Afghanistan is emerging as a new theatre of US-Russia power-struggle, with Moscow’s return to the conflict-ridden country after almost three decades. Buoyed by its strategic incursion in Crimea and the success of its military diplomacy in Syria, 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 the US military presence in Afghanistan. However, in the last two years, Moscow has been a vocal critic of US and NATO policies in Afghanistan. It believes Western policies in Afghanistan have failed.
Taking advantage of the geopolitical opening created by 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’s Afghan Initiative
Russia will be holding the third meeting of its Afghan initiative on April 14, 2017. The stage for these talks was set in December 2016 when Moscow hosted a trilateral dialogue with Islamabad and Beijing. Another round of consultations, comprising six nations including Russia, China, Pakistan, India, Iran, and Afghanistan was held in Moscow on February 15, 2017. In both meetings, NATO and the US were not invited. Russia invited the US for the April talks, which the latter has refused.
The US refusal to participate in the April 14 meeting indicates growing American discomfort with Russia’s Afghan overtures. The new US administration considers it to be direct interference in Afghanistan. This will potentially give birth to new geopolitical rivalries along with further complicating existing ones. Broadly, this will split the region into two rival political blocs of local and global powers: Russia-China-Iran-Pakistan-Central Asian States and US-India-NATO-Afghanistan.
A number of factors motivate the growing Russian involvement in Afghanistan. First, amidst 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, following sanctions from the West, Russia seeks to stabilize its strategic backyard to export energy to South Asian markets. Third, Russia seeks new customers for its military industrial complex. Finally, Russia seeks to integrate itself with China’s ambitious, One Belt One Road (OBOR) project by improving its connectivity with the region.
US-Russian Divergences on Afghanistan
Russia and the US have divergent outlooks on the situation in Afghanistan. Russia views the Islamic State of Khurasan (ISK), the regional affiliate of IS in the Af-Pak region, as the major regional security threat. The declaration of the first Moscow meeting expressed concern about the rising activities of ISK in Afghanistan. On the contrary, America and its NATO allies view the Afghan Taliban as the major actor of instability in Afghanistan.
Moscow maintains that its ties with the Taliban are limited to peace negotiations and countering 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 considers renunciation of violence, the delinking of the Taliban’s ties with Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban’s recognition of the Afghan constitution and government, as non-negotiable pre-conditions for peace talks.
Russia alleges that US forces have not done enough to check the rise and expansion of ISK in Afghanistan.
Russia moreover views the American proposal for a moderate troop surge and increased military spending in Afghanistan as recipe for more war and destabilization. On the other hand, the US military commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicolson, considers support for the Afghan Taliban by Russia, Iran, and Pakistan as the major source of instability in Afghanistan.
In addition, Russia alleges that US forces have not done enough to check the rise and expansion of ISK in Afghanistan. Moscow views the growing presence of ISK fighters in Afghanistan’s northern provinces near the Central Asian states with suspicion. It alleges that the US is using ISK as a proxy in Afghanistan. On the contrary, the US rejects such allegations, pointing out that 15 top commanders of ISK, including its emir Hafiz Saeed Khan Orakzai, have been killed in US drone strikes, and that the territorial footprint of the terrorist group has been reduced from nine to three districts in Afghanistan.
New and Old Geopolitical Rivalries
Such divergent and opposing outlooks on the Afghan conflict, even before the start of a formal dialogue process, is ominous. It will complicate regional geopolitics and turn Afghanistan into a battleground for proxy wars. Russian competition with the US and NATO, in addition to the ongoing power-games between India and Pakistan as well as Iran and Saudi Arabia, will work to the advantage of militant groups in Afghanistan.
America’s 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 US involvement, a durable and realistic solution of the Afghan conflict looks difficult. At the same time, continued US military presence without an exploration of a realistic and flexible political solution will further destabilize Afghanistan. Arguably, when 150,000 US and NATO troops in Afghanistan are not able to break the deadlock of the Afghan conflict, a meagre increase of 3,000 to 4,000 troops will not make any difference.
The failure of the US and Russia to reconcile their differences on Afghanistan can potentially turn Afghanistan into another Syria which will negatively affect the regional and global peace. Russian (ISK’s presence) and American (Al-Qaeda and Taliban links) concerns are best addressed if the two sides cooperate instead of compete with each other.
Previous Peace Initiatives
So far, all the major initiatives to broker a ceasefire agreement between Kabul and the Taliban have failed. The Russian peace initiative does not seem like it will be an exception. In 2013, the US-led initiative 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 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 (QCG) comprising the 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 underway to rekindle the QCG dialogue when the US killed the new Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Masnoor in a drone attack in Pakistan’s Balochistan province and dashed hopes of restarting the peace talks.
The Way Forward
Notwithstanding the divergent US and Russian outlooks on the Afghan war, the core dispute remains the discord between the Taliban and the NUG. The US presence in Afghanistan, regional states’ interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, and the rise of opportunistic groups like ISK are irritants and by-products of the lingering conflict. If a political compromise between Kabul and the Taliban is reached, it will be easy to tackle the irritants.
Pakistan, which has suffered the most because of the unrest in Afghanistan, along with China, should play a bridging role 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.