As the prospect of a negotiated end to the war in Afghanistan is closer than it has ever been, the peace process with the Taliban could be derailed by competing agendas.
Longtime rivals Russia and the United States have backed separate negotiations with different stakeholders, muddling the complex process.
To highlight the confusion, the Taliban first sat down for talks with American negotiators in Qatar last week before meeting a delegation of powerful Afghan power brokers in Moscow for "intra-Afghan" talks this week.
Why Two Simultaneous Negotiating Processes?
U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has held a series of direct talks with Taliban negotiators in the Qatari capital, Doha, from January 21-26, culminating in the basic framework of a possible peace deal.
Meanwhile, the Russian government has backed two peace conferences -- the latest on February 5-6 -- that have drawn representatives from Afghanistan’s neighbors, opposition politicians, and the same Taliban negotiators that met with the American delegation in Doha.
Moscow denies organizing the meetings, which are being hosted by a Moscow-based organization of Afghan diaspora leaders. But it's highly unlikely such a high-profile event would be allowed to take place without the Kremlin's blessing.
Your browser doesn’t support HTML5
Both processes have frozen out the Afghan government, which the Taliban has refused to meet. The militants see the Kabul government as a Western puppet and have said they will negotiate directly with Washington.
Analysts say Moscow is trying to promote itself as a power broker to challenge the U.S.-backed peace process.
Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank in Kabul, says the Russian peace talks are fueled by "Russian political sniping against the [United States]."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on February 4 that the United States was trying to "monopolize" peace talks with the Taliban and was conducting talks in secrecy while keeping regional countries "in the dark."
Haroun Mir, an Kabul-based political analyst, says it has been the Taliban's strategy to have two simultaneous tracks for negotiations.
"The Taliban has insisted on negotiating first with the United States and then bypassing the Afghan government and initiating a dialogue with different Afghan political groups," says Mir. "Thus far they have been successful in dividing the Afghan political elite who have supported the constitutional process in the past 18 years."
What Are The Consequences Of Having Two Tracks?
Analysts say a major consequence is deepening divisions inside Afghanistan between President Ashraf Ghani's administration and a host of powerful opposition politicians, including former President Hamid Karzai.
Among those who attended the Moscow meetings were key power brokers who have announced their candidacy to run against Ghani in the July presidential election.
Ruttig says for Moscow not to include the Afghan government was an "affront" and has the strong feel of election campaigning and Russia taking sides.
"A united 'Kabul camp' would be better, but maybe this is an illusion anyway," says Ruttig. "But [unity] was clearly not the desire of the Russian government: this is divide and interfere."
Ghani is reportedly furious about his administration being left out of both the U.S. and Russian talks.
The president's office criticized the meeting in Moscow, saying that Afghan politicians attending the gathering were doing so "in order to gain power." Meanwhile, Kabul fears Washington will make a deal in Doha with the Taliban behind their back.
Analyst Mir says by keeping the Kabul government out of the U.S.- and Russia-backed talks the Taliban wants to "reduce the legitimacy of the Afghan government to a minimum and thus further strengthen [its] bargaining position vis-a-vis the United States and extract maximum advantage."
Who Are The Likely Winners And Losers?
Graeme Smith, an Afghanistan analyst and a consultant for the International Crisis Group, says no one has won or lost because all of the actors have stakes in the outcome.
"If these talks give birth to an inclusive intra-Afghan process, the people of Afghanistan could finally gain relief from the world's deadliest war," says Smith. "If the talks fail to include all sides and no durable peace results [from them], the people could suffer another collapse into civil war."
Sidelined and frustrated, the weak, deeply unpopular Afghan government may feel it is the biggest loser so far.
Mir says it's not just the government that stands to lose, but "all of those who have defended the constitutional process for the past 18 years."
Analysts say the talks have given Russia the chance to burnish perceptions of Moscow's global significance while dealing a fresh blow to Western influence.
Ruttig says Moscow's role is another assertion that it is "back in the strategic game."