THE Moscow-hosted conference on Friday marked the latest regional initiative to end the 16-year-old conflict in Afghanistan, where the growth of terrorism has been fuelling anxiety in South and Central Asia. Eleven countries — Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India, Afghanistan and several Central Asian states which attended the event — made an impassioned pitch for a negotiated end to the war.

Ways of ramping up the reconstruction effort, boosting regional coordination on stabilising Afghanistan and speeding up a reconciliation process that respects the red lines drawn by Kabul were the main items on the agenda. The consultations came a day after the US military dropped the ‘mother of all bombs’ on reportedly a huge cave complex in the Tora Bora mountains of Nangarhar province.

Previously used by the mujahideen against the Soviet occupation forces, the tunnel networks were constructed with massive funding from the CIA in 1980. Ironically, the US itself had to drop the 9.5-tonne bomb on the tunnels and bunkers now controlled by the militant Islamic State group.

Washington had already announced skipping the Moscow huddle. On the face of it, America’s decision amounted to a loathsome way of sabotaging the meeting — the third of its kind since December 2016. In mid-February, however, the format was expanded to involve key stakeholders — Afghanistan, Iran, India and others.

The US should have attended the latest Afghan peace talks.

Hailed by US military commanders as the right munition to use against the ruthless insurgent outfit, one still fails to understand why a bomb of this size was needed. Not designed to break through hardened targets such as caves, the dropping of the colossal bomb reinforces the allegation that the US military is treating Afghanistan as a testing ground for its weapons, including the daisy cutter dropped umpteen times in the early phase of the war in the country.

Hours before a candid exchange of views took place in Moscow on prospects for peace negotiations between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban, the high-profile raid in Achin district suggested the US had other intentions. In disregard of growing calls for a political settlement, Washington appears to be hell-bent on pursuing a military solution.

With support from the US and other Nato members, the conference in Moscow could have been a major stride towards resolving the Afghan crisis. Despite having conflicting views and interests, regional actors seemed to be inching toward a single approach to stability in the war-torn country.

But the Trump team, in spite of America’s dismal failure to enforce a semblance of security in a country dubbed as the graveyard of empires, remains cynical of regional peace bids. The US, which is yet to unveil its game plan, chose to play the spoiler by boycotting the negotiations.

Russia, on the other hand, is on the ball, striving in a subtle manner to engage the Taliban as part of its diplomatic push to put Afghanistan on the road to stability. As Trump continues to play a waiting game, President Vladimir Putin has reason to have a crack at filling the gap and assert his influence by forging new alliances and partnerships.

Not deaf to echoes of the past, Russia continues to be dogged by bitter memories of its occupation of Afghanistan in late 1979. But now it is willing to let Kabul play a leading role in wooing the armed opposition back into the national mainstream. Concurrently, it endorses the Taliban’s call for the withdrawal of Nato troops.

In a not-so-covert endeavour to ruin the Moscow plan, some Americans and Afghans lately excoriated Russia and China for aiding the Taliban. In the build-up to the talks, it was no coincidence that hawks in the Pentagon and State Department chided Russia for supplying arms to the rebel group.

Russia cannot be indifferent to the developments taking place in its backyard, particularly the threat from IS. Moscow’s increasing involvement in Afghanistan after three decades of aloofness is indicative of the proactive role Putin is seeking to play on the world stage.

Beijing’s increasing interest in the conflict-ridden country as well as contacts between the Taliban and Moscow have unsettled Washington. Moscow’s new proactive role in Afghanistan is essentially driven by the expanding foothold of IS in Afghanistan and Russia’s non-inclusion in the Quadrilateral Cooperation Group, a mechanism backed by the United States.

To Moscow, IS is the biggest threat, while Washington views the Taliban as a destabilising force. Varying threat perceptions, geopolitical rivalries and the icy Moscow-Washington ties tend to pave the ground for the continuation of proxy wars and more bloodshed in Afghanistan. Escalating violence in the once peaceful northern zone poses a serious challenge to the unity government, which stands bitterly divided.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Peshawar.

Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2017



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