A new push by the United States to reinvigorate the Afghan peace process ahead of a looming deadline for the withdrawal of its forces is testing the level of cooperation among Kabul’s neighbors and the ability of Afghan factions to unite over a shared political future.
In a sign Russia wants to work with the United States to revive stalled Afghan peace talks, Moscow hosted a March 18 meeting of the Taliban, Afghan government, and representatives from Pakistan, China, and the United States. The meeting followed a controversy over U.S. President Joe Biden’s remarks about his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
The meeting is the first in a series of three major international meetings aimed at building a consensus for an interim government in Kabul among the Taliban and the disparate factions united under the Afghan government, according to a written plan U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has shared with Afghan leaders.
The transition aims to carve a peaceful future for Afghanistan after the U.S. troop withdrawal, which is only six weeks away on May 1 according to an agreement Washington signed with the Taliban last year. But in remarks this week, Biden said the deadline is “tough." "[The withdrawal] could happen, but it is tough," he told ABC, indicating the deadline could be extended, which makes international support for Washington’s new plan crucial.
“We strongly advocate a durable and just political resolution that will result in the formation of an independent, sovereign, unified, peaceful, democratic and self-sufficient Afghanistan, free of terrorism and illicit drug industry,” a joint statement of the extended Troika -- which includes Pakistan, China, Russia, and the United States -- noted in a statement on March 18.
The four countries called on the Afghan sides to “engage immediately in discussions on fundamental issues to resolve the conflict, including the foundations of the future peaceful and stable Afghan State, the content of a political roadmap leading to an inclusive government, and the modalities of a permanent and comprehensive cease-fire.”
In addition to the Troika members, several other countries received an invite to Moscow. These included Turkey, which plans to host two summits on Afghanistan. One is expected to see the Taliban and Afghan government to sit down for talks, and the other will be a diplomatic summit of Afghanistan’s neighbors and regional powers. Qatar, which has hosted a Taliban political office since 2013 and where Washington negotiated its year-old agreement with the Taliban, was also invited.
Is Everyone Onboard?
But Afghanistan’s neighbor Iran -- a key player in the various cycles of war in the country during the past four decades -- did not attend.
European powers and America’s NATO allies were also not present in Moscow and have not been mentioned despite their support for the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan since 2001.
On March 17, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appointed Jean Arnault as his personal envoy on Afghanistan. The veteran French diplomat previously served in Afghanistan and is considered a main U.N. troubleshooter who has mediated violent conflicts around the world during his decades-long career.
"They're scrambling as if they need to fix a broken process, but it's barely even started," Andrew Watkins, a senior Afghanistan analyst at International Crisis Group, told Reuters of the bid to jump-start the talks.
The meeting in Moscow, however, showcased the possible cooperation between Washington and Moscow a day after Biden called his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, a "killer" who has no soul and will soon "pay a price" for trying to meddle in last November's U.S. presidential election in an interview aired by the ABC.
“When it comes to engaging with Russia, again, we’re clear that we’ll engage with them in ways that always advance American interests, but we’re also clear-eyed about the challenges that Russia poses,” Jalina Porter, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, told reported on March 17. “When there are opportunities for our relationship with Russia to be constructive and it’s in our mutual interest to do work together, we intend to do so.”
Testing Afghan Unity
Unity among Afghanistan’s disparate faction and leaders, however, is even more precarious.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has vehemently opposed an interim government. Earlier this month, he said the transfer of power through elections is a “nonnegotiable” principle. "We stand ready to discuss holding free, fair, and inclusive elections under the auspices of the international community. We can also talk about the date of the elections and reach a conclusion," he said.
The Taliban, likewise, has been far from enthusiastic about the idea. “We should abandon tribes, ethnicities, factions, and political parties,” Shaik Abdul Hakim Haqqani, a Taliban representative, told the Moscow conference, according to Nunn Asia, a pro-Taliban website. “Our hope from the Afghans is to come and unite behind the law of Allah [Islamic Shari’a]. We should implement the Shari’a law on ourselves and others.”
“We do not support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate and we call on the Government of the Islamic Republic and the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR) to engage openly with their Taliban counterparts regarding a negotiated settlement,” the statement by the Troika members said. It also called on the Taliban “not to pursue a Spring Offensive.”
Abdullah Abdullah, head of the HCNR, called on the Taliban to promptly announce a cease-fire so the peace talks could begin in a new atmosphere.
He said that contrary to their expectations, the release of 5,000 Taliban soldiers last year failed to end widespread violence. Instead, attacks and targeted killings have increased.
While saying he is prepared to engage in “unconditional dialogue” with the Taliban, he stressed “the need to determine the country's political destiny through elections.”
The Taliban has so far resisted a cease-fire and oppose the democratic system Afghanistan adopted under its 2004 constitution.
Possible talks are overshadowed by a rising wave of violence. On March 18, four people were killed when a roadside bomb hit a vehicle carrying government workers in Kabul. At least nine Afghan security force members died in a helicopter crash in central Afghanistan. A local warlord admitted that his forces shot down the helicopter.
Meanwhile, gunfire briefly disrupted a meeting of Jamiat-e-Islami in Kabul. The party, now divided into rival factions, has been at the heart of successive Afghanistan governments since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
Disagreements among the leaders are reminiscent of frequent disputes among factions of the anti-Soviet mujahedin leaders, whose divisiveness led to a civil war after the collapse of Afghanistan’s socialist regime in 1992.
In Kabul, Halima Popalzai said she hopes the meeting can help pave the way forward to peace. "We must see the result of this meeting here," she told Radio Free Afghanistan. "We want the killings to end."