Think Tank
Afghanistan: New Old Problems

The unexpected COVID-19 pandemic, which for a time occupied the minds of the world's political elites, did not justify the timid hopes that it could provide some kind of healing effect, mitigating the overwhelmingly high degree of tensions in international relations. The pandemic only superficially and briefly distracted the attention of the public, the media and the Internet. The processes themselves, both at the global and regional levels, followed their own course, evolving towards further uncertainties and new challenges.

All of this held true with respect to the long-standing internal conflict in Afghanistan, which, due to the direct or indirect involvement of the leading world powers, as well as neighbouring states, has long had a visible regional connotation. At the same time, over the past half century, despite the political and ideological kaleidoscope of governments in Kabul (from the “pro-communist” leadership and the coalition of its religious-nationalist opponents, to the rule of the Taliban fundamentalist Islamists, to the current pro-Western-oriented coalition), the country did not achieve an internal consensus. The opposing sides, once again demonstrating their inability to establish real agreements and mutual concessions, have always relied on assistance from external forces, both global and regional ones. However, practice has shown that no direct outside interference, especially military, be it that of the USSR in the 1970s-80s, or the United States and NATO over the past two decades, has been able to ensure peace in the country, or a national consensus.

The long-term impasse that persists in Afghanistan, as some experts note, has lead to nostalgia in the country for a "strong hand" that would instantly resolve all problems. However, such assumptions are illusory - all Afghan ethno-political elites and their supporters have been fragmented and lacked unity. Nevertheless, only the Afghans themselves can and should resolve the Afghan issue. No external recipe can resolve this. The global community and the nations of the region can only (with a clearly agreed line) actively encourage the opposing military-political parties to realise the need to achieve real, and not declarative mutual agreements.

Having understood this for a long time, Russia over the past years has actively urged both Kabul and especially the Taliban to sit down at the negotiating table, since a military solution to the Afghan confrontation is impractical and unrealistic. To this end, as it is known, it came up with an initiative to create a Moscow format for the consultation of various Afghan factions with the participation of interested external forces. At first this caused apprehension in Washington and was sharply rejected by Kabul, which regarded it as Moscow's flirting with the Taliban, and opposed to the interests of the country's central authorities. Nevertheless, despite the visible obstacles, it was the Russian initiative to which the Central Asian neighbours of Afghanistan also responded, that additionally contributed to the final realisation by Washington under Donald Trump of the need for direct negotiations with the Taliban on the interrelated issues of the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and the launch of an inter-Afghan dialogue. Subsequently, the format of the US-Russia-China troika, initiated by Moscow, with the possibility of its expansion, also played a significant role on this path.

Ironically, in the second half of February, at the height of COVID-19 (which later seriously affected Afghanistan), the difficult US-Taliban negotiations, which had lasted almost a year and a half, ended. They undoubtedly represented a new frontier in attempts to resolve the situation in the country. At the same time, each of the parties, naturally, interpreted the results of the negotiations as a victory. Washington balanced them with an official confirmation of the preservation of all military and political commitments to Kabul. At the international level, the Taliban have consolidated their military-political status as one of the parties within the Afghan conflict, speaking at the same time on behalf of the unrecognised Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

At the same time, after the signing of the US-Taliban agreement, the situation in the country, in essence, did not undergo cardinal changes, and the Taliban continue to use force against the Kabul government. Their relative successes are also predetermined by the weakness of the ruling coalition in Kabul and the latent ongoing confrontation within it. It also fuels the Taliban's lingering hopes of an early erosion of central power, which will provide them with an additional opportunity to claim power exclusively.
Although Afghan President Ghani, as well as the United States, asserts that everything is ready for the start of inter-Afghan talks, and the Taliban have recently announced the formation of their delegation, nevertheless, one cannot overlook the delay in the process. New circumstances in the exchange of prisoners between the Taliban and Kabul, which requires the additional release of some of its servicemen, can be regarded as pretexts for delays. The factor of the upcoming presidential elections in the United States cannot be disregarded: if the Democrats and the Pentagon are thinking about the advisability of postponing the withdrawal of troops, Donald Trump is more bound by his obligations stemming from a deal with the Taliban and statements that he would do so this November, not to mention his recent statement in West Point Academy that the US military will no longer solve other people's conflicts.

All this gives grounds to assume that in the near future, it will be possible to speak of a certain combined version of the development of events in Afghanistan. It is characterised by the ability to start a dialogue while maintaining the targeted activation of the military and subversive activities of the armed opposition, which could lead to the escalation of the conflict into a hotter phase, especially if the dialogue fails. It is extremely premature to name specific dates for the completion of a negotiation process that has not yet begun. After all, the essence of the Afghan issue at its current stage is not in the mechanical division of power and the distribution of powers between Kabul and the Taliban, but in the need to reach a conscious and balanced consensus on the future structure of the country. And it is precisely on this cardinal issue that basic differences essentially remain between Kabul and the Taliban. The former advocates a republican form of government based on the principles of moderate Islam and respect for the fundamental principles of modern international law. The Taliban, on the other hand, continue to defend their concept of a fundamentalist Islamic emirate which uses Sharia law as the basis of the entire political, ideological and economic life of the country. Therefore, a long difficult period of negotiations lies ahead.

The international and regional community can and should play an active role in encouraging the Afghan parties to reach a peaceful consensus (despite all internal discrepancies in the specific interests of individual states in the political and economic field of Afghanistan). In the same context, a further consolidation of the position of Russia and the Central Asian states - the direct neighbours of that country - will play a special role. They are linked by a common understanding of the essence of the processes in Afghanistan, substantive concern about the danger of internal confrontation threatening general stability in the region, including Central Asia, a rejection of the possible radicalisation of Afghanistan and the activities of ISIS fighters on its territory, the spread of drug trafficking, etc. The continuing military and political instability in Afghanistan will inevitably have a negative impact on the economy, primarily the transport and logistics interests of the Central Asian states in the region south of the Amu Darya. This circumstance will also narrow the corresponding possibilities of Russia, both unilateral and multilateral. Taken together, multifaceted international efforts to involve Afghanistan in regional cooperation can be significantly hampered.

Considering the participation in the SCO of almost all of Afghanistan's neighbours (except Iran and Turkmenistan) and Afghanistan's status as an observer in the Organisation, it would be advisable to give additional impetus to the work of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group under the present  chairmanship of Russia in this organisation.

When considering the prospects for resolving the Afghan issue, it should also be kept in mind that the United States, against the background of its concept of "Greater Central Asia" and the recently adopted regular strategy for the region, will increasingly view Afghanistan in close connection with its policy in Central Asia. Given the sharp aggravation in recent years of US relations with Russia, as well as with China, such a line will inevitably continue to carry latent anti-Russian (and also anti-Chinese) overtones.
Participants of the recent online conference of the Valdai Discussion Club in partnership with the Institute for Strategic and Interregional Studies under the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan, titled “Opportunities of Russia and Central Asian States in Afghanistan”, also pointed to the growing importance of the further coordination of the approaches of Russia and the Central Asian states in resolving the Afghan crisis. Together with representatives of the think tanks of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, they considered in detail various options for the further development of the situation in Afghanistan and a joint response by Moscow and the Central Asian capitals in the interests of achieving national reconciliation in Afghanistan and ensuring long-term stability in the region.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.