Moscow format for Afghan conflict resolution continues

By Rene Wadlow

Building within the framework of the multi-State efforts for conflict resolution in Afghanistan, more narrowly-focused talks took place in Moscow on 5 and 6 February 2019 among some 50 Afghan participants led on the one hand by former President Hamed Karzai, President from late 2001 to 2014, and Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanikzai, the chief negotiator for the Taliban.  While the original Moscow Format conference was organized by the Foreign Ministry of the Russian Federation, this follow up was stated as being at the invitation of the Afghan diaspora living in Russia.

In any difficult, prolonged effort as this Moscow Format, there will be numerous meetings among groups who are “players” of some sort in the conflict. The fact that a loosely organized “Afghan diaspora” could be said to have promoted the meeting holds out some hope for Track II – informal mediation efforts – to focus more clearly on what compromises are possible and to bringing into the discussions as yet unrepresented groups.

The Taliban are important because they are armed and control some of the territory. However, they are not the only non-government  armed group. Moreover, since the Taliban were pushed from power in 2001, there has been a rise of more civic-minded, non-violent groups which merit to be heard.

The U.S. Government, with some 14,000 troops in the country has also been negotiating with the Taliban in Doha. What the U.S. role in the Moscow Format will be is not yet clear. As the United Nations is not directly involved in the negotiations, there is no other multi-State forum other than the Moscow Format.

On Friday, 9 November 2018, at the invitation of the Russian Government and under the chairmanship of the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov began what has been called “The Moscow Format” to end the armed conflicts and to find appropriate structures of governance in Afghanistan. Present for the first time were representatives of the Afghanistan High Peace Council – a government-appointed body charged with overseeing the peace process first appointed by then President Hamid Kassai and a five-member delegation of the Taliban from its political office in Doha, Qatar.  Indicating an awareness of the trans-frontier aspects of the Afghanistan armed conflicts, there  were representatives from China, Pakistan, Iran, India, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In practice each country has its favored groups within Afghanistan. The U.S.A. declined to participate but sent its  chief political officer from the Moscow Embassy as an “observer”.

This was the first time that representatives from all the concerned parties were in the same room at the same time.  In the past there have been back-channel bi-lateral meetings with the Taliban, especially in Qatar and bilateral discussions among government representatives elsewhere. However the Moscow Format was the first discussion held in public.

Sergei Lavrov articulated the long-range aim. “Russia stands for preserving the one and undivided Afghanistan in which all ot the ethnic groups that inhabit this country would live side by side peacefully and happily.”

The Taliban and Afghanistan High Peace Council each reiterated their unacceptable demands, but said that they were willing to meet again.  There were no sudden break-though to positions that could lead to negotiations and compromise, but none were expected.  The Moscow Format is a necessary first step on what is likely to be a long and difficult n process.  The Format recognizes that there are  important trans-frontier aspects and consequences of different types.

The trans-frontier aspect has been recently highlighted by the presence of fighters from the Islamic State (ISIS) in Afghanistan but also in Turkmenistan, Tajikistan , and Uzbekistan.  As ISIS is pushed out of Syria and Iraq, fighters have wished to continue their fight elsewhere and have joined with existing militant Islamist groups existing elsewhere such as those in the Central Asian States and Afghanistan. However, the ISIS fighters have not been welcomed by the Taliban and seem to be operating separately.

It is not clear that the Government and the Taliban are in a position to negotiate a country-wide cease-fire and the creation of a structured government administration.  It is thought by observers that 30 per cent of the  country is under the control of the Government and four per cent under the Taliban.  However, “control” does not necessarily mean  that there are administrative services of health, education and agricultural development.

Afghanistan began its first post-Royal republican life in 1972 under the leadership of Sadar Mohammed Daoud who ruled until 1979.  There were few changes from the royal period, the King having been a cousin and brother-in-law of Daoud. However, some ideas about the need to plan on a national level were introduced by Afghan students who had studies in the Soviet Union.  The coming to power of the Presidents Hafizullah Amin and Nur Taraki, both from rival factions of the Afghan Communist Party led to a vision of national planning and agricultural reform.  However, both reforms were undertaken with little development of a favorable public opinion.  The agricultural reforms in particular led to resistance from local power holders. This opposition seemed to put the whole State structure into question, leading to the Soviet intervention in the first days of 1980 to support the Government.

The Soviet intervention led to armed opposition and large areas of the country fell out of the range of any form of government services.  The Soviets withdrew in 1988 leaving a country without a national administration but with a host of armed groups holding political influence over small areas of the country.

By 1996, some of these armed groups which had come together under the name of Taliban (students of theology) were able to take control of Kabul and said that they were the government of the country.  In 2001, the Taliban were pushed out of power by U.S. forces, the U.S. Government holding them  responsible for the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.  Since the end of 2001, there has been armed violence, a lack of economic development, and a  failure to find appropriate forms of governance.  There is a need to find appropriate forms of governance which are able to structure local traditions of social control, regional and ethnic-religious differences as well as having structures and services at the level of the State.

The Association of World Citizens has been involved since the early 1980s with discussions of appropriate forms of governance in Afghanistan.

The Ambassador Sayed Qassem Reshtia who had played a key role in the preparation of the 1964 Constitution which created a constitutional monarchy was living in exile in Geneva and was very helpful in giving background information.[1]  Dr Abdul Hakim Tabibi, the long-time Afghan Ambassador to the United Nations in New York until the Soviet intervention was also living in exile in Geneva and was most helpful with information and contacts.[2] In addition, there were Afghan intellectuals and opposition leaders passing through Geneva on their way to or from Rome where the former King Zaher Shah was living in exile.

Thus in 1983 the Association proposed that “there be a broadly-based, highly decentralized Government of National Reconciliation. Afghanistan is a country of great cultural diversity and a wide range of local conditions. Therefore, political and social decision-making must be made at the most local level possible. There should be policies of local self-reliance based on existing regional and ethnic structures.  Such local self-government will mitigate against a ‘winner-take-all’ mentality of centralized political systems.”

The Association of World Citizens continues the con-federalist, decentralization, trans-frontier cooperation proposals of the world citizens Denis de Rougemont (1906 -1985) and Alenandre Marc (1904-2000). Thus the Association of World Citizens remains concerned with the efforts to find appropriate forms of governance  in Afghanistan.  We are still far from a condition in which “all of the ethnic groups live side by side peacefully and happily”   It took six years of negotiations in Geneva led by the experienced and skillful U.N. mediator Diego Cordovez to help in the decision of the Soviets to withdraw.[3]  It is to be seen if the Russian Government will appoint as skillful a diplomat to facilitate the Moscow Format.  We as non-governmental organization representatives must work together with the aim of the resolution of the armed conflicts and the creation of appropriate forms of governance  in view.


1) See Sayed Qassem Reshtia. The Price of Liberty. The Tragedy of Afghanistan (Rome: Bardi Editore, 1984)

2) See Abdul Hakim Tabibi. Afghanistan: A Nation in Love with Freedom (Cedar Rapids, IA: Igram Press, 1985)

3) Se Diego Cordovez and Selig S. Harrison. Out of Afghanistan: The inside story of the Soviet withdrawal (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)

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Rene Wadlow

Rene Wadlow is the President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation on and problem-solving in economic and social issues.

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