By: Mian Sanaullah
There are many conflicting views why Russia has returned to Afghanistan, more as an ally of Taliban rather than a partner of the coalition government of Afghanistan in seeking peace and stability. Within the Afghanistan establishment, there is a strong negative reaction, criticizing the rationale of holding a trilateral meeting (with China & Pakistan) in Moscow on Afghanistan on December 27. Though the meeting did not include any party from Afghanistan, it was viewed as “alarming” and anti Afghan “interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan”. The Afghan Government spokesperson lamented the exclusion of Afghanistan and slammed the meet saying how could it facilitate a Afghan solution. MOFA spokesperson said, “We are worried about what the reasons behind the meeting are and want the relevant parties to explain.”
Seemingly, the said move was caused by the on-going geostrategic developments impacting China, Pakistan and Russia. The meeting was not designed to formulate a grand strategy to firm up support for Taliban who have been in contact with Russia and China for sometime now. Also, three countries had met twice already and discussed Afghanistan. In the wake of a change in the US administration and the ground reality that despite repeated attempts by the international community failed to effect political reconciliation, the attempt by three nuclear countries bordering Afghanistan was to explore how to bring the parties to the negotiating table. Meanwhile, Russia is also supporting Iran’s entry into the relatively new process. Tehran has been Moscow’s ally in the fight against IS in Syria. In a separate troika, Russia, Iran and Turkey reaffirmed “their determination to jointly fight the IS”.
Some statements from Russian officials generated misgivings. For instance Ambassador Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s top Afghanistan hand, expressed concern over a long-term U.S. military presence in the region, stating that there is no “clear-cut answer” as to why the United States “want[s] land bases in Afghanistan.” Kabulov claimed that the present U.S. infrastructure in Afghanistan gives it “two to four weeks to redeploy up to 100,000 soldiers on the same bases.” He however has said more than once that Russia have no particular solution for Afghanistan.
In order to assess the possible underlying causes, one may look at how the three countries projected the meeting and its outcome. In general, the message, which came out, was positive; Afghanistan was invited to attend the next meeting. The tripartite meeting expressed concerns over the increased activity of IS in Afghanistan.
Does this meeting herald the start of a new polarization in Asia? Is it more a regional partnership of stakeholders to protect themselves from terrorist spillover? Is the US justified being upset over non-inclusion from the deliberations on the situation in Afghanistan?
Pakistan did not project the meeting as a retaliatory move to developments such as i) India, Afghanistan and US trilateral meeting mechanism on Afghanistan, ii) sighing of US and India agreement governing the use of each other’s land, air and naval bases for repair and resupply, iii) demise of Quadrilateral Co-ordination Group (QCG) and iv) detrimental US support for enhanced Indian role in Afghan solution. Though, Pakistan is central to peace and stability in Afghanistan, its does not have the capacity to bring about a government of its liking in Kabul. Also, Pakistan contrary to the US view exercise little influence on Taliban. Pakistan was happy to insist on the meeting to hold it out as a clearing chit that it was not diplomatically isolated as berated by vindictive and hostile Indian Prime Minister. Pakistan was pleased to reiterate that only Afghan led and owned solution would be acceptable.
China has a reason to apprehend the US increasing support and partnership with India. LEMOA, which India signed with US, was a step toward building defense ties apparently aiming to counter the growing maritime rise of China. The agreement, though under played as mundane by US, covers provisions of logistical support, supplies, and services between the US and Indian militaries on a reimbursable basis, and provides a framework to govern it. To this end, the US has agreed to “elevate defence trade and technology sharing with India to a level commensurate with its closest allies and partners”. China was gratified that all the negative signals from Kabul were directed against Pakistan and Russia.
China so far enjoys support from the Afghan Government and is viewed as a friendly country among many of the Taliban factions. What has gone in its favor is that China has avoided taking public stance against Taliban except in general terms condemning extremism and radicalism. Its concerns about military training of Chinese Uighur elements in Afghanistan were ignored, not taken as a hostile act. Both sides initially appreciated Chinese investment and limited role in expanding understanding between the Afghan government and Taliban. Both sides do not trust that China would now be interested to stake its rising prestige at the altar of Afghanistan imbroglio.
The Russian Federation is the most reviled third party. Many of the Pashtuns that fought the Soviets in 80s and 90s believe that reconciliation with the Russians is impossible. Their reaction is exaggerated and militates against the dictates of realpolitik. One wonders, how deep is their Afghan official rage or stress over proactive Russian entry into Afghanistan? In any case, Russia has never left Afghanistan. Its diplomatic and political presence remained formidable even after their withdrawal of Soviet Troops from Kabul in May 1988. It continued to support the Northern alliance during the Taliban era.
Prima facie, Russia is worried that Americans are not in a position to defeat Taliban and other militants. The ISIS is on the rise. The instability driven by religious radicalism is likely to proliferate in the neighborhood of its near abroad. Other immediate threats include continued drug traffic to Russia, sneaking of ISIS elements into any of the Central Asian Republic and subsequently, new recruits in Chechnya and Dagestan. Already, there is evidence that many Russian ISIS members have returned to Russia through Central Asian Republics from Syria.
There is a lurking fear in Moscow that rise in tension in US China relations will force continued US military presence in Afghanistan. In its calculations, US would never forsake its nine military bases in Afghanistan and would keep them operational. The withdrawal of US boots when the Afghan government is failing to enforce its writ would unravel Afghanistan.
Russia, which suffered grievously at the hands of NATO in Ukraine in 2014 and is being blamed by West for actions in Syria, is in no mood to play the US game, especially in its region. Its recent realignment with China, Pakistan and enhanced contact with Taliban are being projected as new challenges that have not been anticipated by US.
It is a fact that after 9/11, Moscow supported the US-led coalition in Afghanistan, which ousted the Taliban and brought back to power elements of the Northern Alliance that Russia had supported. Russia also provided diplomatic and logistical support for a sizable U.S. military presence in its backyard. From 2009 into 2015, Russia served as a supply route for US and NATO forces through what was known as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which lessened Washington’s dependence on Islamabad for the Pakistan-based ground lines of communication into Afghanistan.
Given the deteriorating security situation, in the coming months Russia and US would be seen cooperating in a meaningful ways. This is the only region where they have common interest to defeat Islamic terrorists and annihilate any potential threat to their respective nations. In this game US is prepared to work with Pakistan and China as well. The inconsequential tripartite Moscow meeting is not like to create permanent fissure between Russia and the US. Afghanistan is likely to simmer in rage if Russia is seen blocking Afghan government’s efforts to promote national reconciliation.
Russia would assert itself geopolitically and the incoming Trump Administration will be well prepared to counter the Russia’s newfound assertiveness vis-à-vis Afghanistan, through positive engagement. There will be more pressure from Afghanistan and US on Pakistan to act rather than talk about non-use of its territory against neighbors. Trump may be unpredictable but he has chosen his security team, which possesses the Afghan experience. His administration will be using multiple armory including incentives and more frequent drone attacks, not always limited to tribal areas only.
The author Mian Sanaullah is a former Ambassador, political analyst and Advisor to Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS). He can be reached at email@example.com.