For the second time in the last few months, Russia hosted a Conference on Afghanistan in Moscow on February 15, 2017, this time with an expanded representation of six countries – Russia itself, Iran, China, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Interestingly, a key player, the United States, which still maintains 9,800 troops to support the Afghan government’s counter-insurgency efforts against the Taliban, has been kept out of the meeting. But for its part, the US appears to be contemplating an increase in its military commitment, with its commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, advocating to the Senate Armed Services Committee recently that “a few thousand” more NATO trainers are needed to break the stalemate against the Taliban.1India welcomed the Moscow meeting which brought together countries that have stakes in Afghanistan’s peace and security.
However, raising concerns on the Russia-led efforts for talks with the Taliban, External Affairs Ministry Spokesman Vikas Swarup noted that “We underlined that it is up to the government of Afghanistan to decide whom to engage in direct talks.”
The two regional meetings (the first was held in December 2016) represent Russia’s first post-Soviet attempt to replay the Afghan game and that too in a big way. However, in contrast to the Soviet motivation of propping up the communist government of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) against a growing insurgency in December 1979, the Russian interest in Afghanistan now is the prevention of the growth and influence of the Islamic State (IS), which, in turn, may have a negative fallout on the security of Central Asia. A further Russian motive in Afghanistan appears to be aimed at keeping the US out of the region.
This major shift in Russia’s Afghanistan policy came immediately after it expressed concerns about the possibility of Afghanistan turning into a safe sanctuary for the Islamic State militants fleeing from Iraq and Syria. Speaking at the ‘Heart of Asia’ conference held in Amritsar on December 5, 2016, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, described the Islamic State as being more dangerous than the Taliban. And three days later, on December 8, 2016, the Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan stated that “Our concern is that Daesh not only threatens Afghanistan, but it is also a potent threat to Central Asia, Pakistan, China, Iran, India and even Russia. We have ties with the Taliban to ensure the security of our political offices, consulates and the security of central Asia.”
Incontrast, Ahmad Murid Partaw, former Afghan National Representativeto US CENTCOM, asserted that the presence of the IS in Afghanistan has been overemphasized by Russia, China and Iran as a pretext not only to intervene in the country’s affairs but also to counter the growing influence of the US in the region. He further stated that “the Af-Pak region is not a suitable ground for proliferation of such rejectionist beliefs enforced by IS and its supporters. This region has been influenced by the Deobandi school of Islam rather than Takfiri version.”
During the latter half of the 1990s, Russia accused the Taliban of training Chechen rebels and fomenting Central Asian radical Islamic networks. As a result, Russia, in collaboration with Iran and India, supported the Northern Alliance against the Taliban regime. Today, Russia no longer views the Taliban as a major threat to its security and interests. There is even a suspicion among Afghan political leaders and officials that Russia is militarily helping the Taliban, with parliamentarians alleging in the upper house that Russia is supplying arms to the Taliban. However, Russian officials have dismissed such Afghan claims and suspicions. They have said that “We have never ever provided any kind of assistance to Taliban. Instead, Russia is assisting the Afghan government and has provided some light weapons on grant basis to its forces and is running programs to train Afghan police and military personnel in Russian institutions.”
For its part, the Taliban has begun to respond favourably to Moscow’s outreach. Syed Muhammad Akbar Agha, a former Taliban commander who lives in Kabul and still espouses Islamic rule in Afghanistan, said in an interview toKomsomolskaya Pravda that “We are ready to shake hands with Russia in order to rid ourselves of the scourge of America.” He further noted that “history has proven that we are closer to Russia and the former Soviet republics than to the West.”
It seems clear that Russia and the Taliban share common concerns about both the Islamic State and the continued US presence in Afghanistan. Such thinking is also shared by China and Iran and consequently Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran are pursuing a policy towards Afghanistan that is very different from that of India.
Meanwhile the Afghan government continues to face a host of security challenges posed by the Taliban forces. As recently as January 10, 2017, the Taliban claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in Kabul that killed more than 30 people and wounded some 70 others including the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Afghanistan and the governor of Kandahar province. One analyst even asserts that “the Taliban isn’t interested in peace and security. The jihadist group wants to win the Afghan war and it is using negotiations with regional and international powers to improve its standing.”
Therefore, to expect that the Taliban would give up its terrorist activities is highly unlikely, which means that Russia will not be able to bring about a reconciliation between Kabul and the Taliban. In addition, Russia also has to contend with the view of the Afghan government, which was articulated by its representative Mohammad Ashraf Haidari at the February 15 meeting in Moscow. Haidari emphasized that the National Unity Government (NUG) is the only legitimate government representing all Afghans. And as for the role of the Taliban in the peace process, he stated that “Taliban lack the national and moral legitimacy to represent the Afghan people, who reject terrorism perpetrated by the Taliban and their foreign terrorist allied networks in the name of Islam—a religion of peace, tolerance, and coexistence.”
Russia is not only taking a relatively benign view of the Taliban but it is also cosying up to Pakistan, the Taliban’s sponsor. Russia’s decision to send troops to Pakistan for a joint military exercise in September 2016 demonstrated this, especially as it came in the wake of the terrorist attack in Uri carried out by the Pakistan-based and-backed jihadi group Jaish-e-Mohammed. Russia justified its military overture to Pakistan by saying that military cooperation was aimed at fighting against the Islamic State. Kabulov argued that “We understand all concerns of India about your western neighbour…But we cannot combat (terrorism) efficiently and productively and eliminate (it) without the cooperation of Pakistan. We need their cooperation and they should realise their im-portance and responsibility.”
Clearly, Moscow’s decision to side with the Taliban and Islamabad has fundamen-tally changed the peace building efforts in Afghanistan. New Delhi and Kabul, on the other hand, still consider the Taliban and its Pakistani sponsor as the main threats to peace and stability in Afghanistan. India is also against the incorporation of the Taliban into the Afghan government so long as it does not renounce terrorism. For their part, Afghan analysts and lawmakers suggest that the regional countries, particularly Pakistan, have never been honest in fighting terrorism. In addition, they allege that the Internation-al Community has never pressed Pakistan to wipe terrorists out from its soil.
Given all this, there is little or no pros-pect of Russia becoming a successful anchor of peace in Afghanistan. Further, the mem-ory of the Soviet invasion is still fresh in the Afghan mind. And Russia has little chance of succeeding so long as the United States maintains troops in Afghanistan. Russia needs to be mindful of the fact that the rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan can be coun-tered only through close cooperation with Afghanistan’s National Unity Government and the Afghan National Security Forces. Its efforts to differentiate between the Islamic State and Taliban are also a mistake given that both groups share a similar ideology, albeitwith slight variations. Engaging the Tal-iban for the sake of fighting the Islamic State is likely to further alienate Afghanistan’s National Unity Government as well as other stake holders in the Afghan peace process. That, in turn, would only aggravate the ongo-ing conflict in Afghanistan.