As the representatives from the six countries descend to Moscow to talk about the Afghan peace process, the analysts see the gathering as more than just a discussion on the Afghan peace process. The moot, expected to be held in mid-February, was announced following a meeting between Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Afghan counterpart Salahuddin Rabbani, with Lavrov reiterating Moscow’s stance of “including Taliban in a constructive dialogue” to help find a solution to halt worsening violence in the war-ravaged nation at a time the Islamic State group has expanded its presence.
Other than the host Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and India are scheduled to participate in the high-level huddle. With the NATO forces number being gradually decreased following the deal between the Afghan government and the US-led NATO forces, there are fears of a vacuum similar to the 1990s and the recent resurrection of Taliban as well as the rise of ISIS in the past few years threatens to take the country back to a civil war if the US decides to leave. Amid all this, the role of neighbours and other stakeholders is important.
Firstly, there is no arguing that turmoil in Afghanistan is a teething issue for all the countries invited to the meeting. Russia is trying to regain its position in the international sphere and has recently started taking an interest in the Afghan issue — also favouring the talks with the Taliban. Moreover, with restrictions from the West in place, Russia is trying to find new allies and trade partners, and peace in Afghanistan is necessary to reach the markets in South Asia markets, and eventually the Indian Ocean. On the other hand, China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative hinges a lot on the peace in Afghanistan as it prepares to expand its outreach to the Middle-East and Africa. One major portion of the initiative, namely China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes through Pakistan. The instability in Afghanistan has had spillover effects in Pakistan, which have proven severely detrimental towards the stability in the region as a whole. With the massive amount that the Chinese are pouring into Pakistan to reach the Indian Ocean, China will make all out efforts to protect its investment. Moreover, even Afghanistan has a vast potential for some of the foreign countries to invest in minerals and other resources. China already has a contract of a copper mine worth billions of dollars in Afghanistan, hence a peace in the country would usher well for the export-led growth of China.
Following a diatribe of almost a year and never-ending skirmishes at the Line of Control (LoC), Pakistan and India are expected to meet at the conference, and the analysts are expecting discussions on the bilateral relations, especially following some statements of Pakistani Ministers. For both Pakistan and India, peace in Afghanistan is important. Although Pakistan has been at the forefront of the war against terror, India had rather stayed aloof from the issue. But in the recent times, India has been investing heavily in Afghanistan to reach the markets of Central Asia through a port in Iran — bypassing Pakistan. But the bilateral relations betweenthe two countries are a major hurdle for the peace process in Afghanistan. Given divergent interests as well as a current strain in ties, it is not clear how Pakistan and India will come together on the issue of Afghanistan since Pakistan fears that Indian intelligence agencies are using Afghan soil to create instability in Pakistan. Similarly, New Delhi has accused Islamabad of supporting the Afghan Taliban to further its interests. These tensions were visible in the last gathering of Heart of Asia Istanbul initiative in India last year, where both the Indian Prime Minister as well as the Afghan President chose to attack Pakistan for its dubious policies and alleged support of Taliban factions.
Moreover, While Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran are all in favour of direct talks with the Afghan Taliban, India is reluctant to support such a move fearing that this will provide legitimacy to the insurgents.
Amid all the talk of Indo-Pak relations and the economic interests of the participating countries in the region, it is perhaps the absence of the US that highlights a power shift in the region. Although Moscow clarified that the US is invited to participate in the discussion once the current administration outlines its future policy on Afghanistan, it is evident that Russia and China are adamant at leading the peace process. With a mercurial President in the White House, there are apprehensions among the regional stakeholders that the US might abruptly leave the region, leaving behind a vacuum that could prove catastrophic. Despite US’ presence in Afghanistan for over a decade and a half since the war on terror, it is still an outsider geographically, and with what has been witnessed in the first few weeks of Trump’s presidency, a drastic policy shift cannot be ruled out.
Russia’s increasing interest in the region is also evident from its recent change of stance towards the Taliban, as it has opposed direct talks with the Taliban for years. It also held a trilateral meeting in December last year involving China and Pakistan, possibly to discuss the prospects of a peace initiative led by the regional stakeholders.
With both Russia and China leading the initiative, Pakistan might claim a diplomatic victory here, but it is yet to be seen how India, with the strengthening of ties with the US and powerful lobbyist in the current US administration, indulges in the dialogue.
The writer is Assistant Editor, Daily Times and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @khaledumair