Questions swirl as weakened Afghan Taliban turns to Russia after talks falter
MOSCOW -- Observers are wondering what to make of the recent trip that Afghan Taliban leaders took to Moscow over the weekend after their tactical failures during negotiations with the United States left the group in a weakened position.
Three Taliban officials met with Russia's special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, in Moscow on September 13.
The head of the Taliban's negotiation team in Qatar, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, led the delegation, which was comprised of Taliban spokesman Mohammad Sohail Shaheen and another Taliban leader, Qari Din Muhammad Hanif, according to local news outlets.
Russia's Foreign Ministry and the state-funded news agency RIA Novosti confirmed the meeting.
There was no mention of the latest Moscow meeting on Taliban social media accounts, indicating the group wanted to downplay the event.
Ostensibly the meeting was to discuss "peace" but many observers and analysts believe otherwise.
Taliban's weakening position
More than 30 people were killed in Taliban bombings in Kabul during the first week of September amid the final moments of peace negotiations, prompting US President Donald Trump to announce the cancellation of a meeting planned for September 8.
The spiralling violence has exposed a clear tactic employed by Taliban leaders: use the group's continuing murder of Afghan civilians to pressure the Afghan government and its international allies at the negotiating table.
However, the Taliban's tactic ultimately proved unwise, as Taliban leaders have since found themselves in a weakened position after the nearly year-long peace negotiations were called off.
Militarily, the Taliban have been unable to control any major civilian centre as Afghan forces continue to repel the militant group's attacks.
Taliban leaders are also beset with increasing internal strife. In a major recent incident, a Taliban splinter group claimed responsibility for the killing of the brother of Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada during an attack on a mosque near Quetta, Pakistan.
Hundreds of Taliban fighters have also been surrendering to local authorities after facing mounting pressure from Afghan forces and upon realising that the Taliban's fight is "not jihad".
Taliban leaders are facing a huge backlash from their supporters as more reports surface about their secret businesses and enrichment schemes while rank-and-file members of the group face poverty, disease and death.
"The Taliban delegation is now visiting neighbouring countries to assess and discuss the recent developments regarding the peace process," Tahir Khan, an Islamabad-based journalist who covers the peace talks closely, said in an interview.
"The delegation may also visit Iran, China and Pakistan," he said.
The Taliban's pursuit of external validation from countries that do not have Afghanistan's best interests at heart show the group has lost its way.
"The Taliban leaders' visits to China or Russia show their definitive political defeat," Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani, said in a press conference on September 14 in Kabul.
"The Taliban have lost track of the destination if they want peace," he said. "The destination for peace is the Afghan people. Their government is managing the peace process."
"We believe that these efforts by a number of Taliban leaders will not have a positive result," he added.
Russia has been trying to influence the peace negotiations and staged two previous meetings in Moscow -- in February and in May -- with Afghan political leaders.
Observers are wary, however, of Russia's motivations when it comes to Afghanistan.
"Russia should not be trusted as a partner in Afghanistan," according to Samuel Ramani, a doctoral researcher at the Department of Politics and International Relations at St. Antony's College, Oxford University.
"The collapse of the US-Taliban peace talks provides an opening for Russia to reassert its diplomatic presence in the country," he wrote in Foreign Policy on September 11.
"Russia's subversion of the authority of Afghanistan’s internationally recognised government and propagation of disinformation about US intentions in Afghanistan reveal that Moscow remains a dangerous adversary in the region," he said.
Relations between Afghanistan and Russia have been deteriorating as the Kremlin is strengthening relations with the Taliban while excluding the legitimate Afghan government from "peace talks" in Moscow.
"Russia and Iran have always tried to ruin the peace-talk process because they deal with Afghanistan as an area of geopolitical competition instead of focusing their efforts to end the decades-long insurgency," said Mohammad Basar, a tribal elder and political leader in Jalalabad.
"After the US suspended talks, these countries are now taking advantage of [the situation] and making efforts to completely end the process by creating misunderstanding between the US administration and Taliban leadership," he said in an interview.
A major contributor to war
"The Taliban's trip to Moscow, like their previous trips, has no bearing on the Afghan peace process because Russians have no intention of bringing peace to Afghanistan," said Asadullah Walwalji, a military expert based in Kabul. "They are making every effort to take advantage of the opportunity."
"The trip does not contribute to peace because Moscow itself is one of the Taliban's financial and military supporters," he said.
Walwalji accused Russia of being a major contributor to the escalation of war and violence in Afghanistan.
"The Russians have left the foundations of war and bloodshed in our country, which unfortunately continue with the insurgency and violence today," he said.
Hamid Noori, a Kabul-based political analyst, blamed the Taliban for the failure of peace talks with US negotiators in Doha, Qatar.
"The Taliban are the main cause of failure and cancellation of the peace talks," he said. "A day or two remained before the peace agreement [would be] signed, but unfortunately the group killed many innocent people and increased the violence by carrying out suicide attacks."
"I think the Taliban's visit to Moscow after the cancellation of talks has been at the request of the Russian authorities so that once again the Taliban and the Russians can make a stronger commitment to fighting against Afghan and international forces," Noori said.
"The Russians have a long-standing enmity toward Afghanistan," he said. "They have never forgotten their failure in Afghanistan. In addition to having no intention of bringing peace to Afghanistan, Moscow is trying to undermine the peace process and wants to avenge its historic defeat."
[Sulaiman from Kabul and Zia ur Rehman from Karachi contributed to this report.]