By Imtiaz Gul*
Statements by the Russian ambassador in Kabul, Alexander Mantytskiy, over the weekend caused quite an uproar in the Afghan capital, first by holding a press conference on Thursday, and then by appearing before the Afghan senate two days later after lawmakers had demanded an explanation on Moscow’s ties to the Taliban. On both occasions, the ambassador strongly defended Russia’s outreach to the Taliban, expressed suspicions about the dubious nature of Daesh/IS and reiterated concerns about the link between terrorism and narcotics originating in Afghanistan.
In an unusual and bold appearance before the Afghan parliament’s upper house, the ambassador asked if US, Britain, Italy, Qatar and Saudi Arabia maintain contacts with them then why is it an issue if “we are also talking to them.” Our “limited contacts” are aimed at bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table and to ensuring the safety of Russian citizens, he explained.
A senior Afghan security official, according to Reuters, called the Russian support for the Taliban a “dangerous new trend.” The US commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, too, told a recent briefing in Washington that Russia had joined Iran and Pakistan as countries with a “malign influence” in Afghanistan, and said Moscow was lending legitimacy to the Taliban.
But Mantytskiy brushed aside these accusations; if the Afghans don’t object to the Russo-China-Indian dialogue on Afghanistan, why is it an issue if a similar discussion is happening between Pakistan, Russia and China, quipped Mantytskiy. All three countries share concerns such as the threat of Daesh, terrorism and narcotics, he pointed out. The second big issue that cause furor among many Afghans were the ambassador’s curious questions on the origins of the support for Daesh/IS. “It is for your intelligence agency to determine who is supporting Daesh, who is funding them, who is arming them…whose project is this,” said Mantytskiy, when journalists pressed for an answer. He opined that Daesh is apparently receiving strategic, material and financial support from multiple sources. Under the US-NATO mission in Afghanistan, narcotics increased manifold, we began hearing of al Qaeda and a couple of other groups but now there are many including Daesh, he said.
As a whole, the latest string of statements and assessments in Moscow and Beijing explain the contours of the new regional realignments involving Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan. The growing presence and activities of Daesh in the Af-Pak region seems to have united them all on three major issues i.e., a) Taliban as legitimate interlocutors for peace in Afghanistan, b) their collective assessment of Daesh as a proxy instrument of terror and instability, and c) readiness to look at the Taliban as a possible bulwark against Daesh.
And this represents a complicating geo-political factor as far as Afghanistan is concerned; despite an overt craving for talks with Taliban, Washington, Kabul and New Delhi loath the idea of other nations maintaining some sort of contacts with them. The other four consider them as an essential part of the problem and the solution. This political divide is likely to accentuate tensions further – all to the disadvantage of the poor Afghan masses who have suffered the most because of the interests of other nations since 1979.
The second consensus revolves around the source of support for Daesh/IS which both China and Russia view as foreign instruments of instability on their soil. And Pakistani officials share this view too. The killing of a counterterrorism police official in Peshawar last week was the latest example; the claim for this murder first came from TTP’s spokesman Mohammad Khorasani. Hours later, Jamaatul Ahrar (JA) sent an email to reporters claiming it carried out the assassination. And a day later Daesh claimed responsibility for killing the officer. Similar claims of responsibility had ensued in the deadly attack on the police academy at Quetta in August this year. Both the JA and the IS militant group, claimed responsibility for the atrocity, whereas both have never had a formal alliance.
Such claims clearly underline the presence of multiple Daesh cells in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. They also help in obfuscating the real identity of the perpetrators. But their objective is the same; spread fear and terror through target killings. And hence the response by Moscow-Beijing-Pakistan and Iran. However unfounded, yet they believe that groups such as Daesh/IS are the latest tools in the geo-political games that this region has endured for decades. Without a regional response, they think, neutralising such motivated challenges will remain a tough task both within and outside their borders.
The author Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS).