A new round of US-Russian talks on Afghanistan is set to begin on Feb. 22 in Ankara.
Zamir Kabulov, Russia's presidential envoy to Afghanistan, will meet with US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Turkish officials, Kabulov announced at a recent news conference.
Russia is intent on taking over a share of American influence in Afghanistan as US troops pull out. Taliban leaders had visited Moscow in November for preliminary talks. Earlier this month, an Afghan team led by former President Hamid Karzai also met with Taliban representatives in Moscow. These talks, held over two days, included no representatives of current Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government, prompting harsh criticism from the US-backed Afghan leader. Ghani said the meetings amounted to "nothing more than a fantasy.”
“No one can decide [Afghanistan's future] without the consent of the Afghan people," he told local media. "Those who have gathered in Moscow have no executive authority. They can say what they want," Ghani added.
Moscow's rising profile in Afghanistan comes as the Kabul administration is experiencing a political impasse that will require the Taliban to accept the authority of the Afghan government and agree to be politically integrated with that government — but the Taliban still refuses to officially recognize the central government.
Should Moscow succeed in making the Taliban and the Afghan government sit at the negotiation table and impose its influence on the process of presidential elections, it would be sidelining Washington from the Afghan political process. Moscow isn't concealing its intentions, as it feels the US military presence in Afghanistan is destabilizing the entire region.
Kabulov, who is also head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Second Asia Department, said Russia wants the Taliban to be involved in the July presidential election, as its refusal to participate would hurt the country's situation. "I would like the Taliban to take part in that election. However, their approach is different. They don't fully recognize the current Constitution of Afghanistan," he said. Kabulov added, "The Taliban didn't recognize the presidential elections in the past as well, and that will, of course, have an adverse effect on the situation. However, if the Taliban movement needs an acceptable partner willing to conduct negotiations, they will have to agree with that."
Kabulov acknowledged the legitimacy of the Taliban when he said, “The Taliban members are controlling more than half of Afghanistan’s territory. They may be controlling up to 70% of the country’s territory."
The final communique of the Moscow meeting stated that international sanctions should be lifted from Taliban leaders.
Referring to Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, Kabulov said, “The US has realized it has to end this war."
The Taliban has said Trump plans to withdraw by April half of the 14,000 American soldiers serving in Afghanistan, but the United States has denied that timeline.
The Taliban has persistently said that its participation in Afghanistan peace talks hinges on the imminent departure of US troops.
In short, Moscow is aware of the declining military and political influence of the United States in Afghanistan and intends to fill the vacuum when it departs. Moscow appears determined to re-engage in the area with regional partners. That explains why Kabulov underlined that Turkey, Pakistan and Iran are the key countries for a solution in Afghanistan.
Ankara has been preparing intensely for the Feb. 22 summit. The proposal to hold the summit in Ankara came from Moscow, clearly indicating that Russia sees Ankara as a major partner. No doubt Russia, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan are forming a bloc to influence the Afghan elections. Although US envoy Khalilzad keeps repeating that the focus of the talks with the Taliban and Russia is not on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan but rather to achieve peace there, Ankara believes a US withdrawal from Syria, Afghanistan and later Iraq is a fundamental, necessary development that will change all power balances in the region.
Ankara’s view has four basic components:
Trump’s determination to withdraw from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq despite heavy opposition from various US quarters will culminate in a radical change of US policy in the Middle East.
The US decision to withdraw from these three countries will affect the totality of US-Turkey relations and the US perception of Turkey’s relations with these countries and the region overall.
US withdrawal will weaken its challenge of Turkey’s regional standing and offer new opportunities for Turkey.
Ankara may confront regional challenges led by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) by developing its partnership with Tehran and Moscow.
This is why having a higher profile in Afghanistan is a priority for Ankara — hence the Turkish parliament’s recent decision to permit President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to extend the presence of Turkish troops there for two years. Erdogan thus will be Turkey's single decision-maker on this issue until 2021.
Turkey currently has 800 soldiers in NATO’s support mission in Afghanistan.
As a key member of that mission, the Turkish Armed Forces successfully train, advise and assist the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces across Afghanistan.
Moscow’s game plan for the Ankara summit is well-understood. While trying to decipher Khalilzad’s calendar for a US withdrawal, Russia will also try to devise ways to exclude the United States from the 2019 Afghanistan elections. Moscow wants Ankara to also pressure the Taliban to recognize the legitimacy of Kabul’s authority. The first step will be for Ankara to acknowledge the Taliban administration. So far, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are the only Muslim countries that have officially recognized the Taliban and have called on it to negotiate with the Afghan government.
Ankara may well start negotiating with the Taliban soon and even encourage Qatar to officially recognize the Taliban office in Doha.
It's obvious that Ankara’s involvement in the game will increase pressure on the Taliban.