US, China, Russia lend gravitas to Afghan peace talks

Chinese Special Envoy Deng Xijun (L), Russian Presidential Representative Zamir Kabulov (C) & U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad (R) met in Moscow on April 26, 2019 for the second round of trilateral consultation on Afghanistan.

From a modest start one month ago on March 20-21 in Washington, the trilateral format of the special representatives of the US, China and Russia on Afghanistan, took a big leap forward at the  second meeting in Moscow on April 26. This is at one evident from the fact that in comparison with the separate readouts on the Washington meeting, here, the format felt the time has come to issue a joint statement. 

If the Washington meet devolved upon an ‘exchange of views’ and consultations on ‘common efforts’, the Moscow round ‘reached consensus’ on a compass to navigate the road map in the period ahead. This is a significant achievement and this is reflected on the intention of the three big powers to move on to a “phased expansion of their consultations before the next trilateral meeting in Beijing.” 

In sum, the three big powers have taken charge of the Afghan problem, as it were. This is a watershed moment in international security — something which the US President Donald Trump probably wanted all along but couldn’t happen due to the Robert Mueller inquiry on “Russia collusion”. Now that the Mueller inquiry has ended, Washington is already reaching out to Moscow to discuss a host of pending issues — North Korea, Sudan, Venezuela, arms control and so on. 

What stands out is that the trilateral format includes China. Most certainly, when it comes to Afghanistan, China is no longer hiding and biding. This is as much a matter of coming of age as a great power with global interests as a recognition by the international community of China’s rise as a global power that is destined to play the lead role, arguably, in post-settlement Afghanistan’s reconstruction and it of course underscores the unique influence Beijing is currently wielding with all all major protagonists in the Afghan conflict, which if leveraged, can help accelerate the Afghan peace process and negotiate a settlement that is durable. 

The five main templates of the “trilateral consensus” at the Moscow round on April 26 are the following: 

First and foremost, the US has committed to Russia and China that “an orderly and responsible withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan” will form “part of the overall peace process” — and not something for the post-settlement era. This is an important commitment which will form the basis of their joint efforts to put a peace process on track. The Taliban will have taken note — as indeed Iran, which openly opposes any continued US military-intelligence presence in a neighbouring country on its eastern border. Russia has blown hot and cold over the years on the issue of US military presence in the region, while China remains ambivalent and even allows the US analysts to interpret the ambivalence as working in Washington’s favour (being a tacit acquiescence with the American military presence.) But the truth is both Russia and China will be better off if the western occupation of Afghanistan is brought to an end. 

Second, the trilateral format has put its weight behind the Taliban holding peace talks “with a broad, representative Afghan delegation that includes the government as soon as possible.” Simply put, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his circle of hardliners (who kept insisting on direct talks between Afghan government and the Taliban and nothing less) have either caved in or have been told the facts of life. It is a bitter pill for Ghani to swallow that in Afghan bazaar, he will now be seen as leading one faction amongst several others and that “an inclusive Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process” doesn’t give him any special status. What it means is that the second round of intra-Afghan dialogue which was to take place in late April and got scuttled by Ghani will now g ahead — possibly in May itself. 

Third, the joint statement makes no reference at all to the holding of Afghan presidential election this year. Presumably, the election is neither the priority nor the right thing to do at this juncture unless and until an intra-Afghan consensus emerges as regards the future of Afghanistan and the reconciliation of the Taliban is realised. (Delhi should see the writing on the wall.)  

Fourth, the joint statement accepts the desirability of a “comprehensive ceasefire” but realises that it is too much to expect the Taliban to agree to it in immediate terms. Thus, the trilateral format agreed on a realistic first step — “As a first step, we call on all parties to agree on immediate and concrete steps to reduce violence.” It remains to be seen how the Taliban views this prospect or whether the US military commanders will be bound by it. The problem is also that there are several militant groups operating in Afghanistan other than the Taliban who are not part of the peace process. Besides, there is a contradiction insofar as the trilateral format accepts the Afghan government’s “efforts to combat international terrorism and extremist organizations in Afghanistan” and “takes note of the Afghan Taliban’s commitment to: fight ISIS and cut ties with Al-Qaeda, ETIM, and other international terrorist groups; ensure the areas they control will not be used to threaten any other country; and… expel any known terrorists.”  

 Fifth, and finally, the trilateral format hopes to “build a more extensive regional and international consensus on Afghanistan.” This is going to be a challenging task, since many extraneous factors also come into play — for example, India-Pakistan tensions and the unresolved Kashmir problem, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, US-led “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran, cross-border terrorism against Iran from Pakistani soil by extremist proxy groups and so on. 

The best thing about the new trilateral format is that when the US, China and Russia led gravitas to the Afghan peace talks, the chances of any second-tier player (such as India or Iran) playing the spoiler’s role vastly diminishes. In turn, the scope for recaltricant, irreconcilable, hardline elements — the rejectionist camp within Afghanistan — to take covert external help to sabotage the reconciliation with the Taliban and / or thwart the peace process narrows dramatically.   

However, the big-power competition is continuing on a global scale and it provides the stark backdrop to the “trilateral consensus”, which is limited to Afghanistan. Such a limited approach of “selective engagement” has traditionally suited Washington. But Moscow and Beijing hope that the trilateral format on Afghanistan would be an offshoot of a new type of relations between the three big powers in the emerging world order. 

In the past, Trump appeared to be a votary of the US adopting a collegium approach involving China and Russia. But then, after moving into the Oval Office, he careered away from what candidate Trump espoused — out of own volition or due to force of circumstances. His senseless walkout from Iran nuclear deal and his “maximum pressure” approach to Iran are glaring examples. Perhaps, the compulsion to end the endless war in Afghanistan will have a sobering effect on Trump.