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Russia Gathers Stakeholders, Sans US or NATO, for Afghanistan Conference

FILE - Afghan militia men raise their weapons as they stand guard in the Achin district of Nangarhar province east of Kabul, Afghanistan.
FILE - Afghan militia men raise their weapons as they stand guard in the Achin district of Nangarhar province east of Kabul, Afghanistan.

Russia is hosting a conference in Moscow this week that will bring together Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, India and Iran to discuss a possible solution of the conflict in Afghanistan.

This meeting is part of Russia's effort at playing a more pro-active role in Afghanistan for the first time since the former Soviet Union's invasion of the country in 1979. Its efforts, however, have encountered controversies at the very outset.

The last conference Moscow hosted on Afghanistan in December included only China and Pakistan, prompting a strong protest from the Afghan government.

The one this week is more inclusive of the regional stakeholders, but excludes the United States or NATO, leading to speculation that Russia is more interested in undermining the United States than in solving the regional problems.

At a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, chairman Senator John McCain said Russia is propping up the Taliban to undermine the U.S.

“Given how troubling the situation is in Afghanistan, any efforts by any outside stakeholder to look for regional solutions to the war there should be welcomed,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy Asia director at the Washington based Wilson Center. The question he asked, however, was what is Russia trying to do.

“Is it genuinely trying to rally the key players to come up with an actionable plan to wind down the war? Or is it just trying to scale up its role in Afghanistan to undercut U.S. influence?”

Other regional analysts, however, are looking at the development with more optimism.

“This framework does include all the regional players that have a major stake in Afghanistan,” according to Amina Khan of the Institute for Strategic Studies Islamabad, a Pakistani government run think tank.

“Terrorism is a global phenomena but I think regional countries need to play a more pro-active role,” she added.

At the last trilateral, Russia’s primary focus was on the presence of the Islamist militant group Islamic State in Eastern Afghanistan. Moscow does not want its influence to spread to the Muslim population in the Caucasus bordering Russia.

However, Gen. John Nicholson, the man leading the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee recently that Russia is trying to “publicly legitimize the Taliban” with a “false narrative” that the Taliban is fighting Islamic State, not the Afghan government.

However, Russia is not the only country in the region worried about IS influence and using the Taliban as a hedge. Iran also has started supporting the Taliban to keep IS influence away from areas bordering Iran. China has had contacts with the Taliban for a while, hosting several secret meetings between the Taliban and Afghan government officials or peace envoys.

Expectations from the upcoming conference, meanwhile, are low at this stage.

“The fact that three countries have been added to the list at this point for the first time means it's still going to be in the initial stages of getting to know each other, and getting to hear each other’s narrative and try to make sense of it. I don’t see anything big coming out of this,” said Omar Samad, former Afghan ambassador to Canada and France.

Several similar efforts have fallen victim to the tension and mistrust between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Whether this process succeeds, will depend on whether Russia and China can persuade the two to work out their differences.