NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg is positively brimming with confidence. The tide is turning in Afghanistan; so much so that a hitherto elusive peace is just within reach. That such conviction comes from a man commanding the world’s most powerful military alliance is cause for hope. Or at least this echoes the narrative being pushed by the Americans. And it is one that insists the Taliban will have to down arms sometime very soon. On the grounds that prolonged warfare is not sustainable. So far, so good. Except that it is the militants that continue to bleed dry the lone superpower in what has become the latter’s longest war. In reality, the only thing that has changed is Washington’ belated acknowledgment that committing to a negotiated political solution must translate into deed. This is something that Islamabad has advocated from the offset. Yet it seems that it has taken reports of how this year has been Afghanistan’s deadliest thus far in terms of Taliban attacks to persuade the US of the same; close to two decades later. The upshot being that it is neither brute force nor Pakistani arm-twisting that is bringing the group to the table. But, rather, recent White House U-turns on the question of direct talks. All of which ought to set the scene for tentative steps forward at the Russia-hosted multilateral talks on Afghan peace. Some 12 countries have been invited; Pakistan and India jostling alongside the US and China. Yet the most important invitees remain Kabul and the Taliban themselves. And while President Ashraf Ghani has shied away from dispatching an official delegation to Moscow – stressing that the primary objective must be to secure bilateral engagement between his government and militant representatives — at least this time around he is not calling for the moot to be cancelled. Members of the Afghan High Peace Council (HPC) will attend in their own capacity. As for the Taliban, they have confirmed participation but have ruled out active negotiations; preferring to view the roundtable as a brainstorming safe space. Whereas the Americans are sending a delegation that excludes Special Envoy on Afghanistan Khalil Zalmay; which is tantamount to shooting themselves in the foot. It is sincerely hoped that in the event that this peace conference fails to break the current impasse or, else, collapses, that Pakistan will not be unnecessarily scapegoated once more. Though when the top US diplomat for this region was in town earlier this week, there was talk of strengthening economic cooperation as well as trade ties. Thereby signalling the White House’s willingness to finally put an end to viewing this country exclusively through the prism of Afghan security. That being said, the very real risk is that the Moscow talks have essentially been set up to fail even before they have begun. Yet if the goal is to cast Moscow as an ineffective interlocutor — this will likely backfire. After all, it is the one striving to bring all the relevant actors together. That President Ghani and Mr Zalmay feel differently is unfortunate. But one thing is clear. Their absence will put both the Taliban and the Russians in the driving seat as far as international peace efforts go. Of course, Kabul and the Taliban will have to engage with each other bilaterally; and the sooner the better. But until both sides agree on the necessary terms and conditions – the Afghan regime risks being seen as derailing the country’s future. Not least because it ‘allowed’ one-on-one talks with Washington. Unless the real reason for its stalling on this front is undue American pressure in a bid to prevent Russia from securing too large a piece of the geo-strategic pie. And if that is the case, then both sides know what to do: pull their socks up. * Published in Daily Times, November 8th 2018.