It was a short report in the media, but it could be possibly a game changer in Afghanistan. Russia, China and Pakistan agreed last week at a meeting in Moscow to remove selected Taliban leaders from the UN sanctions list. The three countries had agreed on a "flexible approach to remove certain persons from the UN sanctions list in order to foster a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban movement", said the spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Sakharova.
The seemingly innocent sentence could well be the beginning of a new "Great Game" over dominance in Afghanistan. Especially since one of the parties for this "peaceful dialogue" had not even been asked: the Afghan government. Not surprisingly, Kabul was not amused, although the group ensured their willingness to invite Afghanistan to their next meeting.
"Discussions about the situation in Afghanistan without the involvement of Afghans are not helpful and raise serious questions about the purpose of such meetings even if they are well-meaning", said Ahmad Shakib Mostaghni, spokesman of the Afghan Foreign Ministry. He was not the only one to be concerned. For India, that has intensified its engagement in Afghanistan in the last years, it is bad news that even its long-standing friend Russia does not feel the need to consult with Delhi over bringing back the Islamic extremists into power in Kabul.
Not surprisingly, the Taliban welcomed the suggestions of the troika. Russia, China and Pakistan had understood that "the Taliban are a political and military force". "The proposal is positive step towards peace and security in Afghanistan", says an official statement of the radical-Islamic group.
As the main reason for their suggestion, the trilateral working group that met in this constellation already for the third time cited "increased activities of extremist groups, among them the Afghan branch of the Islamic State" (IS, also known as Daesh in Afghanistan). A motive that is not totally unjustified, but many security experts doubt that the Islamic State has really grown in Afghanistan.
Interpreted negatively, one could suspect that Russia, that has been successfully trying to increase its international outreach by invading Crimea and supporting the Assad-regime in Syria, tries to use the power vacuum created by the withdrawl of American troops and insecurity over the future US policy in Afghanistan to spread its influence once again.
Shortly before the meeting, the Permanent Representative of Russia at the UN, Vitaly Churkin had emphasized that "the elimination of Taliban leader Mullah Mansoor" through an American drone attack this summer in Pakistan had worsened the situation in Afghanistan by strengthening the influence of "irreconcilable radicals".
Churkin also quoted the Commander of the NATO troops in Afghanistan, US-General John Nicholson saying that the terror organisation IS tries to install a caliphate by the name of Khorasan in the region using fighters of the "Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan".
Apparently Russia also wants to block the removal of the Hesb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar from the UN sanctions list. The Afghan government had signed a peace agreement with the warlord in September 2016, effectively ending years of insurgency of Hesb-e-Islami. One of the conditions of the agreement is to remove Hekmatyar's name from the UN sanctions list.Read Also | India should overcome hesitation to play greater role in Afghanistan
In the past decades Russia, that still remembers the ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 by the USSR and the following civil war, had shown little interest in engaging there again. But this might well have changed. "Russia is questioning the US presence in its backyard again" writes Indian journalist and security analyst Suhasini Haidar.
The announcement from Moscow therefore triggered furious comments in Kabul. "Considering the fact that they owe our nation ethically, politically and humanely, and also considering the fact that the destruction of Afghanistan goes back to the wrong policies of the former USSR, we hope that the Russians compensate that human tragedy instead of creating another tragedy and crisis", said the former head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Amrullah Saleh.
The strong wording clearly shows what it at stake for India. The Afghan government counts on the country that has been emphasizing over and over again that it will not abandon Afghanistan. But moral support and financial aid are clearly not enough anymore. The question therefore arises what India can actually do.
Apparently India's attempt to isolate Pakistan internationally has not only failed but even backfired. While it is clear that Islamabad favours a government in Kabul with a strong Taliban-representation, neither Russia nor China and also Iran are known as Taliban-lovers. For them, an arrangement with the radical-Islamic group might well look as the cheapest way to stabilise their backyard.
China had announced even earlier that it intends to engage stronger in Afghanistan because it fears increased terrorist activities in the province of Xinjiang. The IS sees the West of China, where about 20 million citizens are Muslims, as a part of its caliphate. But it has been rather unclear so far what Beijing really wants to do in Afghanistan.
Given this insecurity and obvious lack of strategy, it remains questionable if a new axis "Moscow-Beijing-Islamabad" will contribute to peace in the region. Pakistani participants of the meeting in Moscow indicated that Russia is interested in including Tehran in the talks. The director of the Pakistan-based think tank "Centre for Research and Security Studies" (CRSS), Imtiaz Gul rightly asks: "Is this the beginning of a new geo-political game with two obvious blocs (India-Afghanistan-USA and Moscow-Beijingt-Islamabad and Iran)?"
The US government has not officially commented on the developments. It is also unclear what course the President-elect Donald Trump will embark on in Afghanistan. The NATO spokesman in Afghanistan, US-Brigadier General Charles Cleveland told the Afghan station "Tolo TV": 'We are concerned about the Russian engagement with the Taliban because it gives them legitimacy. We believe that all our efforts in the region should aim at strengthening the Afghan government." He added that he did not observe any increase in the activities of the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan.
India, that has been accusing its neighbour Pakistan of using the Taliban to install an Islamabad-friendly government in Kabul for a long time is clearly worried. The convener of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), P. S Raghavan writes in a newsletter of the think tank Ananta: "Russia's overtures to the Taliban in Afghanistan could create bilateral dissonance in an area of core importance to India."
New Delhi has traditionally good relations with Moscow but also increased its cooperation with the USA in the past few years. This has already cooled off the warm relationship between the two countries to some extent. "In view of the currently limited communication between India and Russia, Russia's behaviour could lead to a further drift of the countries", warns Nandan Unnikrishnan, Russia-expert at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in Delhi.
Next to Pakistan's increasing influence in Afghanistan, New Delhi is also worried about China's growing activities in Pakistan in form of the "China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor" (CPEC), that is seen as an extension of the ambitious "One-Belt-One-Road"(OBOR) initiative. The economic corridor that comprises of massive Chinese investments in infrastructure in Pakistan intends to connect the city of Kashgar in the Chinese province Xinjiang with the Pakistani port Gwadar. Apparently, at the trilateral meeting in Moscow a Russian involvement in the corridor was also discussed.Read Also | What CPEC means for South Asia
India reacted to the initiative already in summer 2016 by signing an agreement with Iran for the development of the Iranian Chabahar port, where India plans to invest about 500 million US-Dollars. The port shall provide a transit route for Indian goods to Central Asia, since Pakistan keeps on blocking the land-route to Afghanistan. This might give a hint of what strategy India should contemplate.
While a constructive Russian engagement in the region, as well as a Chinese one does not necessarily contradict India's interest, bringing back the Taliban with the support of Islamabad surely does. New Delhi therefore urgently needs to beef up its diplomatic activity especially it's communication with Moscow - and also Tehran.
True, these countries are interested in reducing American influence in their backyard. But they are also interested in a stable Afghanistan that does not protect and nurture Islamic terrorists. It should be not be too difficult to convince them, that ignoring the Afghan government is a fall-back into the colonial "Great Game" that has thrown the region into turmoil in the first place.
To believe that the Taliban are a good ally to overcome Islamic terrorism means setting a fox to keep the geese. Moscow and Beijing are well advised to learn from Pakistan's disastrous engagement with radical groups to understand the meaning of the old Afghan saying that "those who keep snakes in their backyard, will sooner or later be bitten".
While some kind of peace arrangement with the Taliban needs to be achieved at a certain point in time, Delhi should remind Moscow that there is no short-cut to stability by allowing the Taliban to dominate Afghanistan again. It can also remind Moscow that the USA are already on their way out and it is very unlikely that a President Trump will change direction in this regard.
Therefore, a security concept and guarantee for Afghanistan that reflects the will of the Afghan people and that includes Russia, Iran, China and India would be a great achievement for the region. With these major players on board, the Afghans could very well take care of the "state-building" and "nation-building" themselves.(An earlier version of this article appeared in German in Swiss newspaper "Neue Zuericher Zeitung" (NZZ). It can be found here)
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).