On May 28, 2019, a formal reception was held in Moscow to mark the centenary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Russia and Afghanistan: in 1919, Soviet Russia became the first state in the world to recognize Afghanistan's independence. The meeting was attended by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, representatives of the Afghan Embassy in Moscow, and also by a delegation of the Political Office of the Taliban Movement in Doha, headed by the deputy head of the Movement, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. A brief conversation between the Russian cabinet minister and representatives of the Taliban took place on the sidelines of the meeting.
This meeting again demonstrated Moscow’s determination to intensify the dialogue between all of the significant political forces within Afghanistan. It continued the series of regular meetings between the government and the opposition in Afghanistan with Russia’s mediation. The inter-Afghan dialogue and the Moscow format for talks demonstrated their effectiveness. As Sergey Lavrov noted in his speech at the aforementioned meeting, the holding of these talks “marked the beginning of a new stage on the path to launching a peace process, giving it maximum legitimacy through the involvement of all of the country’s socio-political forces, including the opposition. In this context, we are pleased to welcome in this hall the delegation of the Taliban Movement. ”
Thus, this Moscow meeting continued the ongoing contacts between Russian diplomats and trustworthy Taliban representatives. This process has a very clear and obvious explanation. Russia, perhaps more than any other major power, is interested in a political solution to the Afghan crisis and the return of peace and stability to the country. This is necessary to ensure the border security of both Russia and Afghanistan as well as Russia’s allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. The destabilising impact of the conflict in Afghanistan on overall stability in Central Asia is obvious. Related to this are terrorism, the illegal arms trade, and drug trafficking from Afghanistan.
It is also obvious that achieving a sustainable peace in Afghanistan is possible only with the involvement in the dialogue of all the significant political forces in the country and mutual confidence-building. Without the Taliban, such a peace process is simply impossible. The Taliban controls a significant proportion of the country’s territory, and all the attempts of the Americans and their allies to break the Taliban over the course of nearly two decades have come to nothing. Moreover, the responsible and moderate Taliban representatives are perceived by many in the Pashtun area as their national movement, in the broad sense of the word, and it is also impossible to ignore this factor in reaching a settlement of the conflict in Afghanistan.
It is also important to mention the Pakistan factor in this settlement. After the recent accession of Pakistan to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Russia's bilateral contacts with this country have become more active. It is important that a significant proportion of the Russian-Pakistani projects are developing in the field of military cooperation and regional security dialogue. The issue of Afghanistan has been taken into account. Among Pakistani expert circles one can find almost a consensus that sooner or later, it is the Taliban that will become the dominant political force in Afghanistan. In the event of a possible withdrawal of American troops, this, in their opinion, will occur almost automatically. However, the preservation of the American presence in the country will not restrain the Taliban indefinitely. Maps of the territories controlled by the Taliban confirm this.
At the same time, many in Pakistan also view the trustworthy elements within the Taliban as a national Pashtun movement in a broad sense. It is important in this regard, that the current Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan and the country's defence minister Pervez Khattak are ethnic Pashtuns. In their policy towards an Afghan settlement, elements of general Pashtun solidarity can be traced, as well as the desire to ensure that in the future, there would be responsible authorities in power in Afghanistan that would recognise the current Pakistani-Afghan border according the so-called “Durand line” and would not violate the territory of Pakistan (which often happens now). Therefore, Pakistan and Russia have common interests in establishing peace and stability in Afghanistan, and the strengthening of bilateral dialogue (taking into account the influence of Pakistan on the trustworthy elements within the Taliban) can be useful for a political resolution of the conflict.
Thus, the benefits Russia can enjoy from involving the Taliban in the inter-Afghan dialogue are obvious. However, at the same time, each such meeting causes practically hysteria within certain jingoist circles in Russia itself (even though they are marginal and don’t having a real influence on politics). After the last meeting, in connection with the anniversary of diplomatic relations, in various newspapers and websites there appeared articles with extremely harsh, and even offensive criticism of the Russian foreign minister. The Islamophobic messages were also very transparent. While some of these articles were deleted from the web after a couple of days, the fact remains. Attempts to stir up public opinion in Russia and place into doubt contacts with the Taliban and the effectiveness of Russian diplomacy are most likely to continue.
While it is absolutely clear that the only goal of information campaigns of this kind is to pursue a political game, they also reflect an obvious desire to prevent Russia from realising its national interests in achieving peace in Afghanistan, and, in fact, disrupt Russia’s efforts to broker peace in the country.
Should this be counteracted? Or simply just written off as marginal and irrelevant? On the one hand, there is an obvious and complete understanding of all of the delicacy and discretion involved in diplomatic negotiations on Afghan issues, in a situation where Russian diplomats, in order to ensure the national interests of the country, have jettisoned outdated “friend-foe” stereotypes and attempted to ensure an inclusive inter-Afghan dialogue. Excessive information regarding the implicit controversy here may not always be appropriate. On the other hand, if policymakers fail to respond to the criticism of their detractors, it will only expand. Perhaps, both Russia and its Afghan partners should consider promoting a notion which until recently could be considered unimaginable: the image of a trustworthy Taliban in Russia. It is quite possible that work in this regard could have a beneficial effect on the popular perception among Russians of the Afghan peace process.