On November 9, 2018, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov convened representatives of the Taliban, the U.S.-backed Afghan government in Kabul, and regional states for a rare, public interaction. The meeting was an advertisement for Moscow’s effort to reassert itself on regional and international security challenges. It was also an effort by Moscow to seize uncontested diplomatic terrain opened to them by the Trump administration’s irresponsible recusal from basic international responsibilities, including arranging a coalition of influential regional states behind an effort to end the longest war in U.S. history.
The Moscow conference had its ups and downs. It was not a peace process, and neither the United States nor the Afghan government sent a senior-level participant. The next challenge is translating what happened in Moscow into a multilayered diplomatic initiative to end the Afghan war and enable the ultimate withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan—which can only be done with the full participation of the United States and the Afghan government.
Some progress was made in Moscow. First, the Taliban’s representatives appeared in public under the moniker “Taliban movement” without other official iconography. In previous meetings, they were allowed to use their claimed official title (the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) and their flag, prompting a furor in Kabul that closed the space for progress.
The Moscow meeting also brought regional engagement with the Taliban into the public domain. It has been a poorly kept secret that all of Afghanistan’s neighbors maintain some political relations with the Taliban. In some cases, these relationships also serve to aid the Taliban’s military and fundraising goals. Seeing Russia, Iran, China, Pakistan and the Central Asian states all attend a public meeting with the Taliban is an acknowledgment of that reality.
Notably, India chose to send two retired senior diplomats to the meeting, which is the first semi-official interaction between the Taliban and India. India’s involvement remains controversial in Pakistan, which has long sought to frustrate efforts by India to have any role, even a constructive economic one, in Afghanistan. But given India’s strong links to political movements in Afghanistan, New Delhi is key to any regional peace effort.
Not everything went well in Moscow. Most importantly, the Taliban representatives got a degree of political legitimacy without making a concession for it. Most countries with interests in the Afghan conflict already have a direct relationship with the Taliban. Others, like the United States, must develop one if there is to be any hope for peace. But just as the symbolism of names and flags matters, the symbolism of rank matters as well. Taliban Political Commission Chairman Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanekzai sat at the table with the Russian foreign minister and other senior foreign diplomats as if he were their equal, not the representative of a brutal insurgency. As a Taliban representative told the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, “Most countries have acknowledged our status and invited us as a separate political force. This is, in fact, our victory.”
Second, it was a mistake not to have a senior representative of the United Nations in Moscow. This mistake is like the Russian role in the Syrian political process. In Syria, Russia supported the Astana process as an alternative to the UN-managed Geneva process. Russia’s process gave a preferential role to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, while the UN process did not assume that Assad would retain power under a new, mediated structure. It is important that Russia not have the space to play similar destructive games in Afghanistan.
Third, it was a mistake for the Trump administration not to make a real effort to participate. Senior U.S. diplomats had a series of meetings that have been acknowledged by the Taliban Political Commission this year. News that the Taliban acknowledges U.S. engagement is welcome—the United States and the Taliban are, in many respects, still the main combatants in the war. But the United States cannot negotiate peace alone, without the Afghan government or regional stakeholders involved.
Similarly, the Afghan government missed an opportunity to claim credit for its participation in the talks, rather than visibly trying and failing to thwart them. Kabul asserts that all peace talks must be “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led.” That reasonable position is undermined by Kabul’s dependency on international military and financial support. Now that regional states and the United States are publicly engaged without them, it is time for Kabul to rethink its approach.
Senior-level U.S. and Afghan participation should have been used to probe Taliban and regional redlines and push for confidence-building measures that would move the Taliban and regional parties toward a peace process. Real commitments could have been required in exchange for the political recognition the Taliban instead received for free. Attendance would have come at little to no cost, particularly because active U.S. and Afghan delegates could have seized the public narrative of the conference had Taliban or Russian delegates not participated constructively.
U.S. reengagement with all regional stakeholders is key to resolving this conflict. Until recently, the United States were a key part of this important diplomatic effort. From 2014 to 2016, Washington and Moscow worked together to quietly arrange senior level regional consultations on the Afghan peace process. The meetings, known as the 6+1 group, included representatives from Afghanistan, China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States. The process assumed that each of these states is vital to the achievement of a political settlement in Afghanistan, and that establishing a rapport of regular communications would be constructive.
But starting in late 2016, Russia began to agitate for what it called a “Moscow format” for peace talks. Washington attempted to block Russia’s efforts, urging the Afghan government and other regional states either not to attend or to downgrade their participation in Russian-led meetings. In retrospect, it would have been wiser to use participation as a means of shaping the process and demanding concessions from the Taliban.
Ultimately, a successful peace process will require delicately aligning three levels of talks: talks between the United States and the Taliban on counterterrorism and the U.S. military presence; talks between Kabul and the Taliban on the political structure of the Afghan state; and talks between Kabul, the Taliban, the United States, and regional states on security, counterterrorism, and economic measures to support a sustainable political solution for an independent and sovereign Afghan state.
Recent efforts on the part of the Trump Administration to accelerate the pace of engagement with the Taliban and push for higher level interlocutors is welcome news. But without augmented regional diplomacy, it will not work. For real progress to be made, U.S. diplomats must be free to work with all parties related to Afghanistan, including Russia, Iran, and China, and be shielded from the broader tensions of those increasingly fraught relationships. The United States and Afghanistan’s regional neighbors share at least two interests in an Afghan political settlement: First, a politically stable Afghanistan under a government that is inclusive of all subnational actors, including the Taliban. And second, an end to the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan, particularly the combat elements.
The Moscow meeting with the Taliban showed that advancing peace talks will require innovation and risk-taking. It is essential that the United States reengage in this process directly and keep pushing on all fronts until a format works.