Moscow format: New hope for Afghan peace?
Iqbal Khan


MOSCOW Format Consultations on Afghanistan came at a sensitive time. Of late, newly appointed US Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has been trying to convince the Taliban to agree to negotiate an end to the war; and Americans fear that Russian initiative could derail those efforts. Americans keep blaming Russians for arming and instigating Taliban, and Russians keep doubting the American intent to bring peace to Afghanistan. Afghan rivals failed to reach a breakthrough on holding direct peace negotiations during Moscow Format talks. Russia had invited representatives from the United States as well as India, Iran, China and Central Asian Republics; all hailed the Moscow Format Consultations on Afghanistan as an opportunity to “open a new page” in Afghanistan’s history and seek an end to the war. This was the first meeting of the Moscow Format with participation of Afghan High Peace Council representatives and Afghan Taliban delegation from Doha (Qatar) Office. During the meeting senior Taliban delegate Shahabuddin expressed the desire to talk to anybody anywhere in the world to end American occupation of Afghanistan.

The first such meeting, proposed for September 4 of this year, was called off at the last moment after the Afghan Government pulled out, describing its involvement in the Moscow meeting as “unnecessary” as the Taliban had “disrespected internationally-sanctioned principles and rejected the message of peace and direct negotiations”. Afghanistan is caught in cross-hair of multiple peace initiatives through more than a dozen processes. Some of these are at cross-purposes to each other, while remaining are non-starters. These days two such process are hyper active: the US-sponsored Doha peace process, with Alice Wells as its focal person, and Russia sponsored Moscow Format Consultations on Afghanistan, under the stewardship of Russian President’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov.
Yet another China-led peace process is moving slowly and steadily and is radiating hope of achieving some semblance of Afghan peace in the distant future. Reportedly, a trilateral meeting of Pakistani, Chinese and Afghan Foreign Ministers is likely to be held soon in Kabul. However, key to peace continues to be with the US, as departure of American residual garrison is key Taliban demand. According to latest report by Special Inspector General on Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), Afghan government has lost control over a record number of districts. Report identifies a dangerous trend which could have disastrous consequences for Afghanistan and its neighbours, particularly Pakistan. The US report highlights the increasing ungoverned spaces in Afghanistan. These are utilized as sanctuaries by terrorist elements which cross into adjacent countries for terrorist activities.
Pakistan has always raised its concerns regarding the worsening security situation in Afghanistan, as it is directly affected by it. Violence in Afghanistan arising out of clashes between Taliban and the Afghan National Defence Forces and Foreign occupation forces combine is now an accepted norm. On November 08, militancy in Afghanistan’s central and eastern regions due to Taliban attacks left 13 policemen dead; and in a joint operation by Afghan and foreign forces in Dand-e-Ghori area of Baghlan province, sixteen Taliban were killed and nineteen others injured. Taliban also attacked a police outpost in Khugyani district, Ghazni, killing eight policemen. In this backdrop, the US sent an observer delegation composed of staff from its Russian embassy to participate in Moscow Format. The Afghan delegation was made up of four representatives of the High Peace Council, a government body responsible for reconciliation efforts with the insurgents, Government spokesman Sayed Ihsan Taheri said. However, Afghan foreign ministry had emphasized that the delegates did not represent the Afghan government at Mosco Format!
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid had said in a statement prior to conference: “The meeting will discuss the end of American invasion, identify problems and deliberate on regional peace. This conference is not about negotiating with any particular side, rather it is a conference about holding comprehensive discussions on finding a peaceful solution to the Afghan quandary and ending the American occupation. Russia hopes “through joint efforts to open a new page in the history of Afghanistan,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said as the talks opened. While in Kabul, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said on November 06 that Afghanistan’s chances for peace were “greater now” than in many years, even as the Taliban step up attacks on Afghan forces, which are suffering record high casualties. A US government watchdog last week said Kabul’s control of Afghanistan had slipped in recent months as local security forces suffered record casualties while making minimal or no progress against the Taliban.
Ambassador Alice Wells keeps visiting the region in an effort to close the gaps between various stakeholders. Of late, she visited Islamabad on November 6, 2018. According to a press release by the US Embassy in Pakistan, the US envoy Allice Wells underscored the importance of all actors in the region taking who are steps to advance security, stability and cooperation in South Asia. She also welcomed the commitment from Pakistani officials to work towards this goal. The US envoy and Pakistani officials also discussed the upcoming Geneva Conference on Afghanistan and joint efforts to advance the Afghan peace process. A day later, Pakistan and Afghanistan held second meeting of the Refugee Working Group under the Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Stability. The meeting discussed matters related to Afghan refugees and other Afghan nationals illegally residing in Pakistan. Most of the ongoing Afghan peace processes are nothing more than a trash. Afghan peace is the biggest challenge of this century, haunting the comity of nations. It needs a quality peace process under the UN auspices, underwritten by P-5 members of UNSC; and led by UNSG’s special envoy of the stature of late Kofi Annan.