The Taliban in Moscow: A Turning Point for the Afghan War?

As the Afghan government suffers more losses on the ground, a landmark peace conference hosted by Russia could mark a shift in the 17-year war. The Taliban is there in its highest level diplomatic engagement in years. We speak to author and historian Vijay Prashad

The Taliban in Moscow: A Turning Point for the Afghan War?

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Story Transcript

AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.

A landmark peace conference could mark a turning point in the long-running intractable Afghan war. The attendance of a number of key parties at the summit in Moscow marks a major realignment of past positions. The Taliban is there in its first ever official visit to Moscow in its highest-level diplomatic engagement in several years. India is also sitting down at an event with the Taliban for the first time. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the gathering is a breakthrough in the 17-year war.

SERGEI LAVROV: We especially welcome the delegation of High Peace Council of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban. Their participation in today’s event is aimed to make an important contribution to make conducive environments to promote direct dialogue between the government, the Taliban, and wider representatives of social and political circles of the country.

AARON MATE: The meeting on Afghanistan comes as the U.S.-led war there continues to falter. A wave of recent Taliban attacks has killed dozens of Afghan forces, and a new State Department report says that the Afghan government is controlling the country at its lowest level ever.

Joining me is Vijay Prashad. He is a historian, author, and executive director of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research. Welcome, Vijay. There have been signs before of hope in Afghanistan, or at least talk of hope that there could be breakthroughs in summits involving the Taliban. Is this one in Moscow today any different? Could actual progress be made here?

VIJAY PRASHAD: It’s nice to be with you, Aaron. Firstly, it’s true that this war has been going for 17 years. The casualty rate is extraordinarily high. The Taliban, you know, has had its high points and its low points, and it appears that it is now being very aggressive, particularly in sections of Afghanistan where the Afghan government, the government of Afghanistan- which some call the government of Kabul, actually- has some power. They say that about four fifths of the country are in the hands of the Taliban or associated groups.

So this is a very good point to return to the table and have a conversation. So I wouldn’t like to say that the meeting in Moscow should be seen as the focus of a breakthrough. I think you have a series of different things happening at the same time which might all work towards some kind of, not resolution to the war, but at least bring the parties to the table together. In Moscow, the Russians have successfully brought together the very high delegation from the Taliban’s office in Doha, Qatar. I think this is very important that that office is paying serious attention to some kind of peace talk, and they are willing to sit at the table with not representatives from the government of Afghanistan directly, but the High Peace Council, which has been delegated by the government to hold these talks.

I mean, in a sense this is confidence building. The United States sent a quite a low-level embassy official from the Moscow embassy. But I don’t think that should be taken seriously. I think far more serious is that the United States has once again sent former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad on the tour, also where he will meet Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar. He will be in Pakistan. He’ll be in Afghanistan.

As I said, a series of things are happening. There is the Moscow-sponsored meeting where India, China, Pakistan, Iran and others are sitting around the table talking to the Taliban, talking to the High Peace Council. But there’s also the meetings that former Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is holding with the Taliban, with the Afghan government, with the Pakistani government, trying to create some sort of atmosphere for a proper peace process.

AARON MATE: Let me zero in on India for a second, because as I said earlier, this, I believe, is the first time India is attending such a summit with the Taliban, although they might not be negotiating directly. What does their attendance signify, and what could India contribute here?

VIJAY PRASHAD: You know, in 2007 there was a previous summit of this nature. Remember, 2007 is more than a decade ago. So it’s very significant that the last time this kind of grouping was attempted to be arranged was over 10 years ago of this really heartless war. And that time India was offered a seat at the table, and the government said, no, we don’t want to come, because there’s no such thing as a good Taliban and bad Taliban. There’s only the terrorists.

I think that understanding is modulated, to some extent. The way India has understood the Taliban is that they see the Taliban as a proxy force for Pakistan inside Afghanistan. People need to understand that the situation in Afghanistan isn’t merely about the Cold War. You know, the United States and Russia, and so on. It’s also a battlefield where India and Pakistan have been jockeying for power. You know, Afghanistan and Pakistan have a border dispute that goes back to the 1940s. And India has actually had a role in, is sort of perpetuating that tension in the region. And Pakistan has used the Taliban as its sort of forward proxy force inside Afghanistan.

So there is this tension between India and Pakistan manifest tragically inside Afghanistan. And I think now, as I said, there’s a modulation coming in. India is very keen to develop this port in Iran where it has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the Chabahar Port, which is to take goods from India, through Iran, into Afghanistan, and then out through Central Asia to Russia. It’s a major market for Indian goods. So India is keen to bring some peace into Afghanistan. I think that really is what has brought India to the table in Moscow.

AARON MATE: OK. So speaking of coming to the table, then, what about the significance of the Taliban also visiting Moscow, I believe, for the first time? Especially In light of we’ve been hearing reports or speculation from, especially from U.S. intelligence officials quoted anonymously, that Russia has been backing the Taliban in certain ways, which always struck me as odd, because Russia and the Taliban, of course, are historic, bitter enemies following Russia’s occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s. So does the fact that Russia is hosting the Taliban, does that carry a certain significance here, as well?

VIJAY PRASHAD: You know, they used to say there are no permanent friends, only permanent enemies. I think this is not true. All kinds of interesting developments take place in international relations. Also, Russia is not what Russia was, you know, in the 1980s. There is no longer any Soviet Union. So we shouldn’t understand what happened with the Soviet entry into Afghanistan as somehow, you know, carrying a long memory into the present.

It’s not actually clear whether Russia is directly militarily helping the Taliban. There are also reports that Iran helps the Taliban. This is a very curious soup. Everybody has a kind of proxy force inside Afghanistan, sadly, which is what has made Afghanistan the center of the so-called great game. It is significant that the Taliban is in Moscow. That is very significant. But it may have less to do with Moscow and more to do with the Taliban.

Inside the Taliban there are two, I think, debates that people need to pay attention to. The first is the Taliban leadership is quite concerned that it’s losing its rank and file to far more radical forces, including the Islamic State, or ISIS, which has a presence in sections of southern Afghanistan. So there is, I think, a tension here upon the Taliban leadership that unless they move the agenda forward, this sort of war of attrition that has been going on for 17 years might lose them their base to far more radical, far more dangerous forces. That’s one, I think, important thing that’s on the minds of the leadership of the Taliban.

I think the second aspect that needs to be paid attention to is that the Taliban is cautious about entering political life, aboveground political life. The government in Kabul led by Ashraf Ghani, former World Bank official, has made it clear that he is at the point where he’s willing to welcome the Taliban as a political party. And there’s this debate inside the Taliban of whether they’ll be able to pivot into becoming a legitimate political party. Because they look back at the earlier period when the mujahadeen or the fighters arrived in Kabul and basically became warlords. This is not something that they are keen on.

So I would say that we need to pay attention to this worry in the Taliban about losing their fighters to the Islamic State. And on the other hand, I think this tension inside the Taliban about whether they are ready to, you know, become a political party, I think that’s what’s driving them towards the table.

AARON MATE: Quick question, finally, and we’ll move on to our second segment, which is about the broader death toll of the global war on terror that Afghanistan is just one element of. But you mentioned this war of attrition going on for 17 years. My question to you is why? Why has the world’s most powerful military, the U.S., been so incapable of defeating the Taliban? As I said in the intro, the Taliban now, the Afghan government, controls, according to the State Department, its lowest amount of territory since they began keeping track. You had just this week this series of Taliban offenses killing dozens of Afghan security forces. Why has the Taliban been so militarily effective and the U.S.-led coalition so ineffective?

VIJAY PRASHAD: It’s a very long discussion, Aaron. Not easy to have briefly. But there are, I think, two things to bear in mind. One is that I think it was quite clear in the early years of the war that the American forces were highly motivated. You know, there was a kind of morale that came out of 9/11, and people went there to defeat the terrorists, and so on. I think now there’s a drift. People don’t know what they’re doing in Afghanistan. And this has been the situation for over the past decade. There is a mission drift. People have no idea. You know, they are terrified of being there, whereas the Taliban fighters seem to have a very clear goal; this goal of defending their homeland, of pushing forward their agenda. And when you put morale against the lack of morale, in any conflict morale is going to have at least the upper hand in close fighting.

Secondly, you know, it’s important, I think, to pay attention to the fact that the terrain is quite treacherous. In Afghanistan. Anybody who’s traveled in Afghanistan knows that particularly in sections of southern Afghanistan it’s not hard to mount a guerrilla campaign. This has been the story from the British wars in Afghanistan in the 19th century, to the Soviet intervention, and then finally this very long period where the Americans are being bedeviled by the Afghan landscape. I don’t think this should be underestimated. Afghanistan is not like Iraq, which large parts of its terrain are fundamentally flat. Afghanistan is a very treacherous, hilly area, where it’s quite easy for guerrilla forces to mount attacks, break down roads, destroy the morale through coming at soldiers from the middle of nowhere. And it also provokes, I think, quite harsh bombardment of civilian areas, which increases the morale to fight back. I think this is something people in the U.S. military have taken quite seriously. This is not a winnable war at all.

AARON MATE: All right. We’ll pause there. And in Part 2 we’ll come back and discuss a new study that calculates the death toll from the war in Afghanistan and other wars in the so-called war on terror saying that over 500,000 people have been killed, although the study calls that an undercount. My guest is Vijay Prashad, historian, author, director of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research. I’m Aaron Mate for The Real News.