Geopolitics

Russia’s Pakistan Epiphany
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 12 Mar , 2017

The terrorist attack on Sardar Daud military hospital in Kabul on March 8, killing over 30 and injuring 50 plus underscores the worsening security situation in Afghanistan. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility. Taliban has denied involvement but that may not be the true story.

Russia has opened the new chapter in the ‘Great Game’ in the Af-Pak region by siding with the Taliban, same as Iran, even as opium production in Afghanistan (major source of funding for the ISI) rose 43% from 2015 levels.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) Report for 2016 released February 6, 2017 brings out that 2016 saw the highest ever number of civilian casualties in a single year; 11,418 conflict-related civilian casualties, including 3,498 killed and 7,920 injured (3,512 children – 923 dead and 2,589 injured). It also brings out anti-government forces (mainly the Taliban) responsible for almost two thirds of the casualties, and; majority of the casualties caused by Daesh/ISKP occurred in three large-scale attacks on the Shia Muslim community.

Highlights of UNAMA report of July 2016 included: 5,166 people killed / maimed in Afghanistan (Jan to June 2016); civilian casualties in Afghanistan (Jan 2009 – 30 Jun 2016) 64,000 (23000 killed, 41,000 injured) – “conservative” estimates; and majority casualties caused by the anti-Afghan government forces – Taliban and  organized armed groups including Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-i-Mohammed (JeM), Haqqani Network, Hezb-e-Islami, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Jihad Union, groups identified as ‘Daesh’ (IS) and other militia and armed groups. This was the first time names of Pakistani proxies LeT and JeM appeared. Later was confirmed that Pakistan based Laskar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Sipah-i-Sahiba were also operating in Afghanistan.

As per the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report presented to the US Congress in February 2017, Afghan government had 57.2% of the country under its control by the end of 2016 — a 6.3% decrease from 2015 albeit officials in Kabul and the US administration both been denying that the Taliban is gaining ground.

The SIGAR report corroborates those reports noting that Kabul now exerts influence over just a little over half of Afghanistan. The SIGAR report also notes displacement is at an all time high; in 2016, 583,000 people fled their homes due to conflict – highest number of displacements since record keeping started in 2008.

China has been hosting Taliban for consultations and so has Russia. Russia has even indicated it will activate the airbase in Tajikistan that had been renovated by India.

In December 2016, General John Nicholson, top US commander in Afghanistan, had stated that of the 98 US-designated terrorist groups globally, 20 are in the Af-Pak region, which represents the highest concentration of terrorist groups anywhere in the world. The Islamic State of Khorasan (ISKP) was reported to be having a number around 1000. It is no secret that the Taliban are fully supported by Pakistan and China, Pakistan’s ISI having lien on both Taliban through Sirajuddin Haqqani, chief of Haqqani Network) while the ISKP is linked to the ISI.

It is in the above setting that Russia has opened the new chapter in the ‘Great Game’ in the Af-Pak region by siding with the Taliban, same as Iran, even as opium production in Afghanistan (major source of funding for the ISI) rose 43% from 2015 levels.

With  Chinese patrols filmed deep inside Eastern Afghanistan, China has deflected the issue, in line with its policy of ambiguity and deceit, that it has been undertaking joint counter-terrorism exercises with Afghan security forces. However, the photographs showing only Chinese vehicles and no Afghan vehicles prove the Chinese lies.

China has been hosting Taliban for consultations and so has Russia. Russia has even indicated it will activate the airbase in Tajikistan that had been renovated by India.  Russia finally invited India to the six-nation talks at Moscow on February 15; Iran, Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Russia being the other countries that were to participate in the consultations. What transpired at the meeting is not known but bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table would be herculean task.

Pakistan is blaming Afghanistan for the situation in Af-Pak despite all the human tragedy that Pakistan has wreaked upon the Afghan population.

Earlier on December 27, 2016, Russia had hosted a similar trilateral meeting (Russia, China, Pakistan) but notably no representative of the Afghan government as well as India was invited then to deliberate on the future of Afghanistan.  Now in late February, Afghanistan has invited India to join a new regional consultative mechanism to weigh in on the critical challenges facing the war-torn country.

The new body, a 6+1 group, will include India, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, the US and China in addition to Afghanistan. Incidentally the erstwhile Quadrilateral Consultation Group (QCG) comprising US, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan, met yet again in Kabul last month but the prospects of reconciliation with Taliban remain slim. But ultimately, success of multilateral consultation groupings, whether on Syria or Afghanistan, depends on the sincerity of the members. In the instant case, the sincerity of both China and Pakistan are highly suspect.

Pakistan is blaming Afghanistan for the situation in Af-Pak despite all the human tragedy that Pakistan has wreaked upon the Afghan population. Asif Ghafoor, Pakistan’s DG ISPR is calling on Afghanistan to abandon its ‘anti-Pakistan lens’ and devise policies with Pakistan through an ‘Afghan lens’. Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistani army chief told General John Nicholson that terrorist activities and inaction against militants in Afghanistan were testing Pakistan’s current policy of cross-border restraint; some joke with Pakistan using every possible proxy to expand its strategic depth in Afghanistan – blowbacks in Pakistan notwithstanding.

The Chinese media indicates that Russia has little experience in handling Taliban but President Putin is no fool.

Meanwhile, the 7th Round of the Afghanistan Pakistan Bilateral (Track II/ I.5) Dialogue was held in Islamabad from March 5-6 2017. The joint statement included issues like: urgent need for collaborative bilateral approach; Da’esh pose existential challenges to the region; Taliban integral part of the terrorist movements in Af-Pak.

Those accepting Afghan Constitution could be integrated into the mainstream Afghan politics; ensure that their respective soil is not used for launching attacks inside the other country etc. But how can Pakistan be sincere when Sartaj Aziz, Advisor on Foreign Affairs to Pak PM told BBC in 2015, “Pakistan should not engage in a war with those (insurgents /  militants) whose target is not Pakistan.”

There is no denying that heightened economic sanctions against Russia have forced it to get closer to China and Pakistan. Russia’s support to Taliban is being interpreted as its actual fear of the spreading influence of the Islamic State in Af-Pak. The Chinese media indicates that Russia has little experience in handling Taliban but President Putin is no fool.

Russia certainly does not want ISIS-Taliban entering Central Asia but Putin certainly has not misread Pakistan, and may be playing a larger strategic game.

The spread of Islamic State into Central Asia does threaten Russian interests even as the Islamic State of Uzbekistan is already aligned with the ISIS, not that there is no Russia-China clash of interests in Central Asia. With cadres of the actual ISIS moving into Af-Pak, the ISK would merge into ISIS. That there will be certain amount of cooperation between ISIS and Taliban in Af-Pak cannot be ruled out – same as was happening in Iraq-Syria between ISIS and Al Qaeda.

China and Pakistan would want that to oust the US-NATO from the region but US having spent more than $117 billion in Afghanistan since 2002 is not about to let go. The West would want that to curb Chinese-Russian influence in the region.

Russia certainly does not want ISIS-Taliban entering Central Asia but Putin certainly has not misread Pakistan, and may be playing a larger strategic game. Afghan government officials have claimed Russia has been delivering weapons to the Taliban, allegations that have been rejected by Russian officials. Whether Pashtunistan comes up or not only time will tell, with opposing parties in the ‘Great Game’ wanting this new entity as a subset of Afghanistan or Pakistan, but logically the uptick in violence will affect China’s OBOR and CPEC.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

is a former Lt Gen Special Forces, Indian Army

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