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April 9, 2017



The return of Russia

The return of Russia

Afghanistan is emerging as a new theatre of the US-Russia power struggle, with Moscow’s return to the conflict-ridden country after an aloofness of almost three decades.

Buoyed by the success of its military diplomacy in Syria and Ukraine, Russia is now overtly asserting itself in Afghanistan. In 2001, Russia supported the US intervention in Afghanistan. From 2009 to 2015, Russia also provided diplomatic and logistical support to US military presence in Afghanistan. However, over the last two years, Moscow has been a vocal critic of US and Nato policies in Afghanistan. It firmly believes the Western polices in Afghanistan have failed.

Taking advantage of the geopolitical opening created by the fleeting US foreign policy and the drawdown of Western forces from Afghanistan in 2014, Moscow is trying to outflank Washington in Afghanistan. This marks a significant shift in Russia’s traditional Afghan policy of neutrality.

Russia will be holding the third meeting of its Afghan initiative on April 14. The stage for these talks was set in December 2016 when Moscow hosted a trilateral dialogue with Islamabad and Beijing. Another round of consultations with six countries – Russia, China, Pakistan, India, Iran and Afghanistan – was held in Moscow on February 15. In both meetings, Nato  and the US were not invited. Russia invited the US for the April talks, which was refused by the latter. 

The US refusal to participate in the April 14 meeting indicates its growing discomfort with Russia’s Afghan overtures. The new US administration considers it to be a direct interference in Afghanistan. This will potentially give birth to new geopolitical rivalries and further complicate the existing ones. Broadly, this will split the region into two rival political blocs of local and global powers: Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and the Central Asian States and the US, India, Nato and Afghanistan.

A number of factors have motivated the growing Russian involvement in Afghanistan. First, amid the transitioning global world order – with the rise of China and the weakening US influence – Russia is positioning itself to expand its influence in South Asia and Central Asia. Second, it has stabilised its strategic backyard to export energy to South Asian markets, following sanctions imposed by the West. Third, it has found new customers for its military industrial complex. Finally, it has integrated itself with China’s ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR) project by improving its connectivity with the region.

Russian and the US have divergent outlooks of the situation in Afghanistan. Russia views the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK) – the regional affiliate of the IS in the Af-Pak region – as the major regional security threat. On the other hand, America and its Nato allies view the Afghan Taliban as the major actors of instability in Afghanistan.

Moscow maintains that its ties with the Taliban are limited to peace negotiations and countering the ISK’s influence. On the contrary, Washington believes Russia-Taliban contacts aim to undermine the US and Nato mission in Afghanistan. The former advocates a flexible approach towards the Taliban while the latter upholds the renunciation of violence, the delinking of the Taliban’s ties with Al-Qaeda and the recognition of the Afghan constitution and government as nonnegotiable preconditions for peace talks.

Moreover, Russia views the US proposal of a moderate troop surge and increased military spending in Afghanistan as the recipe for more war and destabilisation. On the other hand, the US military commander in Afghanistan General John Nicolson considers support of the Afghan Taliban by Russia, Iran and Pakistan as the major source of instability in Afghanistan.

In addition, Russia alleges that the US forces have not done enough to check the rise and expansion of the ISK in Afghanistan. Moscow views the growing presence of the ISK fighters in Afghanistan’s northern provinces near the Central Asian States with suspicion. It alleges that the US is using the ISK as a proxy in Afghanistan. However, the US rejects such allegations, pointing out that 15 top commanders of ISK – including its amir Hafiz Saeed Khan Orakzai – have been killed in US drone strikes and the territorial footprint of the group has been reduced from nine to three districts in Afghanistan.

Such divergent and opposing outlooks of the Afghan conflict, even before a formal dialogue process begins, appear to be ominous. It will complicate the regional geopolitics turning Afghanistan into a battleground for proxy wars. The inclusion of the Russian competition with the US and Nato, in addition, to ongoing power games between India and Pakistan as well as Iran and Saudi Arabia will work to the advantage of the militant groups in Afghanistan.

American and Nato’s financial assistance bankroll the Afghan economy and their military presence in Afghanistan has ensured the survival of the National Unity Government (NUG). Without including the US, a durable and realistic solution to the Afghan conflict appears to be difficult. At the same time, continued US military presence without a realistic and flexible political solution will further destabilise Afghanistan. When 150,000 US and Nato troops in Afghanistan could not break the deadlock of the Afghan conflict, a meagre increase of 3,000 to 4,000 troops will not make any difference per se.

Alarmingly, the failure of the US and Russia to reconcile their differences on Afghanistan can potentially turn Afghanistan into another Syria which will negatively affect regional and global peace. The Russian (ISK’s presence) and the US (Al-Qaeda and Taliban links) concerns are best addressed if both sides cooperate instead of compete with one another.

If history serves as a useful guide, all major initiatives which have been taken so far to broker a ceasefire agreement between Kabul and the Taliban have failed. The fate of the Russian peace initiative does not seem to be an exception this rule. In 2013, the US-led initiatives, known as the Qatar process, crashed after the Taliban hoisted their official flag and plaque ahead of the talks in Doha. The then US administration and the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai rejected the move and pulled out of negotiations. 

After a gap of two years, another effort was made to revive the peace talks in 2015, under the Quadrilateral Coordination Group – which comprises of US, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The QCG talks came to a screeching halt in mid-2015 with the disclosure of Taliban’s founding leader Mullah Umar’s death. In early 2016, another effort was under way to rekindle the QCG dialogue, when the US killed the new Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a drone attack in Balochistan and dashed hopes of restarting the peace talks.

Notwithstanding the divergent US and Russian outlooks of the Afghan war, the core dispute remains the discord between the Taliban and the NUG. The US presence in Afghanistan, the regional state’s interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs and the rise of opportunistic groups like the ISK are irritants and by-products of the lingering conflict. If a political compromise between Kabul and Taliban is reached, it is easy to tackle the irritants.  

Pakistan – which has suffered because of the unrest in Afghanistan – and China should play the role of a mediator instead of taking sides in this emerging geopolitical situation. The regional and global powers need to take a bipartisan view of the situation in Afghanistan. Reviving the QCG process and expanding it to include Russia and India offers the most viable diplomatic framework to end the war in Afghanistan.

The writer is an associate research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies,

Email: isabasit@ntu.edu.sg