Vladimir Putin’s Russia appears to have emerged as a player in Afghanistan after 17 years of Western involvement that has left the country no closer to peace than before.
To some, Russia’s offer to host talks next month might contain at least the seeds of a positive pivot if the Taliban is coaxed to the table at a time when it has been more aggressive on the battlefield than in the past few years, causing much mayhem in Kabul and other cities.
However, the move might be stuck before it even begins.
The Afghan government has said it will not attend, unable to agree on a coherent strategy because of divisions within the government that many see as a function of personal and ethnic rivalries, and calling for the Taliban to first agree to direct talks with Kabul.
The insurgents have consistently refused, instead demanding direct talks with the US.
The US, for its part, seems displeased by the maneuver, even though Washington has been trying to find a reasonable exit strategy for years in vain.
On the ground in Afghanistan, the situation has given rise to boundless cynicism about the various players and almost no hope for a quick improvement in the violent, corruption-plagued nature of daily life.
The wrangling over a meeting to talk peace offers a window into the enormity of the task of actually reaching a peace pact in a region of competing influences, analysts have said.
Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China have a growing influence, even as the US spends billions of dollars covering much of the US$6.5 billion spent annually to support the Afghan National Security Forces, who are struggling to contain an energized Taliban.
Specialists who have tracked Afghanistan’s four decades of war said that navigating the road to peace in the poor nation of 32 million is like walking through a minefield.
Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the US-based Wilson Center, said the situation is explosive.
“In Afghanistan you have not just the US and Russia in competition, but also China, Iran and Pakistan,” Kugelman said. “And none of these countries have warm relations with the US. It’s a real powder keg, to say the least.”
New Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, whose country is considered key to a lasting peace in Afghanistan, has said that he is ready to be a partner in peace with Washington, but will no longer partner in war.
There has been no indication that the Afghan Taliban, which is known to move between Pakistan and Afghanistan with an ease that varies often depending on Islamabad’s relationship with Washington, will be asked to leave.
Yet Khan was quick to condemn a rocket attack in Kabul on Tuesday last week, accusing the perpetrators of “cowardly thinking.”
Still, relations between Pakistan and the US are prickly and even a simple telephone call from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Khan on Thursday turned into a confrontation as the two countries disagreed over its content.
Pakistan has demanded an apology, saying that Pompeo said nothing of terrorists in Pakistan, contrary to the US Department State’s reading of the call, which said: “Pompeo raised the importance of Pakistan taking decisive action against all terrorists operating in Pakistan and its vital role in promoting the Afghan peace process.”
However, Afghanistan’s neighbors and competing world powers are only part of the problem of bringing peace to Afghanistan, said the analysts, who pointed to a deeply corrupt and fractious Afghan government and deepening ethnic divisions within the US-crafted unity government.
Last year, Transparency International ranked Afghanistan 177 out of 180 countries, only slightly better than the world’s worst — Syria, South Sudan and Somalia.
Since the US-crafted unity government took power four years ago, ethnic divisions that have always troubled Afghanistan have deepened.
During an interview in Kabul, political analyst Haroon Mir said international pressure is all that holds Afghanistan’s squabbling politicians together.
The government is deeply divided along ethnic lines, he said, adding that a withdrawal of international forces would set one ethnic group against another, led by the warlords-cum-politicians, who dominate Afghanistan’s government and whose militias are heavily armed.
“Kabul will be destroyed because every different faction in the government wants to get control,” he said. “This time it would be ethnic fighting that destroys Kabul.”
Rivalries within the Afghan government have made it impossible to develop a counterinsurgency strategy, Kugelman said.
“So long as the Afghan government remains consumed by personality, disputes and other internal dysfunction, Kabul won’t be in any shape to craft an effective counterinsurgency strategy, no matter how much help it may get from the US and other key partners,” he said.
However, perhaps even worse for the US, which has lost hundreds of lives in Afghanistan and spent billions of dollars on the conflict, Western countries have come to be seen in very jaded ways, with a variety of outlandish theories enjoying surprising currency.
One widely spread theory is that Washington is secretly aiding the Taliban to foment violence as an excuse to keep its troops in Afghanistan to counter Iran, Russia and China.
The Taliban, meanwhile, has ramped up its diplomatic forays, having traveled to Uzbekistan and Indonesia to meet the foreign ministers there.
It also said its representatives would travel to China and Pakistan before next month’s Moscow meeting.
On the battlefield this month the Taliban has carried out spectacular attacks in central Ghazni, where it resisted Afghan security forces backed by US military advisers and aerial support for nearly five days, and in northern Faryab Province, where more than 100 Afghan soldiers who ran out of ammunition and food eventually surrendered to the insurgents.
However, analysts have said that the Taliban’s control and influence — while far-reaching — is limited to rural areas and it does not have the capacity to take control of and hold on to a city in Afghanistan.
The Taliban also faces divisions within its ranks and needs to show its foot soldiers that it is strong militarily before it enters peace talks.
Still, Brian Glyn Williams, a professor of Islamic History at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, called next month’s meeting in Moscow a “fascinating and potentially important/historic development.”
Additional reporting by Amir Shah and Vladimir Isachenkov
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