'Moscow format' in Afghan talks
Taliban groups show conciliatory gestures, softening their stance – at least in words
The spectre of Anastas Mikoyan, the renowned leader of Soviet era did haunt the incredible round of negotiations at the President Hotel in Moscow on 5 and 6 February on modalities of withdrawal of foreign (not just American) troops. Participants in the consultations included representatives from India, Iran, China and states of Central Asia.
The Russians have actually been meditating instead of participation in the dialogue since November last year when the Talibans visited the Russian capital for the negotiations in the 'Moscow format'. Russian authorities tactically distanced themselves from participation in the organisation of the unusual meeting.
The 10-member Afghan Taliban team was led by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, considered as a key person in the think-tank of the Taliban movement. Talibans in the consultations too seem realising the fruitlessness of personification of Islamic radicalism and terrorism. One of the main brains behind the 'Moscow format' is the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai who is critical of 'American machinations' under the guise of combating 'Islamic terrorism.
Moscow takes a distinctly cordial attitude, shelving at least for the time being the memories of bad blood in the intensely sanguinary battles of the very late 1970s and 1980s. A representative at the meeting, Omar Nessar, told Radio Liberty correspondent Mumin Shakirov that the Taliban had independently arranged a visit with all Russian structures: "I liked Abbas Stanikzai in Moscow, with the talks - they were officially organised by the Afghan diaspora in Russia - he was satisfied" He told the agency Interfax, "We agreed on two points: the conditions for the withdrawal of [foreign] troops and the fact that the Afghan forces will not be used against them ... Details of this will be discussed later in the framework of two technical groups."
The presence of Karzai makes the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, branded by Taliban hardliners as 'a stooge' of US President Donald Trump, very critically comment that Moscow as nothing more than "some kind of fantasy". Karzai in a query from Radio Free Europe termed the negotiations as "very good." Refusing to be provoked by the current head of Afghan state he chose conciliatory tone: "We understand that the government should be a party to these negotiations, we would like them to be here today". He tweeted that' the Islamic Movement of Taliban & the Afghan Govt. have to resolve'.
There is no denying that Russian diplomacy is apace as peace-seeker. Present in the negotiations were the influential ex-governor of the Herat province Ismail Khan and Mohammad Hanif Atmar, the former Minister of the Interior of Afghanistan and presidential candidate in the upcoming elections in July. Hanif Atmar is one whom Russia relies on. Unlike most of the participants in the meeting, during the Soviet-Afghan war and on the contrary, served in the KhAD , the counterintelligence of the communist regime that worked closely with the KGB. His return to the Afghan political scenario is not welcome in the eyes of U.S. officials.
The spadework for Moscow format was woven in 2014 by the then Russian ambassador to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov who initiated informal multilateral consultations when the USA officially announced the end of its participation in military operations in the troubled state. True, Taliban activism and the loss of Afghan government forces aggravated dramatically. In 2015, the Taliban for some time seized the city of Kunduz in north Afghanistan - the first case since 2001 when they managed to seize the center of one of the provinces. But things began to change with the advent of ISIS.
The mood of Moscow Factor is captured in the punch line of Radio Liberty of Moscow, 'Do not shoot, but talk'. It reported, "Mainly two topics were discussed: the possible withdrawal of US and other foreign troops from Afghanistan and future changes in the country's constitution, which the Taliban insist. Compared with the 90s, they, at least in words, have softened their position. The Taliban demand Islamisation of the laws of the country (the current Afghan constitution, in their opinion, "brought from the West and is an obstacle to peace"), but ready to make concessions - in particular with regard to women's rights. 'They will be able to go to schools and universities, hire themselves" and in general "have all the necessary rights in accordance with Islam and Afghan culture'
Stanikzai is optimistic too. The Afghan parliamentary deputy Favzia Kufi , present in Moscow, during the consultations , told the BBC in an interview ,"This is a positive step: the Taliban, who spoke to the people of Afghanistan, especially women, in the language of bullets, now use the microphone and want to listen to the voices of women."
(The views expressed are strictly personal)
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