As with its initiatives in Syria, Russia’s efforts to take centre-stage in the Afghan political process were nipped in the bud. Early in August, the Russian MFA announced the convening of a second round of Afghanistan consultations in the “Moscow format” on September 4. The first round, held in April 2017, included Russia, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Iran, China and the five Central Asian Republics. The US was invited, but did not attend. The Taliban had also been invited and had declined. The same invitees were addressed again, but this time, the Russian MFA said, the consultations would be co-hosted by Russia and Afghanistan and the Taliban had confirmed attendance. The Russians pointed out that the Americans, including a senior State Department official, had met with Taliban representatives in end-July and that the Uzbek government had held more detailed talks with the Taliban, probably at the instance of the US (which has recently been hailing the Uzbek contribution to the Afghan peace process).
The United States again declined the invitation, on the ground (according to Russian officials) that it would not be consistent with the US position that such talks should be Afghan-led. The co-host Afghanistan then apparently sent a message to the Russians that Afghanistan would not attend, unless direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan Government was arranged on the side lines of the Moscow consultations. Then followed the abrupt resignations of the Afghan NSA Hanif Atmar, the intelligence chief and the Defence and Interior Ministers. Following this was a telephone call from Afghan President Ghani to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov (!) in which (according to a Russian MFA read-out), he supported the idea of the Moscow meeting, but proposed postponing it to later, mutually convenient, dates – “due to the need to develop Afghanistan’s consolidated position on this issue, taking into account the ongoing personnel changes in the leadership of the Afghan ruling bloc”.
The Russians alleged that the United States was shutting Russia out of the peace process, so that it could exclusively pursue a settlement with the Taliban that would safeguard continued US military presence in the country. At the same time, they interpreted President Ghani’s phone call as his acknowledgement of Russia’s legitimate role in the process. Separately, the Russian MFA yet again pointed to flights by “unidentified” helicopters in northern Afghanistan delivering arms to ISIS militants near Central Asian borders. This has been a persistent refrain of Russian security officials for nearly three years now – that militants of Central Asian origin are being armed, trained and massed across the Central Asian borders in Afghanistan for use against Russia.
August 30, 2018