Russia’s Afghan peace initiative seen as undermining NATO mission
By PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 11, 2017
KABUL, Afghanistan — Russia’s decision to proceed with a meeting this week aimed at ending the 16-year war in Afghanistan could further strain its ties with Washington — a relationship that has been on the rocks since Moscow invaded Ukraine in 2014 and intervened in the Syrian civil war in 2015.
Russia has stepped up its diplomatic activity in Afghanistan in recent months, saying it wants to prevent instability from spilling into Central Asian nations and over its borders. But American officials say those actions are geared toward undermining NATO’s Afghan mission and likely include arming the Taliban.
Russia emphatically denies providing weapons to the insurgents, but it has admitted to opening communication channels with them and has called for lifting sanctions against some militant leaders in order to facilitate their participation in the peace process.
A round of negotiations that opens on Friday will be the third hosted by Moscow since December. The initial meeting, which was heavily criticized for excluding Afghan officials, included only Russia, China and Pakistan. Kabul participated in the last round of talks in February, but the United States was left off the guest list.
Washington decided to stay away from Friday’s meeting because it said it was not informed of the agenda beforehand and was unsure of its motives. The United States was invited to the event along with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, China, India and several Central Asian states.
Western analysts said Washington’s decision to decline the invitation was a logical one.
“I don’t think we understand exactly what is behind Russia’s renewed interest in Afghanistan,” said Rebecca Zimmerman, a researcher at the RAND Corp. “And so because of this, to go to a Russia-hosted conference on peace, at least in my mind, it sort of cedes the initiative to Russia for peace, and I don’t think the U.S. is willing to do that.”
The U.S. has led the international mission in Afghanistan since 2001, when it ousted the Taliban regime from power in Kabul after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In the past, the Kremlin has generally supported the Afghan government and U.S.-led military campaign, but it has always criticized the coalition for its alleged failure to prevent a massive increase in opium production, much of which is smuggled to the West via Russia. More recently, Moscow has blamed Washington’s policies for Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation and for the emergence of the Islamic State-Khorasan Province, a local branch of the Sunni militant group.
Russia cites the defeat of ISIS-KP, which it sees as a threat to its own national security, as a key reason for its interest in ending the Afghan conflict.
But critics say Moscow’s fear of ISIS-KP is exaggerated. Afghan forces, with U.S. backing, have reduced the number of ISIS-KP fighters to 700 from the estimated 2,000-3,000 last year, according to U.S. Forces-Afghanistan. Russia’s real motive, critics say, is to enhance it global stature.
“I believe what Russia is attempting to do is ... be an influential party in this part of the world,” Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of the U.S. Central Command, told members of the House Armed Services panel last month.
Zimmerman agreed that Russia is likely seeking to show it has the power to influence military outcomes outside its borders.
“I personally think that’s what a lot of their Syria involvement is about,” she said. “And if that’s the case, if that’s even a part of their aim, then I think the U.S. certainly has to think carefully about getting involved in any Russian-led diplomatic negotiations in another country.”
Russia has backed President Bashar al-Assad’s secular regime throughout Syria’s six-year-long war. Last week, the United States launched a missile strike on a Syrian air base in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack on civilians it blamed on government forces. The strike has put Washington and Moscow “on the verge of a military clash,” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has said. As a result some Afghan commentators fear Russia may provide extra support, including military supplies, to the Taliban to target U.S. interests here.
Russia’s recent overtures to the Taliban — including suggesting the insurgents should be considered a bulwark against ISIS-KP — have already been criticized by Afghan and Western officials for legitimizing the insurgents.
Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said U.S. participation in Moscow’s peace talks would likely further benefit the Taliban.
“If the U.S. does show up, it gives the talks a degree of legitimacy regardless of the outcome, which gives the Taliban a great deal of legitimacy without forcing them to make concessions or to move forward in any serious way,” he said.
“The talks will be essentially producing an official message, which is the one the Taliban, Russia and Pakistan would like to send,” Cordesman added.
The Afghan government appears to be more optimistic about the Russian talks.
Mohammad Ashraf Haidari, who chaired the Afghan delegation at the last meeting in February, said Kabul welcomed efforts by its neighbors to foster peace.
“We feel that they have the leverage and they have the influence and the resources to help stabilize Afghanistan,” Haidari told Stars and Stripes. He added that Russia’s initiative would be complementary and not a substitute for ongoing processes, including those in which the U.S. has been involved. Haidari wouldn’t comment on Washington’s refusal to participate in Friday’s talks. Russian officials have expressed regret over the decision, and in Pakistan, the government’s foreign policy adviser said that he hoped the U.S. would participate in future meetings.
Cordesman advised caution. “You have to be very careful about peace talks,” he said, “because very often they are simply an extension of war by other means.”