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Afghanistan: The Futility of ‘Talks’ under the ‘Moscow Format



By Ajit Kumar Singh

 November 19, 2018

On November 9, 2018, Russia hosted the second round of ‘talks’ under the ‘Moscow Format’. The participants included four members of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council (HPC), five ‘delegates’ of the Afghan Taliban, and representatives (either official or unofficial) from 11 other countries – India, Iran, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and the United States of America. Though the HPC is a government-appointed body charged with overseeing the ongoing peace processes in the country, according to the Afghanistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) it was sent “in its own capacity as a national but non-government institution”.

In his opening remarks, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated, “today’s event will greatly contribute to the creation of favourable conditions for the launch of direct talks between the Government, the Taliban and representatives of broad public and political forces in Afghanistan”. There were, however, no outcomes after the meet to suggest any positive development in this direction.

Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, Taliban 'spokesperson' stressed, "this conference was not about direct talks", and reiterated his group's position,

[The Taliban] does not recognise the current Government as legal and therefore we won't hold talks with them. Considering our main demand is the withdrawal of foreign forces, we will discuss a peaceful resolution with the Americans…

Further, the Transcript of the Speech delivered by the Taliban delegation at the Moscow Conference clearly states,

… the ongoing war is not a war between Afghans but is military resistance of Afghan nation against the invasion. Afghans do not have problem among themselves. Foreign occupation is the main problem. This war will continue until and unless foreign soldiers exist in Afghanistan (sic). Hence, withdrawal of foreign soldiers is necessary for peace in Afghanistan…

The Taliban has continuously accused the Afghanistan Government of supporting the invading forces.

There was little possibility of any breakthroughs even prior to the Moscow meet. On November 8, 2018, Taliban 'spokesman' Zabihullah Mujahid, had categorically stated, "this conference is not about holding negotiations with any party whatsoever; rather it is about finding a peaceful solution to the issue of Afghanistan… there will not be any sort of negotiations taking place with the delegation of Kabul administration".

Similarly, the Afghanistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) while announcing, on November 5, 2018, that the Afghanistan Government would not send a delegation to attend the meeting voiced the apprehension,

...This time, only a group has been invited, therefore we are not going to participate in it, but our agreement with the Russians is that this meeting should lead to direct talks between us (Afghan government) and the Taliban, if it does not happen like this, then this will reflect the intention of the Taliban and this means they (Taliban) are not prepared for peace….

Direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghanistan Government remain improbable.

Significantly, Russia had jumped into the fray few years ago after the successive failures of Pakistan, USA and China to broker peace between the Taliban and the Afghan Government. The seeds of the ‘Moscow Format’ were sown on February 15, 2017, when special representatives from Russia, Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, Iran, and India met and decided to move forward. The first round of consultations under the ‘Moscow Format’ took place on April 14, 2017, and was attended by representatives of 11 countries including Afghanistan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The US did not take part on the grounds that “the new US administration lacked an Afghanistan strategy at the time.” The second round of consultations were originally scheduled to be held on September 4, 2018, but were postponed, as Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani sought time, “for more preparation and to make it effective so that Afghan and Russian Governments together will manage and host the meeting.”

The Afghan Government had also taken the initiative to engage with the Taliban directly. On August 19, 2018, President Ghani had stated

As we approach Eid-ul-Adha [festival of sacrifice]… we announce a ceasefire that would take effect from tomorrow, Monday [August 20, 2018], the day of Arafa, till the day of the birth of the prophet (PBUH) i.e., Milad-un-Nabi [November 30, 2018], provided that the Taliban reciprocate. We call on the leadership of the Taliban to welcome the wishes of Afghans for a long lasting and real peace, and we urge them to get ready for peace-talks based on Islamic values and principles…

On August 20, 2018, two unnamed Taliban ‘commanders’ responded with the statement that their supreme leader Sheikh-ul-Hadith Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada had rejected the offer on the grounds that the ceasefire would only help the American-led mission. One of the ‘commanders’ added, “Our leadership feels that they [the US] will prolong their stay in Afghanistan if we announced a ceasefire now.” They also asserted that the outfit would persist with their attacks.

This entire effort yielded no result.

Meanwhile, according to Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR)'s latest quarterly report released on October 30, 2018,

This quarter, Afghan government control or influence of its districts reached the lowest level (55.5%) since SIGAR began tracking district control in November 2015... The control of Afghanistan's districts, population, and territory overall became more contested this quarter…

Also, according to the Quarterly Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: January 1, 2018, to September 30, 2018, released by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) on October 10, 2018, there were a total of 2,798 civilian fatalities during this nine-month period, the second highest number of fatalities in this category during corresponding periods of the previous nine years, beginning 2000, when UNAMA began maintaining data. The highest number of 2,865 fatalities were recorded in 2014. The Taliban are primarily responsible for most of the civilian killings in Afghanistan.

Evidently, the Taliban has become much stronger over recent years and can be expected to put more problematic and impractical pre-conditions for any negotiation process to commence. Insurgent formations rarely seek a negotiated settlement in good faith during periods of their ascendancy or progressive consolidation. The basic premise of various Afghan ‘peace processes’, including the Moscow process, has been misconceived. The Taliban’s conditional participation can only be tactical at the present juncture – aimed at securing greater legitimacy for its ‘Islamic Emirate’, increasing immunity for elements within its leadership, parity with the elected Afghan Government, and opportunities for operational expansion and consolidation. Absent increasing military domination by Afghan and Coalition Forces, any ‘peace process’ will fail and is likely, in fact, to be counterproductive.

Ajit Kumar Singh is a Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management

Source: South Asia Intelligence Review