Afghanistan’s political and security landscape is like a kaleidoscope that changes every few years. Currently, we are witnessing new alignment of forces taking shape as major global and regional powers assert to retain their foothold in this war-stricken country. At the same time, neighbouring countries are taking measures to prevent any negative fallout of Afghanistan’s increasing turbulence on their borders.
Recently, Russia hosted a conference on Afghanistan in which apart from China, Pakistan and India seven more countries mostly from Central Asia participated. The US was also invited but declined to attend and considered it as a challenge to its current monopoly of power in the Pak- Afghan region. US State Department spokesman Mark Toner clarifying the US decision to stay out remarked: “It seemed to be a unilateral attempt to assert influence in the region that we felt wasn’t constructive at this time”. It is clear that Russia’s engagement with the Taliban is annoying Washington. The Chinese, too, are talking to the Taliban leadership that adds to US dilemma. Moscow and Beijing apparently have come to this conclusion that the Taliban are a reality and cannot be bypassed. Moreover, developing contacts with the Taliban is supposed to assist in countering the threat of Dai’sh in their countries. But the American’s view this policy shift by Russia as a ploy to create difficulties for them in Afghanistan. Although President Putin has refuted this allegation, American contention may well be partly true considering the present state of relations.
The Russian official position is that they are promoting a peaceful transition in Afghanistan. This was reflected in the communiqué at the recent Moscow multi-nation conference on Afghanistan that stated all parties abandon the militaristic approach and fend for a peaceful resolution of their differences. The Taliban leadership in particular was addressed to abandon hostilities and engage in dialogue and a negotiated settlement. The Afghan government and the Taliban working out a political understanding is acquiring greater urgency in the wake of the emerging threat of the Islamic State to Afghanistan and the region. Both the Russian and Chinese are highlighting this dangerous development and want the two adversaries to grasp this reality. The Islamic State poses a common threat to the Afghan government and the Taliban and their infighting is indirectly helping it to gain strength. The Islamic State is believed to be making inroads into the adjoining Muslim-populated regions of Russia and China and continuous turmoil in Afghanistan would further strengthen the IS.
The US has a viewpoint different from the Russians on the Islamic State. Washington maintains that the Taliban poses the primary threat to Afghanistan and the IS is less of a threat and manageable at this stage. Intelligence estimates of Russia and the US regarding the IS presence in Afghanistan vary considerably.
Recent Russian and Chinese engagement with the Taliban has several dimensions. It is meant to counter the IS because that is the major threat to the Muslim-majority region of the Russian Republic. The US, however, gives a more malicious dimension to Russian contacts with the Taliban. It is their view that the Russians are planning to use the Taliban as a proxy against them in Afghanistan. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 is not recognised by the US and relations between them have since deteriorated to an extent that Nato forces were moved close to Ukraine.
Putin wants to engage with the Taliban as a counter to increase Russia’s influence in Afghanistan. Moreover, Russia maintains that being geographically close to Afghanistan it has greater right to shape policy on the region than an outside power as the US. This premise, however, will not reduce the influence of the US from pursuing its current agenda or diminish its utility for the Afghan government in anyway.
It is possible this development could strengthen the belief among Pakistani decision-makers, especially the defence establishment, that the policy of supporting and maintaining influence with the Taliban has after all been vindicated. The fact that major countries of the region — Russia and China, now realise the need to maintain contact with the Taliban is a proof of it. There is clearly merit in remaining engaged with the Afghan Taliban. But we have to be equally mindful of the adverse consequences of cultivating them on the internal security situation and its adverse fallout on our relations with the Afghan government. Besides, Russia’s support of the Taliban is a transitory phenomenon and short-term tactic of using them against the IS to counter their power. It can also be used by Russia to create problems for the US in Afghanistan in case Washington takes an aggressive policy stance towards it. More to the point, the Taliban pose no serious threat to Russia. The Taliban have no regional or global ambitions either. Their primary goal is to capture power in Afghanistan and their main adversary is the current ruling coalition in Afghanistan and the Americans who are their main backers. From the Taliban’s perspective any militant organisation such as the IS competing for power poses a serious threat and has to be neutralised. In the coming months the Taliban have declared to intensify the insurgency. They are unlikely to heed to Russian and Chinese advice to enter into negotiations.
For Pakistan, the situation poses a fresh challenge. Its policy in the past of supporting the Afghan Taliban gave rise to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Further successes of the Taliban in Afghanistan will give a huge boost to the TTP and may motivate them to step up their insurgency in Pakistan from sanctuaries inside Afghanistan.
In these circumstances Pakistan’s options are limited. Nevertheless, it must take several measures to protect its interests. Its plan of strengthening border posts by fencing, improved management and closer coordination with Afghan authorities should continue. It must use its influence and maintain pressure on the Taliban to engage in talks with the Afghan government to seek a political settlement. It should stay away from the current geopolitics of the US and Russia and work towards building a consensus on Afghanistan by all interested powers.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 18th, 2017.