Moscow Talks: Divided We Fall
Dr Yatharth Kachiar, Research Associate, VIF

In an unprecedented move, the Taliban delegation held two-day talks with the Afghan politicians in a Kremlin-owned President Hotel in Moscow to discuss the future of Afghanistan. However, in a rather typical manner, the Afghan Government was once again snubbed out from the peace talks. Taliban refuses to hold any negotiations with the democratically elected Ghani government in Kabul which it considers as the puppet of the US, and thereby illegitimate.

The Afghan Government has retaliated by launching a complaint in the United Nations over the recent trip by Taliban members to Moscow despite being on UN’s blacklist.1 The Taliban delegation to Moscow was headed by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, former head of Taliban’s Qatar office. On the other hand, Afghan delegation was led by former President Hamid Karzai and included notable personalities such as former Vice President Mohammad Yunus Qanuni, former Balkh Governor and Jamiat-e-Islami member Atta Mohammad Noor, second Deputy Chief Executive and Wahday party member Mohammad Mohaqiq, and 2019 Presidential candidate Mohammad Hanif Atmar.2

The negotiations were hailed by the armed group and other delegates as a “very successful” step in the reconciliation process.3 However, it is important to remember that the Afghan delegation to Moscow did not have any executive authority and was not officially representing the State of Afghanistan. Certainly, the Moscow negotiations are the most significant contact between the Afghan politicians and the Taliban in the recent years; however, “without the mandate of Afghan Parliament, the Afghan government and Afghan legal institutions, these talks will not have any impact on the final peace process.”4 At the same time, the negative impact of the negotiations in Moscow can be huge as it brought the intra-Afghan rivalry at the forefront which can be manipulated by the outside forces.5

Nevertheless, the joint statement issued by two sides after the talks agreed on the issues of “withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, supporting Doha peace talks, removing Taliban members’ names from the UN blacklist, the release of Taliban prisoners and official inauguration of Taliban’s political office in Qatar.”6 In addition to these, the three key issues including the Afghan constitution, women’s rights, and the governance institutions including the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), which were described as the “red lines” by the Afghan delegation were also discussed.7 In this background, it is interesting to note that while the joint declaration mentioned the restructuring of institutions and acceptance of women’s rights, it was completely silent on the issue of the constitution.

The deadlock on the subject-matter of the constitution was largely the result of a conflicting stance of the Afghan delegation and the Taliban on this issue. Taliban rejected the Afghan constitution at the beginning of Moscow talks and proposed framing of a new constitution based on Islamic principles and Islamic law.8 On the other hand, the Afghan delegation at Moscow comprised of opposition members recognize the present constitution as a legitimate document which can be reviewed and amended but cannot be entirely discarded.9 The stance of the Afghan delegation at Moscow on the issue of constitution coincides with the Ghani government.10 It is important to recall that at Kabul Process Conference in February 2018, President Ghani has already raised the idea of Taliban becoming a political party and pursuing constitutional amendments through the prescribed legal process, an offer which Taliban rejected. Any peace deal in Afghanistan will not be sustainable unless the Taliban moderates its position and accept the democratic principles on which the Afghan constitution is based.

Further, although the two sides reached a consensus on restructuring the existing institutions including the security forces, the joint declaration lacks any detail on how both the parties conceive of undertaking such a complex process. The institutions in Afghanistan including the security apparatus are painstakingly built over a period of 18 years with the collective effort of the international community. It will not be suitable to overhaul the entire democratic governance institutional structure in an abrupt manner in order to finalize a peace deal. Further, any such restructuring will be more difficult and sensitive in the case of Afghan Security Forces. Today, Afghanistan has an increasingly professional modern army, air force, border police as well as intelligence service which is the result of the Afghan efforts and the combined support of the international community including India. The restructuring of the security institutions must ensure that it remains a symbol of unified and sovereign Afghanistan as well as the guarantor of the stability and security of the Afghan democracy and its governance institutions.

Similarly, on the issue of women’s rights Taliban delegation stated that “we are committed to all rights given to women by Islam. Islam has given women all fundamental rights - such as trade, ownership, inheritance, education, work, the choice of partner, security, education, and a good life.”11 However, women’s rights based on Islam as proposed by the Taliban can be open to wide interpretations. There are no qualms about the fact that historically Taliban’s interpretation of Islam and women’s rights has been rather callous. In fact, a 2010 Human Rights Watch Report indicates that there is no change in the ideology of the Taliban in the post-2001 era also. It states that “in areas they control or influence, the Taliban have threatened and attacked women in public life and ordinary women who work outside their homes.” 12

At this juncture, the Taliban is craving for international legitimacy to gain back power in Kabul. It is important to remember that the armed group claims to gain its legitimacy by being the true upholder of Islam and Islamic values. The dilemma for the Taliban as an ultra-radical group is how much it can reform and modernize itself without losing its credentials as the defender of Islam. Therefore, it will not be surprising that after signing the peace deal, it actually retract from all the promises of moderation which it is making right now. In this background, it is crucial that any future peace deal with the Taliban should ensure that women’s right to work, obtain an education and engage in political life are explicitly mentioned and safeguarded in the peace deal itself. Moreover, the best safeguard against the deterioration of women’s rights will be the inclusion of women at all levels of negotiation and reconciliation process.

The talks in Moscow are hailed by some sections as the most significant engagement between the Afghan people and Taliban. However, the fact which came at the forefront in these negotiations is the fragmented nature of Afghan politics. At a time when negotiations with the Taliban are ongoing, the act of surpassing the Ghani government and attending any such talks might create a legitimacy crisis for the government and weaken the cause of Afghan people at the international fora. It is important at this crucial stage that political leaders of all dispensation in Afghanistan stand behind their government in Kabul instead of using the international platform for their own self-interest and short term gains. The unified Afghan nation-state under the democratically elected government of Kabul should represent the country at any international platform. Amrullah Saleh, former head of Afghanistan’s intelligence service, National Directorate of Security (NDS), and also the candidate for the post of First Vice President to Ghani in the upcoming Presidential election reiterated the same sentiments when he said, “Afghans who agree to attend chaotic foreign conferences, knowingly or unknowingly, reinforce the narrative of the enemy next door that we are a web of tribes and not a state.”13

Moreover, the negotiations are also significant in the sense that it proclaims the reassertion of Russia as an important player in Afghanistan. Although the talks in Moscow were initiated by the Council of Afghan Society in Russia, the fact that Taliban members who are blacklisted by the UN were able to travel to Moscow has not gone unnoticed by the international community.14 Russia’s main interest in Afghanistan is linked to thwarting the expansion of the terrorist Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) and the flow of narcotics into its borders. The rising US-Russia rivalry which is exacerbated by the withdrawal of the US from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty has also pushed Moscow to challenge US’s hegemony in every sphere including Afghanistan. However, the launch of these parallel peace processes in case of Afghanistan especially when they are not held in accord with the efforts launched by the US and the Afghan Government can be counterproductive in the long-term.

In order to safeguard any of the gains made since 2001, the first and foremost thing for the Afghan politicians and all the nationalists in the country is to come together and form a united front against the Taliban at the negotiating table. The intra-Afghan differences are easy to be manipulated by the outside powers including the Taliban to maximize their gains in the reconciliation process. The future of Afghanistan will eventually depend on the will of its politicians and leaders to work together towards strengthening the centralizing authority in Kabul and enhancing the legitimacy of its elected government. India with its capability to engage with diverse political forces could possibly take a lead in bringing together all the nationalist forces in Afghanistan so that a cohesive and united front can be established at the negotiating table vis-a-vis Taliban. Otherwise, the biggest loser of this game based on petty politics and self-interest will be the Afghan people.

End Note
  1. Mir Aqa Popalzai, “Govt Lodges Complaint With UN Over Taliban Trip To Moscow”, TOLO News, 7 February 2019, URL: https://www.tolonews.com/afghanistan/govt-lodges-complaint-un-over-taliban-trip-moscow
  2. Siyar Sirat, “Afghan Politicians Will Defend ‘National Values’ At Moscow Talks”, TOLO News, 3 February 2019, URL: https://www.tolonews.com/afghanistan/afghan-politicians-will-defend-%E2%80%98national-values%E2%80%99-moscow-talks
  3. “Taliban say Moscow talks with Afghan politicians 'very successful'”, The Dawn, 7 February 2019, URL: https://www.dawn.com/news/1462384
  4. Sayed Sharif Amiri, “Moscow Talks Hold No Weight, Says Ghani”, TOLO News, 5 February 2918, URL: https://www.tolonews.com/afghanistan/moscow-talks-hold-no-weight-says-ghani
  5. Sayed Sharif Amiri, “Moscow Talks Hold No Weight, Says Ghani”, TOLO News, 5 February 2019, URL: https://www.tolonews.com/afghanistan/moscow-talks-hold-no-weight-says-ghani
  6. Karim Amini, “Delegates Say Moscow Talks Were A Success”, TOLO News, 7 February 2019, URL: https://www.tolonews.com/afghanistan/delegates-say-moscow-talks-were-success
  7. Syed Zabiullah Langari, “Noor Proposes ‘Bonn Model Interim Govt’ For Lasting Peace”, TOLO News, 5 February 2019, URL: https://www.tolonews.com/afghanistan/noor-proposes-%E2%80%98bonn-model-interim-govt%E2%80%99-lasting-peace
  8. Andrew Higgins and Mujib Mashal, “In Moscow, Afghan Peace Talks Without the Afghan Government”, The New York Times, 4 February 2019, URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/04/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-russia-talks-russia.html
  9. Karim Amini, “Delegates Say Moscow Talks Were A Success”, TOLO News, URL: https://www.tolonews.com/afghanistan/delegates-say-moscow-talks-were-success
  10. Syed Zabiullah Langari, “Noor Proposes ‘Bonn Model Interim Govt’ For Lasting Peace”, TOLO News, 5 February 2019, URL: https://www.tolonews.com/afghanistan/noor-proposes-%E2%80%98bonn-model-interim-govt%E2%80%99-lasting-peace
  11. Frud Bezhan, “Afghan Taliban Open To Women's Rights -- But Only On Its Terms”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 6 February 2019, URL: https://www.rferl.org/a/taliban-afghanistan-open-women-s-rights-only-terms/29755102.html
  12. “The Taliban War on Women Continues”, Human Rights Watch, 14 July 2010, URL: https://www.hrw.org/news/2010/07/14/taliban-war-women-continues
  13. Sayed Sharif Amiri, “Moscow Talks Will Have No Impact On Peace Process: Govt”, TOLO News, 7 February 2019, URL: https://www.tolonews.com/afghanistan/moscow-talks-will-have-no-impact-peace-process-govt
  14. Andrew Higgins and Mujib Mashal, “In Moscow, Afghan Peace Talks Without the Afghan Government”, The New York Times, 4 February 2019, URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/04/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-russia-talks-russia.html

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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