By Harsh V.Pant/The Quint
There has been another dramatic twist in the seemingly never-ending Afghanistan saga. Last month, Russia hosted representatives of China and Pakistan to discuss developments in Afghanistan and the three agreed upon “a flexible approach to remove certain [Taliban] figures from [United Nations] sanctions lists as part of efforts to foster a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban movement.”
The three states underscored their concern “about the rising activity in the country [Afghanistan] of extremist groups, including the Afghan branch of IS [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria]” and underlined that the Taliban was a necessary bulwark in the global fight against the ISIS.
The Taliban obviously welcomed the move.
“It is joyous to see that the regional countries have also understood that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is a political and military force,” a statement, issued on their behalf, said.
Afghanistan seems to be becoming another front in Russia’s attempt to undermine the West and in particular American geopolitical interests. Buoyed by its seeming “success” in Syria, Russia now views itself as the vanguard of the global challenge to the West. Not surprisingly, the US military views this sudden endorsement of the Taliban by Russia as an attempt to undermine NATO military efforts in Afghanistan. The Afghan government too has reacted strongly against Russian attempts to bolster Taliban’s credibility.
The Afghan forces are fighting a tough battle against the Taliban with western help. After declaring that the US’ ‘combat mission’ in Afghanistan had ended, Barack Obama is having to revisit his decision based on ground realities. He has decided to send around 300 soldiers of the US Marine Corps back to Afghanistan as advisors, two years after leaving the country as combatants. There are still around 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan, a significantly higher number compared to the 5,000 Obama had envisioned on the campaign trail in an effort to scale back Washington’s ground forces.
The security situation in Afghanistan remains precarious. Earlier this week, more than 50 people were killed and 80 wounded in twin bombings near the Afghan parliament in Kabul, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility. Repeated bids to launch peace negotiations with the Taliban have failed and a fierce new fighting season is expected to kick off in the spring.
With President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah, at loggerheads, the Afghan government too is facing a serious political crisis.
Enter Russia with a plan. Amidst its deteriorating ties with the West, it has started warming up to the Taliban. It is now arguing that Afghanistan could become a safe haven for the ISIS, from where it would be able to pose a serious threat to Russian hinterland. China too remains worried about the impact of growing ISIS threat in its Xinjiang province. And both of them have found in Pakistan an important interlocutor who could perhaps manage the Taliban in a way that it would be a force against the ISIS.
Russia’s change of heart comes after helping the Afghan military by supplying helicopters and also agreeing to a supply route for coalition materials through Russia. But that cooperation is a thing of the past as contacts between Moscow and the Taliban have surged in recent years to an extent where the two have also shared intelligence about the ISIS. For Russia, the Taliban is a local nuisance and has given up the idea of global jihad, whereas the ISIS are the global jihadists. Zamir Kabulov, Vladimir Putin’s special representative for Afghanistan, has suggested that in so far as fighting the ISIS is concerned, “the Taliban interest objectively coincides with ours.”
Russia’s warming up to Pakistan is part of this broader shift in Moscow’s foreign policy. The two held their first ever joint military exercise in September 2016 and their first-ever bilateral consultation on regional issues in December. After officially lifting an arms embargo against Pakistan in 2014, Pakistan’s military will be receiving four Russian-made Mi-35M attack helicopters in 2017. It is also likely that China-backed CPEC might be merged with Russia-backed Eurasian Economic Union. China has found a new ally in Russia which is keen to work with China, even as a junior partner, to scuttle Western interests.
Russia has an interest in hyping the threat from the ISIS in Afghanistan and it is doing so rather effectively. The Taliban remain the most potent threat to the future of Afghanistan as everyday bombings in the country attest to. But given the uncertainty over President-elect Donald Trump’s Afghanistan policy, Russia feels this is the right moment to insert itself in the region and derail whatever little progress that has been made towards stabilising Afghanistan.
India May Find Itself Isolated
As Russia works with China and Pakistan to engage the Taliban, jettisoning its historic animosity to the group, India might find itself regionally isolated. The Afghan government is too weak to assert its primacy in the process. And given Trump’s soft corner for Russia, if he decides to buy into the Russian argument, then India’s Afghan policy will once again be at a crossroads.
There was once a time when the US wanted to reach out to the Taliban. Despite the threat of isolation, India stuck to its stand on the group. Eventually, New Delhi’s views prevailed as the Pakistani shenanigans made sure that the so-called peace process with the Taliban did not go anywhere. Today, India once again looks isolated. It would be hoping that Wa
Washington and Kabul will heed its advice on Afghanistan and stand up strongly against the China-Pakistan-Russia axis to manipulate regional strategic realities to serve their short-term ends. But hope is not a policy, and it is possible that New Delhi may have to revisit some of the fundamental assumptions of its Afghan policy soon.
(Harsh V Pant is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations at King’s College London.)