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

Moscow’s Step disturbs Kabul, New Delhi

Saturday 25 March 2017, by Apratim Mukarji

The six-nation conference on Afghanistan’s security future held in Moscow on February 15 has brought about considerable disquiet in the two participating capitals, Kabul and New Delhi. Since the conference wason Afghanistan, Kabul would have been concerned in any way but the objectives, deliberations, and indications of further action have induced Afghanistan and India to be watchful about what the future may unfold. This reaction of two of the participants—and the former being the very subject of discussion—would have been surprising in normal circumstances. But then, why this strong sense of disquiet?

There are two major features of the conference that have made governments sit up not just in Afghanistan and India but elsewhere as well. One is Moscow’s tacit declaration that it is occupying the central role—played so long by Washington—in helping shape the future of Afghanistan, a country it had abandoned way back in 1989 following the withdrawal of the Soviet occupation force after a ten-year fruitless war with the Mujahideen. In-between, it was the United States, initially headed by President JimmyCarter and then by Presidents Ronald Reagan, G.H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, which determined the way Afghanistan was handled on the world stage. With the Donald Trump presidency sending what are at best described as ‘confusing’ signals, the international leadership role in the south-central Asian country seems to have suddenly fallen vacant. At least, that appears tobe the view in President Vladimir Putin’s government.

Judging by media reports, the Afghanistan-India opposition to the planned participation of the Afghan Taliban in future negotiations seems to have discounted Russia’s projection that an insecure Afghanistan would be a fertile ground for the Islamic State (IS) and that the Taliban (with whom Moscow had first come in contact way back in 2007) should, therefore, be encouraged to move closer to the regional powers in order to build an effective bulwark against the IS. Both Kabul and New Delhi clearly dispute this reading and continue to believe strongly that the Taliban are a very potent destabilising force as proved over the last decade and more. They also believe, as do western diplomats and analysts, that the Taliban are being encouraged by Russia which will prove to be a big mistake and encourage the terrorist group to oppose the Afghan state much more stridently.

The first signs of a major South Asia policy departure by Moscow, however, were available when the Russian Government initiated a move to draw Pakistan out of the United States’ orbit. This process itself began with the Obama Administration growing increasingly critical of Islamabad’s intimate and enduring relationship with not just the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban forces (until the latter turned into a deadly enemy of the state) but also with a plethora of Islamic jihadigroups active in both Afghanistan and India apart from within the Pakistani territory itself.In fact, US-Pakistan relations nosedived when American forces ambushed the fugitive Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad near the Pakistani capital Islamabad, thus exposing the Pakistani lie about its ignorance of the Al-Qaeda leader’s clandestine presence in its territory. On its part, Pakistan had over the last few decades come to depend much more on its ‘all-weather’ friendship with China than on its traditional relationship with the United States. China, on its part, had long selected Pakistan as its main ally in the south-central Asian region and formulated policies to augment and strengthen the relationship.

All these factors have now come into full play with Russia, China and Pakistan moving in unison in shaping Afghanistan’s security future. If Russia’s strategy is to replace the United States in presiding over Afghanistan’s future, China is in the country in a fast-growing role as well, and since both the world powers are demonstrably on the side of Pakistan which has striven all along to cement its primacy in the pivotal Afghanistan, Pakistan too appears to be much more confident than before about its continuing importance in the country’s future.

The sharply contrary views presented by Kabul and New Delhi on the one hand and that of the host nation along with Beijing’s and Islamabad’s on the other hand at the Moscow conference thus indicate a new turn in Afgha-nistan’s chequered history. The points of contention are two: Are the Taliban a curse—the main destabilising force—and should, therefore, be neutralised or are they a ‘legitimate stakeholder’ and should therefore be an equal partner in any future settlement on Afghanistan? Secondly, is Pakistan a problem (for sheltering the Taliban in its territory) or a facilitator in any such settlement? The sixth participant, Iran, has its own set of interests in Afghanistan and was over the years on the side of Russia and India in opposing the Taliban and Pakistan but is now more focused on exploiting the new opportunities being brought in the region by the ongoing implementation of China’s One Belt One Road initiative a very important part of which is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Tehran, therefore, is hedging its bets and waits patiently to weigh in its options. As in all probability Washington-Tehran relations would deteriorate and the latter must cultivate and enlarge its alternatives, Iran is likely to move closer to China and Pakistan apart from Russia. Tehran and New Delhi, on the other hand, are likely to move away from their hitherto warm political and economic relations as the latter grows closer to Washington.

Kabul and New Delhi appear to be especially disturbed by Moscow’s wholesale acceptance of Islamabad’s vocabulary in respect of the Taliban. This was rather tellingly articulated by Afghanis-tan’s representative, M. Ashraf Haidari, a Foreign Ministry official, who was quoted saying at the conference: ‘The key challenge to the process remains a policy selectivity by some to distin-guish between good and bad terrorists, even though terrorism is a common threat that con-fronts the whole region, where if one of us doesn’t stand firm against it, others’ counter-terrorism efforts will not bear the results we all seek.’

That Russia has embarked upon executinga well-planned script into the Afghanistan question is evident from its proposal at the February 15 conference that ‘regional efforts’ should be expanded by involving at the next stage the ‘potential of other countries, primarily from Central Asia’, to quote a Foreign Ministry statement reported by Russia’s Interfax news agency. It wants stability and cooperation to fight extremist groups, including the Islamic State (IS), which is gaining ground in Central Asia. Responding to Afghanistan’s and India’s opposition to the Russian plan to invite the Taliban to future exercises, Russia said that it was talking to the terrorist group ‘to undermine their efforts’.

By taking this stand, Moscow has clearly decided to ignore the previous experiences of the United States-led efforts to similarly rope in the Taliban as an equally responsible entity in future negotiations between Kabul and Islamabad, which was essentially a Pakistani move to enhance the terrorist group’s acceptability in international affairs and eventually facilitating their partici-pation in negotiations with the Afghan Govern-ment on an equal footing. Every such effort failed as the Taliban kept on sending confusing signals and interspersing the preliminary talks with major attacks inside Afghanistan. Kabul was forced eventually to give up on such exercises; both Presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani ultimately owning up the futility of this approach.

Without destabilising its traditional relations with India, Moscow has also been cultivating Islamabad in modest measures, a direction very much welcomed by Pakistan which saw this development as a potential means of weakening its arch-rival, India. Ever since last year, the Russian Government has deliberately moved to counter-balance the fast-growing US-India relationship by forging closer ties with Pakistan. Seen exclusively from the point of view of a maturing counter-US alliance of Russia and China, and by virtue of the Sino-Pakistan ‘all-weather’ friendship, it is but natural that Pakistan has moved over smoothly into its orbit.The surprisingly swift shift of a one-time military ally of the United States to the enemy camp is also an indication that the Russia-Pakistan relationship is no longer beholden to the much older and comprehensive Russia-India relationship. When in an unprecedented move last year the Russian and Pakistani armies held a joint exercise and India protested vehemently, it was summarily dismissed. Besides, the unsettling conditions in Afghanistan apparentlycontinue to worry Russia, which by seeking the Taliban to be on its side hopes to create a zone of comfort in the region. Once the declared Russian intention to join its initiative Eurasian Economic Union project with the CPEC comes to fruition, economic, political and strategic cooperation among Russia,China and Pakistan will be further strengthened.

Unlike Russia, which clearly seeks to play the role of the main global power in determining the future of Afghanistan, China’s interests stem principally from its overriding security concerns in the western-most province of Xinjiang which has been witnessing a simmering Uighur rebellion despite an enormous regime of repression on the indigenous population. The very fact that even though the first officially documented Uighur rebel was killed in a battle in northern Afghanistan way back in 1997 and that despite hundreds of summary executions and other forms of state repression, the rebellion continues implies China’s predicament. By befriending both the Afghanistan state and the Taliban, Beijing apparently seeks to draw the optimal benefit out of such an association.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s fabulous mineral riches (with more minerals being discovered by explorations) continue to remain to be exploited, and each new and old player in the country is making moves desired to enrich them eventually.

Apratim Mukarji, a former Senior Fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi, is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs. He is also the author of Afghanistan: From Terror to Freedom (New Delhi, 2003).