Can US, China and Russia cooperate on Afghan Peace?

Can US, China and Russia cooperate on Afghan Peace?
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A dialogue about peace among Afghans, including members of the government and the Taliban, might finally get under way. However difficult, the prospect of talks brings hope for a negotiated outcome to the decades-long Afghan war. Critical questions remain about whether the Taliban will agree to talk to the Afghan government and whether the United States will keep troops committed or withdraw, deal or no deal. Just as critical for peace, however, is whether the United States, Russia and China will jointly advance Afghan peace efforts.

Beyond the good of ending a long war, such cooperation would take on broader significance in an era of growing tension among world powers: If Washington, Beijing and Moscow cannot cooperate on Afghanistan, where their interests mostly converge, then the prospects for stable great power relations overall look dim. In this way, Afghanistan serves as a test case for a new stage in world politics. China, Russia and the United States should seize the opportunity for pragmatic, interests-based collaboration and avoid seeking advantage through Afghan disorder.

Let’s start with interests. America’s longest war may oddly be the only issue on which Washington, Beijing and Moscow could cooperate right now. Despite escalating tariffs, sanctions, and tension over everything from the South China Sea to Ukraine, Syria and Iran, all three nations want to get U.S. forces out of Afghanistan without leaving behind a civil war and more international terrorism. Chinese President Xi Jinping seeks to expand China’s role in regional diplomacy and tie Afghanistan into China’s global infrastructure program, the Belt and Road Initiative. Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinDemocrats duke it out in most negative debate so far Candidates pile on front-runner Sanders at Democratic debate Bloomberg attacks Sanders over reports of Russian interference MORE wants to reassert Moscow’s influence among former Soviet satellites, stake out Russia’s role in conflict management, and rebuild ties to Afghanistan destroyed by Russia’s brutal decade-long occupation of the country in the 1980s. 


Groundwork has been done: U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad met his Russian and Chinese counterparts in Beijing after the last round of talks with the Taliban in Doha. That built on late April meeting in Moscow where senior U.S., Chinese and Russian officials issued a joint statement supporting a peace process for Afghanistan.

To get talks going and sustain any future deal, the United States, China, and Russia will need to cooperate in three areas: Defining a solution all would accept. Supporting the process of getting to an agreement through a ceasefire, intra-Afghan dialogue, and eliciting constructive engagement from other regional countries. And finally, agreeing to validate and enforce any future agreement through the UN Security Council.

The outlines of a potential consensus solution are already clear. The Trump administration wants no permanent presence in Afghanistan, at least not beyond what may be needed for countering al Qaeda, ISIS and other international terrorists.

Russia and China have long worried about a permanent American presence, but in the near term see U.S. forces as preferable to civil war and expanding extremism. None of these three powers wants the Taliban in exclusive control of Afghanistan, but all expect some role for the Taliban in a future Afghan state.

Each party has different views on what specific arrangements would best achieve those outcomes, but their goals mostly align, and they could agree now in principle to back any agreement among Afghans that brings lasting peace.


To get there, they can coordinate efforts to push for a ceasefire, gets Afghans talking, and gain regional support. All three countries should push for a ceasefire and an immediate start to intra-Afghan negotiations — a common message will facilitate both. Next, most regional countries want an end to the Afghan war but worry it will shape up in a way that undermines their interests. To help assuage those fears, Washington, Beijing and Moscow should use their unique relationships to advance a full settlement. The United States can work with its Afghan partners to reassure and involve India and European countries, while China and Russia could encourage the Taliban, Pakistan, Iran and Central Asian states.

Only international backing, ideally through the UN Security Council, can make any agreement durable. Since the ill-fated UN approval of military force to protect civilians in Libya, the Council has been paralyzed and served mostly as a venue for grandstanding among these rivals. Afghanistan offers an opportunity for cooperation.

All permanent UN Security Council members know that any settlement in Afghanistan will require monitoring and enforcement. While it is hard to imagine a formal UN Peacekeeping Force in Afghanistan, Security Council endorsement can powerfully reinforce a peace process, its outcome, and whatever mechanisms are ultimately agreed for enforcement and sustaining counterterrorism efforts.  

Presidents Trump, Xi and Putin have a real interest in directing their diplomatic, military and intelligence establishments to work together on ending this war. The question remains whether their common interests in this one sphere will be enough to drive focused cooperation despite broader tensions and competition. 

Vikram Singh is senior advisor for Asia at the United States Institute of Peace. He was U.S. deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and deputy assistant Secretary of Defense.

Jacob Stokes is a senior policy analyst in the China program at USIP. He previously served on the national security staff for former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Sanders most searched, most tweeted about candidate during Democratic debate MORE and as a professional staff member for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.