The Moscow Conference


Exploring ways to
peace in Afghanistan

On March 18, just six weeks before a deadline – agreed last year – to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, Russia hosted a one-day conference as part of an intense diplomatic push to jumpstart a stalled peace process in this war-torn country. At the conference, Russia, the United States, China and Pakistan – the expanded troika on the Afghan settlement – called on Afghanistan’s warring sides to reach an immediate ceasefire. In a joint statement, the meeting participants called on the Taliban to abandon plans for a spring offensive. The conference aimed to reinvigorate negotiations that have been taking place between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Qatar’s capital Doha, largely stalled over government’s accusations that the insurgents have failed to halt violence. The Moscow talks included US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, along with officials from Pakistan and China. Washington has embraced Russia’s role in the Afghan negotiations, forming an unlikely partnership on the issue. The Moscow conference was the first time the US had sent a senior representative to talks on Afghanistan under a format launched by Russia in 2017.

As the May 1 deadline for America to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan draws close, efforts are afoot to speed up the peace process there. The latest sign of this came after a meeting was convened in Moscow featuring Afghan stakeholders, as well as representatives of regional and global players, to try and hammer out some sort of deal, and salvage the very modest successes that have been achieved by the Afghan government, the Taliban and the US.
At the talks hosted by Russia in Moscow, the United States, Russia, China and Pakistan called on Afghanistan’s warring sides to reach an immediate ceasefire. Just six weeks before a deadline for the United States to pull out troops that have been in Afghanistan for nearly 20 years, Russia has hosted these crucial talks as the Kremlin pushes for a ceasefire and power-sharing agreement in the war-ravaged nation.
The Moscow talks were meant to breathe life into negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Qatar’s capital Doha, stalled over government accusations that the group has done too little to halt the violence. “At this turning point, our four countries call on the sides to hold talks and reach a peace agreement that will end more than four decades of war in Afghanistan,” a joint statement said after the talks.
Washington sent a senior official to participate in regional peace talks convened by Russia. An Afghan delegation led by the chair of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR) Abdullah Abdullah, and a Taliban delegation led by the group’s political deputy Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, were also present.
After extensive talks, the US, Russian, Chinese and Pakistani officials urged representatives from the Afghan government and the Taliban to commit to an immediate ceasefire. A joint statement issued at the end of the conference said, “We call on all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan to reduce the level of violence in the country, and the Taliban Movement not to declare a spring-summer offensive campaign.”
The statement called on both sides to conclude their peace negotiations and supported the formation of “an independent, sovereign, unified, peaceful, democratic, and self-sufficient Afghanistan,” free of terrorism and drugs. It also called for the protection of the rights of women, children, minorities and others.
An interim government?
US President Joe Biden’s administration is currently trying to determine whether it would be feasible to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by May 1, in accordance with a deal brokered with the Taliban by his predecessor, Donald Trump. On the other hand, Russia has backed the idea of an Afghan interim government, which could include members of the Taliban. The interim government would remain until elections are held and a new constitution is drafted. Khalilzad also hopes the Afghans will commit to a political settlement that would not only include a ceasefire, but also an interim government.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani opposes an interim government, and a Taliban leader has said the group would not join it, although it supports replacing the current administration.
Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, wrote on Twitter after Moscow talks that the state negotiation team was ready to discuss any topic with the Taliban.
“We called for an end to targeted killings and a comprehensive ceasefire to begin the next rounds of the talks in a peaceful environment,” Abdullah wrote.
The Taliban’s deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, said in his speech in Moscow that the US has not fully completed its responsibilities of the agreement signed in February 2020. Among others, the remaining prisoners have not been released, he said.
That Russia would host a conference at which the United States was also represented, by no less than Special Representative on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, should not be a surprise, even though this was the first time the USA was represented at such a regional gathering, which also brought together China, Afghan government representatives, Afghan Taliban representatives and Pakistan as well. For a start, that presence shows US desperation, which, in turn, shows its own indecision over whether or not to honour the agreement made by the Trump Administration to withdraw all forces by May 1. The US presence was also an acknowledgement that the Doha talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government were not progressing. The presence was thus also an acceptance that the way forward required a multilateral approach, rather than the bilateral approach that it had favoured so far. Pakistan should also absorb the important lesson that the US is not going to make the running with the assistance of Pakistan, but that the other powers also have a stake which must be given due weight. As all the parties are basically following their own national interests, the conference is an important acknowledgement that the peace in Afghanistan involves the peace and prosperity of the entire region.
Pakistan will need to keep the regional view in sight, because the US and Russia, for differing reasons, will be pushing for an India role. Pakistan needs to avoid any kneejerk reaction. It should remind itself that any Indian role, if it does not organically flow out of the situation, cannot be imposed by any other power. Conversely, if it has developed an interest in Afghanistan, no amount of manoeuvring by Pakistan or China can serve to keep it out.
However, it should not be forgotten that India cannot impose itself, because the present multilateral approach might not satisfy individual powers as much as the original bilateral one, and it certainly cannot be used to create an interest unless one already exists. The Kabul government is understandably anxious about the interim government proposal, which the Taliban have rejected. However, the way forward requires just some such mechanism, and as a country which wants a regional settlement, Pakistan must continue its commitment to the process.

The writer is a member of staff.

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