Taliban faction that would be a significant leverage.
Unlike, Pakistan and Taliban India always punched above its weight always striking a balance when the things are hot and always emerging from behind when time comes to talk peace. In the past its good relations with the so-called northern alliance always paid dividends and we saw India placing its stakes on the table when the time came to form a consensus government in Kabul after a prolonged infighting where a mish-mash of Pashtun forces were backed by Pakistan’s military and ISI in the early 90s. India played its hand so deftly always in Afghanistan that despite Pakistan’s best efforts it always managed to keep governments in Kabul in good stead. The expected performance this time round is even better because now India has a history of cooperation with Karzai and Ghani administrations and is playing a meaningful role in the economic uplift of the country. For India, a Delhi-friendly government in Kabul, a role in post-war reconstruction and future defence and security cooperation with Afghanistan are the targets it must have set for itself. Given the current geo-strategic environment in the region – not a long shot by any means.
China is there to be there at the right time and place. Having a slightly favourable outcome post-war in Afghanistan would definitely enhance regional stature for China, but it knows that the real one will be coming next once the Afghan question is settled. Both US and China are looking at Afghan end-game as a prelude to battle for regional balance of power and this is the one China wants to fight and is preparing for it.