SOUTH Asia and Central Asia post US exit from Afghanistan are seen by many as global predictors for the rise of Chinese influence and a resurgent Russia.

The invitation to the Taliban to take part in a meeting of the Moscow Format on Afghanistan held on October 20th 2021 is a continuation of various initiatives taken both by China and Russia to engage with the Taliban to give them political space and subsequently incorporate them in the peace process.

However, the final nail in the coffin was the US talking directly to the Afghan Taliban leadership minus the Ghani government.

The chaotic American withdrawal and the historic collapse of the Ghani government and US propped up Afghan forces in eleven days allowed capture of power by the Taliban and initiated the great game with vengeance.

Now Russia, China, US and middle powers like India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Qatar are competing for influence and political space in Afghanistan yet once again.

A large Afghan Taliban delegation headed by Abdul Salam Hanafi, Second Deputy of the Prime Minister took part in the international talks on Afghanistan under the Moscow Format. Taliban representatives, ahead of the Moscow meeting, also met with the representatives European Union and the US officials. They had also travelled to Turkey to win official recognition and aid from the international community.

Moscow format is a six-party negotiation mechanism established in 2017, initiated by Russia, members included Pakistan, China, Iran, India and Afghanistan; later it was expanded with the inclusion of more countries largely to address Afghan issues.

When, it was initially enacted it was not welcomed by the then Kabul government and Washington, but 2017 was the first time for the Taliban to be invited to an international forum alongside the members of the Higher Peace Council which overseas peace efforts in Afghanistan.

There was no official Afghan representation; however, high-profile leaders participated. The US had also sent observers.

It was the beginning of a political and diplomatic triumph by the Taliban which culminated into the tangible situation of 2021.

Itwas also the official announcement of regionalization of Russia’s policy on Afghanistan dictated largely by the changing security matrix of the region.

Afghanistan does not trigger pleasant memories for Russia; however, it is of critical interest to it. Putin has very smartly created an independent space for Moscow in the region.

The US sidelined Russia in 2016 by excluding it from the quadrilateral coordination group format of talks which included only four countries: US, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The US and China were also cultivating the Taliban separately, this triggered a response from Moscow where Putin not only intensified engagement with Taliban but also launched the Moscow format of talks on Afghanistan.

India is extremely critical of the Afghan Taliban and has so far held off both formal and de facto recognition of them, constantly raising questions about legitimacy, inclusivity and Taliban not keeping their promises. However, it participated in the first post-Taliban takeover of the Moscow Format meeting.

Sources confirm that in fact India was very keen to be a part of it wanting to find a way back into Afghanistan via its ally Russia. Its earlier efforts to connect with the Taliban directly were not welcomed.

India came face to face with the Taliban since 2018 for the second time; it was a formal contact between the two since the Taliban takeover and their subsequent eviction from Afghanistan. The US remains supportive but skeptical of the format; the signalling is mixed.

The Moscow format talks were preceded by a meeting of the extended troika in which Russia, China and Pakistan exchanged views on common security threats and handling the humanitarian crisis and the economic meltdown in Afghanistan. Recognition remains contingent to Taliban walking the talk on the ground.

Pak-US relations have not been on a solid footing post Osama bin Laden’s elimination by US marines on Pak soil and Washington’s rising convergence with New Delhi.

Both China and Russia have taken advantage of this, Russia despite having a history of close relationship with India has successfully improved ties with Pakistan in recent years, the relationship is on a much stronger footing today.

Moscow under Putin is doing some very smart diplomatic footwork in the region it has cultivated Pakistan and appeased India both at the same time; it has also established itself as an important player in the new situation.

On the one hand, Russia has supported India’s move of revoking Article 370 as a vital ‘internal matter’ and it had also called for resolution of the issue under the Simla Agreement of 1972 and the Lahore Declaration of 1999. On the other hand, Russia is not willing to compromise its relations with Pakistan as well.

Therefore, in August of 2021 Russia had agreed to sign a gas pipeline agreement worth about $2.5 billion; the 1,100km gas pipeline project will run from Karachi to Kasur (Lahore).

Both countries view this project as a forerunner of promoting constructive and significant cooperation between Russia and Pakistan and to further strengthen this blossoming relationship. Defence ties between Pakistan and Russia have also improved manifold.

On the larger canvas of global politics, Russia’s pivot to Asia policy has a three-prong approach a civilizational alliance against western universal values on the geopolitical front to emerge as an alternative to US based alliances coupled with geo-economic initiatives to forge greater economic and trade partnerships with the Asian countries.

Russia’s South Asian policy is triggered by its desire to establish itself as an important player and a stabilizing alternative in the region and beyond.

In the third meeting of the Moscow Format the representatives and senior officials from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and the Central Asian Republics have assured the high-level delegation of the interim Afghan government that they will continue to respect the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Afghanistan.

All parties agreed that irrespective of the official recognition of Taliban by the international community; it is necessary to practically engage with them.

Participating countries called on the interim Afghan government to take measures for forming a true inclusive government that reflects the interests of all major ethno-political stakeholders in the country. Afghanistan’s isolation is not in the interest of any side.

A statement made by the head of the Afghan delegation resonated with all the participants of the Moscow format.

A joint statement from all ten participating countries called on the United Nations to convene a donor conference to raise funds for Afghanistan.

Zamir Kabulov, the Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan urged the international community to abandon “bias” and unite to help the Afghan people.

—The author is an Associate Professor of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi.

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