The United States is working to extricate itself from the long-running war in Afghanistan, but Washington's repeated failures to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table has created a diplomatic opening for Russia. As Moscow forges a stronger security partnership with Pakistan, the Taliban's principal external backer, Russian attempts to mediate peace talks will only increase.
As it seeks advantage in its long-running standoff with the West, Russia has used a variety of tools, including diplomacy. In its most recent attempt to gain a diplomatic edge against Washington, it has launched a bold attempt to wind down four decades of war in Afghanistan. In Moscow on Nov. 9, the Russian Foreign Ministry hosted a multinational conference on the conflict that included officials from Afghanistan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, the United States and Uzbekistan. Most significantly, however, the roster of attendees included representatives of Afghanistan's Taliban. The insurgent group, which previously had spurned attendance at any multinational conferences dealing with the conflict, sent a five-member delegation to the Moscow meeting. While details of the meeting have yet to be released, the Taliban unsurprisingly rejected calls from Afghan representatives to start peace talks without preconditions.
Why It Matters
Participation in the Moscow talks is the latest sign of the Taliban's desire to emphasize their legitimacy as a political movement. The group wants to demonstrate that it is capable of rubbing shoulders with diplomats in faraway capitals, even as it spearheads a campaign of violence against NATO-backed Afghan forces in a bid to reconquer the country it had ruled during the 1990s. Even as the conference was underway, Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan continued their campaign against Afghan security forces, reportedly killing at least 17 officials over the past two days alone.
The talks also demonstrate Russia's desire to insert itself into Afghan negotiations as a peace broker and prove it can succeed where Washington has failed. Currently, the United States maintains backchannel communications with the Taliban through Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. President Donald Trump's special envoy for Afghan reconciliation who is currently on a tour of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to push for negotiations. But although the United States has backed various multinational dialogue formats — including the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, which included Afghanistan, China and Pakistan — it failed to convince the Taliban to participate.
Russia's current interest in Afghanistan marks the latest chapter of its involvement in the landlocked country of 35 million. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to support the tottering Marxist government in Kabul, resulting in a nearly decadelong occupation that pitted Soviet and Afghan troops against the U.S.- and Pakistani-sponsored mujahideen. After that conflict ended, Afghanistan entered another phase of instability that led to the Taliban's rise and subsequent conquest of the country in 1996. With Afghanistan under its control, the group hosted al Qaeda, enabling Osama bin Laden to plot the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States. In retaliation, the United States led the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 that ousted the Taliban from power.
Today, Moscow's interest in Afghanistan stems from its concerns that the Islamic State's Khorasan group could use the country as a base from which to threaten Russia. Moreover, Russia's relationship with Pakistan, the most significant external actor in Afghanistan, has begun to warm as the increasing pressure that the United States has put on Islamabad has prompted it to seek allies elsewhere. In 2019, Russia will continue to deepen its security relationship with Pakistan, which will facilitate Moscow's contacts with the Taliban. The United States, on the other hand, will maintain its current strategy of applying diplomatic pressure against Pakistan while reinforcing Afghan forces on the battlefield.