Citadel in Herat, Afghanistan (Credit: Jim Kelly/Flickr, CC BY 2.0) (via: bit.ly)

There are several protracted conflicts around the world that have no definitive solution. These include the Arab-Israeli and Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts, as well as the war in Syria.

One should also mention the Afghanistan conflict, which is both internal and international in nature. The conflict arose due to external factors, namely the policies of the Soviet Union, which resulted in the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The consequence of this was the division of Afghanistan, a civil war, the Taliban’s rise to power in 1996, and subsequently religious extremists being drawn to the country – from Al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, to ISIS.

Today, Afghanistan is under the power of President Ashraf Ghani’s government in Kabul and the Taliban. It is not clear which part of the country’s territory is under whose control. Sometimes they say that Kabul’s power is ‘day-time’, while the Taliban ‘reign at night’.

As for ISIS, its main goal involves a kind of self-expression and striving to prove its strength. After leaving Syria, ISIS soldiers conduct ‘rearguard battles’ in Afghanistan. However, they are the ones who commit the most brutal attacks that increase tension in the country.

All these and other issues were discussed at the Herat Security Dialogue-VII conference held this October, and organised by the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. The event was attended by politicians and experts from Iran, Pakistan, India, China, and parts of Central Asia, Europe, and the Americas.

Security dialogue takes place at two levels: The first level is intra-Afghan, which involves communication and searching for a compromise between local political forces: the Taliban and the official authorities.

However, only representatives from the official authorities and its experts took part in this conference. The opposition was not represented. Because only one perspective was presented, the analysis of the situation was reduced to merely criticism of the missing opponent.

Kabul officials are partly to blame for this. However, on the other hand, it must be noted that the influence of irreconcilable forces in the Taliban, who believe that any dialogue with the official authorities is impossible, is growing. According to the Taliban, the government is illegitimate and it must be overthrown. There are talks from time to time about the possibility of a compromise and the inclusion of the Taliban representatives in some state structures, even the provision of ministerial posts to them, but these haven’t moved beyond discussion.

In this case, I would draw attention to the fact that even in the absence of a political opposition, the official authorities from Kabul were subjected to very harsh criticism from the public figures who spoke at the conference, and this criticism was especially harsh on behalf of women who demanded granting them greater rights. One of the other main areas of criticism was corruption in government, right up to the highest level. Afghan analyst Mohammad Naser Timori noted that there are 1 million state officials (out of a population of 36 million), which certainly contributes to systemic corruption, and at the same time leads to the lack of moral integrity. However, speaking at the final session, the president of the Davood Muradian Institute for Strategic Studies did note that the critical mood of many speeches testifies to the development of democracy in Afghanistan. One of the optimistic foreign participants expressed confidence that “sooner or later the intra-Afghan conflict will be resolved”. But another participant argued that ‘sooner’ could mean 15-20 years and ‘later’, the whole century.

If at the first (internal) level the dialogue looks problematic, then at the second (external) level, i.e. in the eyes of external actors, such a dialogue seems to be relatively more promising. What is meant by that?   A number of states, including Russia, the US, Uzbekistan, and some other countries neighbouring Afghanistan, are interested in the soonest possible onset of stability, and each is trying in its own way to create conditions for dialogue. Russia and the United States for instance, have long been in contact with the Taliban and are trying to organise meetings between the conflicting parties with a greater or lesser degree of success. However, these efforts have not led to substantive changes so far.

About 14,000 US military personnel, as well as aviation units, still remain in the country.  Certainly, their presence contributes to easing tensions. They are also a deterrent to ISIS. In its turn, Russia expects that by means of interacting with the Taliban, the threats emanating from ISIS can be reduced not just in Afghanistan, but in the countries of Central Asia as well.

When commenting on such a policy, Professor Thomas Johnson from the Naval Postgraduate School in California said that it would be more reasonable not to help the Taliban in their fight against ISIS and not to support, in fact, the authoritarian system, like the US does. Rather it would better to help build a full-fledged democratic state in Afghanistan. However, he did not explain how to create such a state.

In general, judging by the statements of participants about the actions of foreign countries in Afghanistan and in the surrounding area, it appeared to be that they would like to reduce their responsibility for local events and shift it to someone else. During the conference there was occasionally the feeling that the presence of external actors was against their will and of now benefit to international politics.

Considering the above, the absence of representatives from Russia at the conference is significant, as they took part in previous Herat Dialogues. Moscow has not fully decided what its current role in the Afghan conflict should be and what it can count on in terms of maintaining its geopolitical authority. Russia has thus taken the position of waiting things out, and is limited to the role of mediator.

Pakistan’s involvement in the ‘Afghan drama’ is marked by confusion. For example, in the speech by former Pakistani senator, Afrasiab Khattak, along with mentioning the mistakes of the Afghan Government, which isolated Pakistan from Central Asia, he said that his country does not control the Taliban, which does not comply with all of the 12 treaties signed by Islamabad. Khattak also stressed the danger of the collapse of Afghanistan, which would significantly affect its neighbours.

In his turn, former Deputy Foreign Minister of Afghanistan, Jawed Ludin, stated that Pakistan retains a huge influence on the Taliban, which it does not utilise and thus Pakistan is rather a problem than a solution. In the conclusion of his speech, the politician wondered: “Is there a new feature between us and Pakistan”?

The organisers of the conference, despite the often-pessimistic assessments of the situation in Afghanistan, expressed the hope that the dialogue would continue, as well as the series of dedicated conferences in Herat.

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Alexey Malashenko

Chief Researcher, DOC Research Institute, RU

Prof. Malashenko graduated from Institute of Asian and African Countries, Moscow State University. He is Ph.D. in History, one of the leading experts of Islam, orientalist, political scientist. Prof. Malashenko is the author and editor of about twenty books (in Russian, English, French, and Arabic) and more than 200 articles. The latest are: • The Fight for Influence. Russia in Central Asia. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Washington DC, 2013 • Policy in Russia and Russia in Policy. Moscow, 2013 • My Islam. (Monograph) Publishing house ROSSPEN, Moscow 2010 • L'islam en Russie (Monograph). Les editions Keruss. Canada 2009. Pp. 1-280 • Ramzan Kadirov, a Russian Politician of the «Caucasian Nationality” (Monograph), Publishing House ROSSPEN. Moscow 2009 Before joining the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute he was the Chair of the “Religion, Society, and Security” Program at Carnegie Moscow Center, Professor at Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE), Professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Head of the Islamic Department at Institute of Oriental Studies RAN (Russian Academy of Sciences).