Putin and Imran Khan: Speaking with one voice on Afghanistan?

Russian President, Putin, and Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan surprised the world when they spoke with one voice on Afghanistan during the just concluded 20th summit of SCO. Dr. Moeed Pirzada, Editor Global Village Space analyses from Dushanbe, Tajikistan. 

Russia and Pakistan join forces at Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Putin and Imran Khan, leaders of Russia and Pakistan displayed a remarkable consensus, on Afghanistan, during Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) 20th summit meeting that ended in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe, in the evening of 17th September. Both described Taliban government as the “new reality” in Afghanistan, urged SCO members and the international community to engage Taliban and demanded Washington to defreeze Afghanistan’s funds citing the current approach of funds freeze as unhelpful. Both hoped that international community – meaning the United States and NATO allies – will take regional consensus emanating from SCO summit with the seriousness it deserves.

Much was happening in Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s beautiful capital, between 14th and 17th of September. It was not merely a summit meeting of SCO heads of state but a parallel meeting of Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) a Russian led regional security organisation was also happening at the same time.

This was further compounded by the presence of observers and delegations of new dialogue partners. Ebrahim Raisi, President of Iran was personally present to formally kick start the process of Iran’s inclusion as SCO’s 9th member. Iran was an observer since 2005 and its inclusion was principally being pushed by Russia. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar also started formal process as “Dialogue Partners” underscoring SCO’s growing importance as an international organization.

Amidst this unusual gathering of regional and international leadership the focus was primarily on the emerging reality in Afghanistan. The importance of focus on Afghanistan can be understood from the fact that not only it was on the agenda of all eight SCO heads of state in their speeches to the SCO summit in the first half of Friday (Sept, 17) but it was the sole agenda of a joint SCO/CSTO summit meeting held in the second half of Friday (afternoon session) where each head of the state expressed his concerns on the situation in Afghanistan, offered suggestions for the way forward on how to engage Taliban and what to expect from them.

It was in these two sessions, one after the other, that the unexpected consensus or alignment between Moscow and Islamabad surprised many diplomats and media observers.

Taliban: Afghanistan’s New Reality  

President Putin, in his address to the SCO summit, argued that “SCO is by right one of the most influential centres of the multi-polar architecture of international cooperation, making a significant contribution to security in the Eurasian region, its sustainable socioeconomic growth, and international peace and stability as a whole”

Putin then went on to state that, “..right now, our organisation is facing an urgent task of launching a common coordinated policy, which would take into account the serious risks related to the surge of tension in Afghanistan after the hasty pull-out, if not to say flight, of the US forces and their NATO allies from that country. All of us are well aware that the developments in Afghanistan are directly projected to the security interests of the SCO member states, all the more so that a number of SCO states have a common border with Afghanistan”

Imran Khan, Pakistan’s PM, in the same session, speaking from a prepared script, told the leaders, diplomats and audience – with more than 200 reporters and editors from across the region, like this scribe, and beyond listening – that “…most significantly, Afghanistan is, rightfully, the focus of our attention in view of the recent developments”

Khan then emphasised that, “..As a country that has continuously suffered from the spill-over of conflict and instability in Afghanistan and borne the burden of nearly 4 million refugees for 40 years, Pakistan has an abiding interest in a peaceful and stable Afghanistan..” Pakistani PM was more cautious than Russian President in his comments on the sudden US exit from Kabul, nevertheless he added, “The sudden change of the previous government which surprised everyone, the takeover by the Taliban, and the full withdrawal of foreign forces, has established a new reality in Afghanistan”

However, it was his comment that, “…that all this happened without bloodshed, without civil war, and without mass exodus of refugees, should be a matter of relief” later alerted many amongst the listeners when they heard President Putin saying that “It is true that the change of power there was almost bloodless, which is definitely a positive factor. The Taliban currently controls nearly the entire territory of Afghanistan, and it would be reasonable to encourage the new Afghan authorities to implement their own promises of peace, normal civil life and security for all”

Putin’s position almost echoed the Pakistani PM who had said earlier “For their part, the Taliban must fulfil the pledges made above all for inclusive political structure where all ethnic groups are represented. This is vital for Afghanistan’s stability. Also, it is important to ensure respect for the rights of all Afghans and ensure that Afghanistan is never again a safe haven for terrorists”

In his speech, Imran Khan said. “Going forward, we believe positive engagement of the international community with Afghanistan is extremely important. There is a rare opportunity to finally end the 40 years of war in Afghanistan; this moment should not be squandered.  It would be unwise at this critical juncture to spread negativity, or indulge in mischievous propaganda, as some spoilers have sought to do. This will only serve to undermine the prospects for peace, to the detriment of Afghan people”

Moments later, Putin, reading from his script, said, “ I believe that we must use the organisation’s potential to provide all-round assistance to launching an inclusive intra-Afghan peace process and, simultaneously, to block the threats of terrorism, drug trafficking and religious extremism coming from that country. Therefore, I regard the initiative of holding a joint meeting of the SCO and CSTO leaders today as very important and useful. This will allow us to hold an in-depth discussion of our two organisations’ practical interaction on the Afghan track and to coordinate our efforts with due regard for the specific features and powers of the SCO and the CSTO”

Joint SCO/CSTO Summit, Friday Sept 17

In the joint SCO/CSTO session on Afghanistan, in the second half of Friday (Sept 17) the consensus between Pakistani and Russian positions was even more clear. Referring to the sudden US withdrawal from Afghanistan, PM Imran Khan said, “The situation has evolved to this point in a rather unexpected way. The foreign forces had to withdraw one day; we wish this had proceeded in a more certain and predictable manner. The meltdown of Afghan security forces and collapse of the Afghanistan government was as sudden as it was unanticipated. Yet, the transition occurred without any bloodshed, which for Pakistan is a matter of great relief. The prospect of a civil war which was our biggest worry seems to have been averted, for now”.

In the same session Putin, clearly rejoicing in the American flight from Afghanistan, said: “Our colleagues’ remarks indicate that our states share similar approaches to responding to the threats that have been emanating from Afghanistan since the Americans left it in haste, or perhaps I should say fled, along with their NATO allies. They all left behind an open Pandora’s box full of problems caused by terrorism, drug trafficking, organised crime and, unfortunately, religious extremism. We witnessed it only recently. Our Pakistani colleague mentioned the airport terrorist attack. The Western community left, abandoning an entire arsenal of modern weapons, military equipment and munitions”

Putin was however concerned that while mass exodus of refugees has not taken place -as pointed by Imran Khan – but given the fears of instability in Afghanistan, criminal infiltration from a chaotic country cannot be ruled out.

And in terms of future challenges and solutions once again Russian position was closer to Pakistan than most listeners would have expected. Imran Khan said: “At this moment, there are two stark choices before the international community: Enhance engagement or abandon Afghanistan again as happened after Soviet withdrawal. Abandoning Afghanistan could take us back to an unstable situation resulting in civil strife, negative spill-over effect on neighbouring countries, outflow of refugees, rise in terrorist incidents, drug trafficking and transnational organized crime. Engagement, therefore, in our view, is the only way forward. The international community must approach the new reality in Afghanistan with a new perspective, based on a realistic assessment and pragmatic approach. Our core collective interest has to be to help stabilize the security situation, prevent any renewed conflict, and prevent mass exodus”.

If this was Pakistani position then world heard President Putin arguing to SCO and CSTO heads of state, “I am convinced that it is certainly in our common interests to help Afghanistan achieve peace and stability, at long last. Owing to historical, socioeconomic, ethnic-cultural and geographic reasons, this country should, objectively speaking, be an inalienable part of the Eurasian security and cooperation system. And, of course, we are extremely interested in seeing Afghanistan assert itself as an independent, neutral, integral and democratic state free from terrorism, war and drugs, living in peace and accord with its neighbours. In this context, the launch of sustainable, efficient and result oriented intra-Afghan dialogue involving all (I want to underscore this), precisely all ethnic, religious and political groups of Afghan society has special significance”

Russia and Pakistan both demanded an inclusive government from Taliban

Both Pakistan and Russia made similar demands to Taliban for an inclusive government describing their current set up as interim and something that needs to be broadened in the larger interest of Afghanistan and the region.

Imran Khan, reading from his script told Taliban, “It is equally in our interest to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for any terrorist entity. For this, the Taliban must take every measure to honour their commitments. The promise of an inclusive political structure should also be fulfilled. Peace will only be consolidated with national reconciliation”

Putin’s words may have been different, but the substance was almost identical when he said, “…And, of course, we are extremely interested in seeing Afghanistan assert itself as an independent, neutral, integral and democratic state free from terrorism, war and drugs, living in peace and accord with its neighbours. In this context, the launch of sustainable, efficient and result oriented intra-Afghan dialogue involving all (I want to underscore this), precisely all ethnic, religious and political groups of Afghan society has special significance…”

He went on to say, “…the Taliban movement, which has become virtually the complete master of the country, has established its own government that has assumed responsibility for the future of Afghanistan. According to the Talibs themselves, this is an interim government, and it cannot be called truly all-inclusive; nor does it represent all segments. We do not see representatives of other ethnic groups here, but it appears that we, of course, should also work with it”

In terms of way forward, Pakistani premier argued, “…attempts to demonize the Taliban and fuel internal tensions should be rejected. Such a myopic and unwise approach being adopted by some will only compound the challenges, not resolve them” and he appealed to the joint SCO/CSTO forum that, “The international community must reach out to reaffirm their support and solidarity with the Afghan people at this critical juncture. Sustained international humanitarian assistance and economic support will save lives and underpin stability. Allowing Afghanistan’s frozen assets to be used for the welfare of the Afghan people will also be a step in the right direction”

Putin then referred to the issue of recognition of the new Taliban government in Kabul in these words, “Speaking of recognition, I agree with those who have spoken on this matter that it is necessary to coordinate our position on this issue. We would consider it optimal to launch this dialogue under the expanded Troika format on Afghanistan, and work is now underway in this direction”

He then argued that SCO/CSTO should engage Afghan Taliban, his exact words were, “I would like to recall the earlier Moscow format of consultations on Afghanistan that involved many of our partners from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the CSTO. If necessary, it would be possible to resume its work, with the agreement of all states involved in it”

Putin’s repeated words and references made it clear that he considers Afghanistan’s situation vital to stability across the Eurasian land mass. This is precisely the concern of many across Pakistan’s strategic community – and also those who are referred to as the conspiracy theorists – who wonder if the US and the western institutions will permit a kind of stability in Afghanistan that will provide regional connectivity between South Asia and Eurasian land mass of which Central Asia is a vital component.  Till the middle of 17th century, Europe and Asia were not separately defined but were being referred to as “Eurasian land mass”. Afghanistan provides the connect between the north and south of this land mass.

Putin’s words were important when he told the SCO/CSTO leaders, “..moreover, the SCO’s extensive partner network allows us – by consensus – to involve other multilateral Eurasian associations in our joint efforts, and to cooperate effectively with the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and other UN agencies. I would like to emphasise that we must look at systemic steps on synchronising the activities of the SCO, CSTO and other regional associations not only as a means of resolving urgent problems but also as the groundwork for creating a common space of equal and indivisible security in Eurasia”

If Pakistan’s Imran Khan has been continuously telling the west to support Afghanistan’s transition towards stability, then now Putin added his weight to his demand by concluding in these very words, “I’m sure that the international community will not ignore the joint meeting of the SCO and CSTO leaders. There will probably be some critical remarks about us but judging by the astute discussions of these problems by the participants, we are on the right track and must certainly cooperate in this area.

How all this consensus that was on full display during the two sessions of SCO/CSTO in Dushanbe may have developed? Pakistan’s premier and Russian president are not someone who talk frequently, and both read their respective positions from prepared scripts. These were clearly the foreign offices of Pakistan and Russia speaking together and it shows the hard work that has been done, behind the scenes, by countless diplomats in Islamabad, Moscow and Dushanbe.  While they remain the anonymous unsung heroes, their efforts have succeeded in sending a message from the region to Washington.

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