By Syed Qamar Rizvi.
Moscow is holding an Afghan peace moot. But Washington has declined the Russian offer to participate in this conference. The other twelve regional actors are determined to attend this event. An increased Russian involvement in Afghanistan has surprised many observers. While Moscow has invited Washington to the upcoming talks scheduled for mid-April, the optics of the U.S. merely being a participant at a Moscow-led gathering would send a signal of diplomatic weakness in the region. What does Moscow want to achieve in the war-torn country? After Syria, is another US-Russia conflict being played out in a different arena? A new wave of skepticism/propaganda about the Russian perceived objectives in Afghanistan is being blown in the western media.
Lately, Russia has increased its involvement in Afghanistan. For many experts, this is surprising, because Moscow had maintained an apparent distance from the Afghan conflict for many years. In fact, Russia even supported the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the subsequent toppling of the Taliban regime. At the time, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai rightly said that Afghanistan was probably the only place where the interests of Moscow and Washington didn’t clash.
But a new geopolitical situation is emerging in the region, and it seems that Russia has decided not to remain “neutral” in the protracted conflict wracking the Asian country. The recent tripartite meeting in Moscow involving China, Pakistan and Russia to discuss Afghanistan’s security is just one example of Russia’s growing interest.
Russia first established contacts with the Taliban leadership in 2007 to discuss the issue of drug trafficking through Central Asian countries that share borders with Afghanistan. Now there are reports that Moscow is again in contact with the Taliban. But this time the Moscow-Taliban contacts are not limited to talks on drug trafficking, according to analysts. Russia, they say, realizes the US policies in Afghanistan have failed, and therefore wants to intervene.
As Afghanistan has drifted closer to India, Pakistan is seeking to forge closer ties with China and Russia to counter New Delhi’s growing influence in Kabul. India and Afghanistan have been extremely critical of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan. They accuse the Pakistani military and spy agencies of backing Taliban insurgents and destabilizing Afghanistan so that Islamabad can have an upper hand in geopolitics.
Speaking at the sixth Heart of Asia ministerial conference earlier this month, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani urged Pakistani authorities to act against the militants’ sanctuaries in their country’s northwestern tribal areas. Ghani said the $500 million (478 million euros) in aid that Islamabad pledged for the reconstruction of Afghanistan would be better spent on eradicating terrorists that continue to launch attacks in Afghanistan from Pakistani soil.
“We must confront the specter in the room,” Ghani said in the Indian city of Amritsar, referring to what he said was a fresh wave of terrorism and political violence affecting the region. Stanford political scientist Kathryn Stoner says that Russia does not want U.S. military forces to stay in Afghanistan,
“Responses of states on this have been significant, but some states provide sanctuary and tolerate these networks,” Ghani said, adding that a Taliban leader had said recently that if the group did not receive sanctuary in Pakistan, it would not last a month. “Russian leaders point to the fact that heroin trafficking was less under the Taliban than in the past five years under the U.S./NATO coalition,” noted Stoner, adding that narcotics were reaching the Russian population.
Meanwhile, Russia is exploring the possibility of moving additional troops to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as re-equipping those countries’ armies to provide a “defensive zone in Central Asia against Afghan radical or narcotics incursions into the Russian heartland,” according to Stoner.
Islamabad denies allegations that it is not cooperating in the fight against the Taliban. “Pakistan has suffered a lot in the war on terror but Washington blames us for the turmoil in Afghanistan,” Mushahid Ullah Khan, a close aide to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, told DW. “The US has failed to bring peace to Afghanistan, so now we are trying to engage with other regional countries to work for Afghanistan’s stability, which is essential for peace in the entire region.”
According to Andrew Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“I think the Russian government is unlikely, as they say in Russian, step into that river twice. But we are seeing, I think, is a revival of Cold War-style thinking. There was a great interview the other day in TASS, the Russian state news agency, with their main envoy for Afghanistan. And in this interview, Ambassador Kabulov really portrays the entire question of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan in Cold War terms. He talks about how the U.S. used to have these big bases in Iran, we got kicked out of Iran after the revolution. We then seized on Afghanistan as a pivot point to project influence toward the Middle East, toward China, Pakistan and Russia. And he sort of talks about, you know, ‘We lived through the Cold War, we know what this is all about,’ and there’s this really larding it quite darkly in terms of being geopolitical great-gain competition. I think that kind of talk is a reflection of what policy’s all about, which is if they can do things to squeeze out the United States or to make the U.S. lose, that’s gotta be good for Russia. I think that’s a misguided way to think about a problem as complex as Afghanistan, but it clearly holds a lot of sway at senior levels in the Russian government.”
Russia, Pakistan and Iran are working to “legitimize and support” the Taliban in Afghanistan, according to the top U.S. military commander in the war zone, who told lawmakers Thursday that thousands more American or NATO troops are needed to break the “stalemate” between Afghan forces and the insurgent group while the Islamic State also remains active in the nation.
Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr. told the Senate Armed Services Committee that outside powers led by Russia have increased their interference in the Afghanistan fighting over the past year, greatly complicating the task for the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.
The general offered a sobering assessment of the 15-year-old U.S. mission in Afghanistan at a moment of growing uncertainty over how the Trump administration may seek to reshape U.S. strategy in the conflict.
President Trump so far has focused heavily on fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. He has mandated that a fresh plan be developed within 30 days to defeat the terrorist group but has said little about Afghanistan despite the ongoing battle against a defiant Islamic State affiliate there and a growing surge by the Taliban. Some people believe that Russia has started supplying the Taliban with weapons and equipment, and repairing the group’s weapons, including tanks and vehicles.
According to Russian officials these reports are false.
On Feb. 10, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed allegations by General John Nicholson, Commander of the U.S. and NATO Forces in Afghanistan, of Russian supplies of weapons to Taliban.
There is no doubt, that Russia needs a communication channel with the Taliban and other armed groups inside Afghanistan. The release of its pilots from the Taliban’s captivity explains that the main role for this channel is to help Russian citizens.
As for the Russian common interests and dialogue with Taliban, these possibilities will remain cloudy due to the Taliban inability to stop both terrorist activities inside Afghanistan and neighboring countries and involvement in drug production and trafficking.
If the relations between Russia and the United Sates improve, Moscow will most likely keep the communication channel with the Taliban open, but it will not raise questions about common interests with the movement. If the U.S.-Russian relations go bad, Moscow will probably try to challenge every part of U.S. policy towards Afghanistan, and Russian statements about the Taliban will be used for this purpose.
But the fact of the matter is that US own policy failures in Afghanistan have paved the way for other regional actors, particularly Russia to take on its prescribed policy interest to meddle in the Afghan politics, thereby defending its own geostrategic peace concerns and trying to infuse its own leverage in the Taliban network without whom the future stakes of peace cannot meet with prompt results. And it would be not wrong to estimate that a negatively woven India-US-Afghan policy has made a closer union between Turkey-Iran-China-Russia and Pakistan.