To the Indian media analysts, the pundits in our strategic community and the “think tankers” in New Delhi, it will sound incredible if they are told that the diplomats in South Block may soon be sitting around the same conference table with their Pakistani colleagues and the Taliban representatives to discuss national reconciliation in Afghanistan.

They would say you’re off your rocker. And if you insist on adding a corrigendum that it is only the time-tested friend, Russia, who might make this improbable scenario possible, they would conclude you’ve become irreparably unhinged.

But then, international diplomacy has no strict boundaries, except in the strange airy strategic discourses in our country that are imbued with zero sum mindset.

Moscow has so far held two conferences regarding Afghanistan. The first one was in December in a restricted trilateral format comprising Russia, Pakistan and China. Unsurprisingly, when it took place, some sections of the Afghan establishment expressed indignation.

With some mischievous prodding by the Americans from behind the stage, the Afghan proxy countered that Russia failed to invite their government representatives to the conclave in Moscow that was patently gathered to discuss issues of war and peace pertaining to their country.

It sounded a perfectly valid argument on the face of it, and, to be sure, it made good copy in the western media – except that in actuality Moscow was all the time proceeding in consultation with Kabul, below the radar.

India too appeared aghast over the Moscow conference on Afghanistan, but for an added reason – that Russian friends would ever do such a thing as to cogitate with Pakistan and China on the quiet regarding issues that would have vital bearing on its security interests and regional stability.

Predictably enough, Indian media analysts went ballistic, calling this the great betrayal of our century by the Russian friend. The zero-sum mindest simply took over from that point.

Conceivably, some of them would have been nudged by the American embassy in Chanakyapuri to throw some mud at Russia for the so-called betrayal.

Some others with a panache for the Great Game read meaning into it as reflective of a strategic realignment in the region – with Russia, China and Pakistan positioning themselves on one side of a great divide in the geopolitics of our region, with the United States and India holding hands on the other side.

Partly at least, this was wishful thinking, because the great game thesis dovetails nicely with the argument in favour of India aligning with the USA even more forcefully and putting down Russia on the mat.

Meanwhile, a systematic American campaign also began on a parallel track both in Washington and in the regional capitals insinuating that the Russians have lately begun covert dealings with the Taliban, aimed at “undermining” the US war on terror in Afghanistan and “legitimising” the insurgents.

Many Indian analysts were only too willing to give publicity to the disinformation campaign against the Russians.

Behind the scenes

However, away from public glare, Russians acted wisely. They took National Security Adviser Ajit Doval into confidence when he visited Moscow in late January regarding the main reason of the thaw in Russian-Pakistani relations and their incipient contacts with the Taliban (despite Russian laws branding Taliban as a criminal organisation with which Moscow cannot have dealings.)

Put differently, they discussed with Doval the big picture of terrorism in its various manifestations in the region to reinforce the point that Russia and India are actually on the same side in the game and there should be no apprehensions on that score.

Indeed, Russians were using their newfound influence with Islamabad to kickstart a regional initiative aimed at national reconciliation in Afghanistan, with Pakistan knowing that India too was about to step into the tent.

Without doubt, it goes to Pakistan’s credit almost entirely that it recognised the main reason of expanding the Moscow-led trilateral format of last December to include Afghanistan, Iran and India as well.

Accordingly, this expanded format – with Afghanistan and the “key outside players” (as Russians put it) – met in Moscow in mid-February where the Russians proposed that at the next conference, the format could be still expanded to include the United States – as well as, interestingly enough, the representatives of the Taliban if they are willing to come on board.

Meanwhile, Russians kept very close contacts with the authorities in Kabul. The Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani visited Moscow in February. And last Friday, Afghan National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar held lengthy consultations in Moscow with his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Atmar’s talks appear to have gone exceedingly well and a high level of mutual understanding and gong by the statement issued in Kabul on Sunday, mutual trust and confidence is apparent regarding the Russian intentions in promoting national reconciliation in Afghanistan. The following details have emerged:

  • Moscow will host the third round of the regional conference in Afghanistan on April 14;
  • Taliban is yet to respond to the invitation to the forthcoming regional conference;
  • Washington’s response too is awaited;
  • Kabul has confirmed its participation and signals that it regards Russia as a key regional ally who could help Afghanistan its quest for peace and stability;
  • The Afghan-Russian negotiations for the delivery and maintenance of Russian helicopters for use by the Afghan army have made significant headway. (Pentagon has been opposing the deal and instead wants Afghan army to exclusively opt for American helicopters.); and,
  • Kabul is prepared to work jointly with Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (which North Atlantic Treaty Organization regards as a rival security organization) for strengthening regional stability.

Bottom line

Clearly, as in Syria, Russia is not predicating the peace process in Afghanistan on US participation. Russia’s preference is of course to work with the US, but with or without US participation, Moscow proposes to advance the peace process.

The bottom line is that, as in Syria, Russia is a stakeholder in Afghanistan’s stability and Moscow estimates that an effective fight against terrorist groups must go hand in hand with the peace process bringing together the reconcilable elements in the Afghan opposition.

The big question in the emergent scenario is whether the US would join hands with Moscow’s initiative regarding national reconciliation in Afghanistan.

Common sense dictates that Washington should. But geopolitical considerations may come in the way. The US has been jealously guarding its virtual monopoly over conflict resolution in Afghanistan, especially with Russia.

It may resent the nascent challenge of having to be a team player instead of being the captain and the umpire. This is one thing.

Secondly, Pentagon commanders’ preference is to have one more “surge” of troops to explore whether the present stalemate on the ground can be broken. It’s the Vietnam syndrome all over again.

President Donald Trump, on the other hand, has spoken of the futility of throwing more good money in an open-ended military engagement with uncertain prospects of victory, and he makes no bones about his aversion for “nation-building” in foreign lands.

The heart of the matter is that from a geopolitical perspective, Afghan reconciliation will inevitably bring up the question of the vacation of western occupation of Afghanistan, which has been a consistent demand by the Taliban, and that in turn will require the closure of the American and NATO military bases in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon disfavours such an outcome, which shuts the door on American military presence in a regional hub overlooking four – potentially five – nuclear powers, and would prefer to work backward from that objective toward any search for an Afghan settlement.