Islamic State’s presence in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan is a source of concern not just to Pakistan, but to countries as far as Russia and China. This presence has the potential to wreak havoc in the region, and thus the renewed interest of regional powers.
Islamic State has proved its growing power with deadly attacks in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan. The organization is already in cahoots with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, along with the extending its alliance with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and militants from China and Central Asian Republics (CARs).
With Afghanistan providing a conducive environment for Islamic State to grow, stakeholders have decided to come together to address the growing menace before it is too late. In this regard, Russia will be hosting a 12-party conference this month with the aim to start peace talks between Afghan Taliban and the Kabul government.
Even though the US has turned down the invitation to attend on the pretext that Washington was not consulted in advance, representatives from Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Iran, India and several CARs will attend the consultative meeting in Moscow. Participation of Afghan Taliban is uncertain at the moment but they have shown willingness to talk to Kabul.
Russia is concerned about Islamic State’s growth in Afghanistan due to its proximity to CARs. Russian envoys at the UN and in Kabul have expressed their fears in this connection several times; Moscow maintains the militant group has regional ambitions. Moscow also fears that any spillover effects from the IS could have serious regional implications.
Also, the withdrawal of Nato forces from Afghanistan and confusing US policy for the country has created a power vacuum in Afghanistan which Russia is interested in filling to avoid turmoil in its immediate neighbourhood. Any instability in Afghanistan would affect Central Asia, which would in turn affect Russia in the short and long run – considering Russia’s significant number of Muslim population.
China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation Program are two projects that Russia is keen to be a part of, both of which need a stable Afghanistan to work. Drug trafficking into Russia through Central Asian countries that share borders with Afghanistan is another major worry for Moscow. Afghanistan supplies 90 per cent of the global opiate stock and producers target Russia as one of the largest markets in the world.
Any efforts to establish peace in the region face a major hurdle of trust-building among major stakeholders, especially Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. Mistrust and differences between regional and international players are not only delaying establishment of peace in the region but also fuelling terrorism.
Such mistrust and suspicion between the players is no secret – Pakistan, Afghanistan and India blame each other for destabilising their countries while Russia accuses the US of supporting Islamic State in Afghanistan and Washington claims Moscow is supporting the Taliban. In this atmosphere of finger-pointing, it is important for all concerned countries to come together, address each other’s concerns and chalk out a coordinated plan for peace which reconciles everyone’s strategic and tactical goals. The ideal outcome of the upcoming Moscow conference would be to unify international support and create an environment to promote the Afghan peace process, along with establishing some sort of a trust between regional countries.
Fortunately, the signals for talks from both Kabul and the Taliban are also positive. The Kabul-Taliban peace talks were stalled soon after the death of Mullah Omar in 2015. Furthermore, Pakistan and Afghanistan have already held talks in London agreeing over the mechanism for addressing each other’s security concerns, along with establishing effective border controls. It is also perceived even with a lot of concern pointed towards Russia, Washington is likely to come on board.
Moscow still faces an uphill task of bring India and Pakistan closer. Even though the last two meetings in Moscow in some way reduced differences between the two countries over the peace process in Afghanistan, certain long-standing issues such as Kashmir are still an irritant. Tehran, Moscow, Beijing and Washington need to play their role in reducing tensions between India and Pakistan, or else long term regional peace would be a distant proposition.
Imdad Hussain is an Islamabad-based journalist specialising in diplomatic and security issues.