There’s a first time for everything. On Nov. 9, a Taliban delegation attended a one-day diplomatic conference in Russia to explore potential solutions for a peaceful settlement. It was the first time the Taliban had ever taken part in such a high-level international event that brought together India, Pakistan, Iran, China, and five countries from Central Asia. The US was invited as an observer but did not attend.
Russia hopes “to open a new page in the history of Afghanistan through joint efforts,” according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. He believes that the participation of both Afghan leaders and the Taliban was an important contribution that helped to create a favorable environment for kick-starting direct talks.
The US efforts to involve the Taliban in the negotiations not been successful thus far. Former US Ambassador to Afghanistan and Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad has held meetings with the Taliban in Qatar, but to no avail. The US is not happy with the “Moscow format” talks on Afghanistan, especially with the Taliban present, but nothing can be done about it — Moscow is spearheading the Afghan peace process. Russia was the first to get the Afghan delegates and the Taliban into the same room and at the same round table, with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov seated between them. As CNN put it on Nov. 9, “Taliban Representatives in Moscow Signal Russia’s Rising Diplomatic Clout.”
Kabul was not officially represented at the Moscow conference. Instead, it sent a delegation from Afghanistan’s High Peace Council (AHPC), a semi-official body that oversees peace efforts but does not represent the government. It did not prevent the members of AHPC from communicating President Ashraf Ghani’s offer to launch peace talks without preconditions. In February 2018, Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani devised a peace offer for the Taliban that included readiness to both recognize the movement as a political party as well as to engage in unconditional talks with that group.
The Taliban officials refused to hold direct talks with the government in Kabul but they reaffirmed their readiness to discuss Afghanistan’s future with the United States. They are demanding a US withdrawal from their country and the adoption of a new constitution “based on the principles of Islamic religion.”
This one-day event was not intended to be a diplomatic breakthrough, but Moscow demonstrated its ability to act as an effective mediator between the Taliban and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government — a mission the US has so far failed to accomplish. As a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Russia has become a major contributor to the Shanghai Organization’s rising prominence, promoting the credibility of the peace efforts undertaken by the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group. Afghanistan has an observer status in the SCO — a group that can turn the peace process into a multilateral effort. This will weaken US clout in the region but will stop the fighting.
The Moscow conference also demonstrated that Russia has become a potentially vital bridge between the Taliban, the Afghan government, and the US at a time when Washington is seeking to end this war that is sapping its resources and proving a distraction from its other efforts, such as setting up a major anti-Iranian military alliance in the Middle East (Arab NATO). Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai believes Russia can play a decisive role in ending America’s longest war. As the participants of the “Moscow format” talks agreed, the Russian-brokered consultations will continue. After all, Russia, the Taliban, and the Afghan government all face a common enemy — the Islamic State.