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Mainstream, VOL LV No 14 New Delhi March 25, 2017

Pakistan in flap over Russia’s Afghan Moves

Saturday 25 March 2017, by M K Bhadrakumar

Pakistan is finding itself between the rock and a hard place with the announcement by the Russian Foreign Ministry on March 10, 2017 that the Afghan National Security Advisor, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, was heading for Moscow for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on March 17. The Russian announcement said that the two officials will discuss “the security situation and prospects for promoting national reconciliation in Afgha-nistan, as well as ways to develop multilateral cooperation within the Moscow format of regional consultations on Afghanistan”.

Plainly put, the talks aim at firming up Russian support for the Afghan armed forces (following up on Afghan FM Salahuddin Rabbani’s talks with Lavrov in Moscow last month) while also exploring the prospects for the intra-Afghan reconciliation process within the regional format the Russians initiated in recent months.

Curiously, within hours of the March 10 announcement in Moscow, Russia’s acting envoy to the United Nations Vladimir Safronkov also said in the Security Council in the course of a discussion on Afghanistan: “At its (regional format’s) next stage we think it will be important to, in a timely fashion, involve in that same process our Central Asian partners as well as the United States.”

Clearly, Russia is anxious to work with the US on the Afghan problem and would have already begun sounding out Washington. However, there is an influential “war lobby” in the US, which sees the Afghan war through the military prism. Two vocal figures belonging to that lobby, Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, wrote an opinion-piece in the weekend in Washington Post plugging the line that the US should focus on intensifying its military role in Afghanistan. The tenor of their argument is as follows:

“Unfortunately, in recent years, we (Obama Administration) have tied the hands of our military in Afghanistan. Instead of trying to win, we have settled for just trying not to lose. Time and time again, we saw troop withdrawals that seemed to have more to do with US politics than conditions on the ground. The fixation with ‘force management levels’ in Afghanistan, as well as in Iraq and Syria, seemed more about measuring troop counts than measuring success... Weary as some Americans may be of this long conflict, it is imperative that we see our mission through to success.”

The two hawkish Senators believe that the US should revert to a “holistic approach” toward relations with Pakistan—an approach that works toward harmonising the interests and objectives of the Pentagon with the Pakistani military’s, based on the premise that the latter needs to be “incentivised” to cooperate with the US’ war effort. Essentially, their revisionist thinking harks back to the George W. Bush era when Pakistan used to be a “key non-NATO ally”. Pakistan of course will be delighted if the gravy train begins running again.

Now, it is at a most delicate juncture that Russians and Afghans are jumping the gun. Some Pakistani sniping toward Moscow may already have begun for the latter acting as a “spoiler” just when things appeared to be looking up. A report on March 14 in the Pakistani media cited “sources” in Islamabad alleging that Russians may try to bring the Afghan Government and Taliban together.

Indeed, if the Russians get into the play, it can only be a matter of time before the Taliban slip out of Pakistan’s exclusive orbit. The Pakistani military would have reason to worry about the “Syrian analogy”, where Russia quietly began establishing behind-the-scenes channels of communication directly with the field commanders of rebel groups (who were operating until then as the proxies of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, etc.) and over time weaned them away from the warpath toward the reconciliation in Astana, leaving in the lurch their political bosses who are living up in exile in Istanbul or Doha in five-star comfort.

Interestingly, the Pakistani report says that the “Taliban’s representatives in Qatar declined to comment about this development”. It’s a subtle hint that the Taliban and Pakistani military are joined at the hips and as long as the Haqqani Network is held on a tight leash from Rawalpindi, all roads to the Taliban must eventually have to run through Pakistan.

Indeed, the Pakistani press report shows some degree of irritation toward Russia for getting Atmar across for talks in Moscow on March 17 to discuss Russian-Afghan security cooperation and Afghan reconciliation. (Atmar recently visited New Delhi too.)

Conceivably, Moscow would have figured out by now the source who could be master-minding the disinformation campaign over an alleged Russia-Taliban nexus. The Russian Foreign Ministry did some plain-speaking on the topic on March 10, without mincing words. (Sputnik)

The Pakistani military would have preferred to work exclusively with the Pentagon as its soul-mate in the period ahead, but Trump is, alas, in no hurry to jump into the dalliance, and, in the meanwhile, the Russian action plan can only create space for Kabul to negotiate harder with Islamabad. Too many cooks spoil the broth, as the saying goes.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).