Russia hosts Afghan conference to reassert Central Asia role
By PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 14, 2017
KABUL, Afghanistan — Russia intends to host on Wednesday a controversial meeting of regional powers aimed at devising a solution to Afghanistan’s 16-year-old war, despite a warning by the top U.S. commander that Moscow’s increasing involvement in the country was threatening its stability.
The conference in Moscow will be the latest meeting hosted by Russia on the security situation in Afghanistan. The last one, in December, drew criticism because Afghan officials had not been invited.
Representatives from Afghanistan are on the invitation list this time, along with those from China, India, Iran and Pakistan. However, no NATO coalition member currently on the ground in Afghanistan — including the United States — has been asked to take part.
Russia has played a relatively minor role in Afghanistan since its decadelong intervention in the country ended in 1989. But it shifted to a more active role about a year ago, saying it wanted to prevent instability there from spilling over into other Central Asian nations and threatening Russia’s national security.
More than 15 years after NATO began operations, the Afghan conflict shows no signs of abating. The government in Kabul lost nearly 15 percent of its territory to insurgents last year, according to a recent report by a U.S. government watchdog. It said the Taliban now control more territory than at any other time since 2001, when the U.S. invaded and ousted them from power in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Russia says it fears lawlessness in its backyard could be exploited by criminals, such as heroin traffickers, as well Islamic State militants, who have had a presence in Afghanistan since 2015.
“Russia has genuine reason to be concerned about the prolonged instability in Afghanistan,” said Michael Kugelman a senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
But he said Moscow’s interests in Afghanistan might be driven more by a desire to enhance its own prestige than a commitment to fostering peace.
“Moscow wants to prove that Russia still matters — it still has clout, it has the ability to project strength, and particularly that it remains a force to be reckoned with in its broader back yard,” he said.
While all the participants in Wednesday’s talks are concerned about regional stability, and the threat posed by Islamic State militants, some have suggested that the meeting’s actual purpose is to pursue other agendas and interests they might have.
“Those interests don’t always overlap, but the Islamic State threat creates an aegis under which they can all get together and try to coordinate their approaches to the conflict,” said Stephen Biddle, an adjunct senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Many Afghans believe Russia may be able to help bring the Taliban to the negotiating table for peace talks with the government.
“I think we need to involve Russia because it’s a regional player,” said Fauzia Kofi, a member of Afghanistan’s parliament who represents Badakhshan province. “We have to deal with reality. Russia is there, and they have influence in Central Asian countries. Their relationship with China is also good. Perhaps they could influence Pakistan via China.”
Afghanistan accuses Pakistan of providing refuge and support to the Afghan Taliban, a claim Pakistan denies.
The Taliban have said they would not rule out attending Russian-organized peace talks.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told Stars and Stripes that representatives may attend “if the agenda was really about solving Afghanistan’s problems.” The Tablian have long insisted that all foreign forces must leave the country before a peace process can start.
But recent overtures by the Russians toward the Taliban have many onlookers worried.
Moscow has confirmed that it has established communication channels with the guerrillas and has recommend that sanctions be lifted against certain rebel leaders.
The Russians have also said the Taliban should be considered a bulwark against the Islamic Sate, prompting the head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan Gen. John Nicholson to declare on Capitol Hill on Feb. 9 that Russia was “overtly lending legitimacy to the Taliban to undermine NATO efforts.”
Kugelman echoed Nicholson’s concerns.
“If Russia’s engaging with the Taliban gets to the point that the Taliban essentially feels that the Russians have their back, then that’s really bad news,” he said.
Some have drawn parallels between Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan and its ongoing activity in Syria, suggesting it is part of a wider Russian effort to reassert itself in places where the U.S. is having difficulty.
Biddle said that while this may be true, it is unlikely Russia will get as involved in Afghanistan as it is in Syria.
“My guess is that they’re probably not looking for an opportunity to get involved in another quagmire in a completely different region.” he said.
“There are potential upsides for them at very little cost: holding international conferences, making announcements and tweaking American noses. That’s cheap policy with lots of potential upsides.”
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.