As Cold War politics come full circle, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the wider region are bracing for a new era of conflict in the making. Switching sides and changing goalposts, the key players are flexing their muscles for a new Cold War on Afghan turf.
Let’s review the new alliances and various actors that will make or break Afghanistan’s future.
Russia-Pakistan Warming up
The recent visit of a Russian military delegation, headed by Chief of General Staff Colonel General Israkov Sergi Yuryevich, to Pakistan’s North Waziristan was the latest sign of Russia and Pakistan’s warming relations.
Retired Brigadier General Saad Muhammad Khan, Pakistan’s former military attaché to Afghanistan, in a TV talk show, called the Russian delegation’s visit to Waziristan “interesting and unusual.” But that was not the first step in the blossoming relationship.
In September 2016, around 200 Pakistani and Russian military personnel conducted joint exercises codenamed Druzhbha-2016, which means friendship. Earlier, in 2014 and 2015, naval forces from the two countries conducted joint drills named Arabian Moonsoon.
Since the 1980s, the era dominated by the Afghan jihad, Pakistan used to arrange visits for U.S. civilians and military officials to its tribal areas. The reason was obvious: the ongoing anti-communist war in the bordering Afghanistan. But what brings a Russian military delegation to North Waziristan? Pakistan recently achieved success in removing the Taliban from a 13,000 square kilometer area in Waziristan, but Russia never been a partner in Pakistan’s anti-terror war.
Some may dismiss the visit as a tool to attract the new U.S. administration’s focus, but Pakistan’s invitation for a Russian military delegation to visit its once Wild West is not a standalone instance of warming ties. Pakistan always sees China as its closest ally and friend, but Islamabad has recently increased contacts with both Turkey and Russia as well. Ex-army chief General Raheel Sharif visited both countries and spoke to leadership on several occasions.
Analysts in Pakistan believe the freshly unfolding situation in the region points to a possible alliance bringing Russia and Pakistan together along with China and possibly Turkey.
Russia and the Afghan Taliban
During a hearing at the House Armed Services Committee last month, commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) General Joseph L. Votel said Russia was trying to revive its influence in Afghanistan.
After hosting meetings of three and and then six countries on Afghanistan, Moscow is set to host another meeting of 12 countries — including Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, India, Iran, and the Central Asian republics — in mid-April. Most probably, representatives from the Taliban at some level will be present as back-benchers.
Contacts between the Afghan Taliban and Russian authorities are not new. However, the links started openly being mentioned by media in the aftermath of Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour’s death in a drone strike in Pakistan’s Balochistan province in May 2016.
In one recent interaction, sources say, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov told President Ashraf Ghani’s National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar to come to terms with the Taliban for a political settlement.
A number of Kabul-based analysts whom I spoke to are of the view that Russia’s newly proactive role in Afghanistan was galvanized by two factors: The emergence of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in Afghanistan, and Russia’s fear of being left out of the Afghan peace process launched under the China and U.S.-backed Quadrilateral Cooperation Group (QCG).
“By getting closer to Russia, [the] Taliban believe they are getting international recognition and a stronger backer,” journalist Sami Yousafzai said in an interview. The killing of Mansour has deepened suspicions among some Taliban leaders about Pakistan’s role and they are now more inclined toward Iran and Russia.
The Vicious Triangle
On March 20, thousands of stranded Afghans crossed into their country as Pakistan declared the opening of border crossings after a month-long closure. Pakistan unilaterally shut the crossing points with Afghanistan on February 16, following a string of attacks targeting civilians and security personnel. Security concerns were the stated reason for the border closure. Pakistan accused Afghanistan-based groups of carrying out the attacks with the support of Afghan and Indian intelligence. For years, both Afghanistan and India have likewise been accusing Pakistani intelligence agencies of providing sanctuaries to the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani Network, and Kashmir-focused armed groups.
The India-Pakistan rivalry has turned Afghanistan into a battleground, where the two nuclear-armed neighbors are testing both their hard and soft power. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi government’s open-armed policy for Afghanistan irks Pakistan the most.
However, Pakistan’s key concern is the presence of Taliban groups in Afghanistan and their “anti-Pakistan activities.” Since Afghanistan’s longstanding and repeated demands for Pakistani action against the Quetta Shura and Haqqani Network did not bear positive results, Afghan authorities opted to close their eyes and ears to Pakistani demands for Afghan action against Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Mullah Fazlullah and militant leaders Mangal Bagh and Omar Khalid Khurasani, who are believed to be hiding in eastern Afghanistan.
Where do Afghanistan and Pakistan Stand Now?
Notwithstanding the March 15 meeting between Afghanistan’s National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar and Adviser to Prime Minister Sharif on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz in London, which followed the opening of land routes with Afghanistan, there has been no visible breakthrough in ties, nor is one expected in the near future.
“Pakistan wanted Afghanistan to take steps against Mullah Fazlullah. But the Afghan side wanted Pakistan’s commitment to expel the Quetta Shura and Haqqani Network,” a Kabul-based official at a semi-government office told me in an interview.
Afghanistan-Pakistan relations plummeted during the last year of Hamid Karzai’s presidency, but reached their highest level in November 2014 with the oath-taking of new President Ashraf Ghani, followed by his visit to Islamabad. In his historic visit, the Afghan president also visited the General Headquarters and met then-Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif.
Despite criticism from rivals in Kabul, Ghani sent Afghan cadets for training in Pakistan and suspended a request for the purchase of heavy weapons from India.
However, Pakistan’s failure to bring Taliban negotiators face-to-face with Afghan government representatives and several terrorist attacks in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan once again affected the improving relations. The final blow that ended the honeymoon came with the announcement of the 2013 death of Taliban chief Mullah Omar.
Since then, ties have taken a nosedive. Afghanistan, along with India, refused to attend the September 2016 South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Islamabad, which was later cancelled. That further antagonized the already stressed relations. Pakistan’s closure of the borders in June last year and again in February this year, beside firing mortars into Afghan areas on February 18 and 19, further deepened the animosity.
In Kabul, Pakistan’s new partnership with Russia on the Taliban front is seen as another “trick.” Afghan officials believe Pakistan is befriending Russia to give a boost to the Taliban’s international standing.
China: The Stabilizing Actor
China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) plan, announced by President Xi Jinping in 2013, could prove to be the key stabilizing factor in the region. To bear fruit, China’s $57 billion investment in neighboring Pakistan needs a peaceful security environment.
Unlike Russia, Iran, and Pakistan, China has refrained from overt involvement in Afghanistan and a majority of Afghans, including the Taliban, trust China more than any other country in their neighborhood. For China, the stakes are high. Besides its economic vision, there is potential for the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan to have spillover effects in the bordering and sensitive province of Xinjiang. Given Beijing’s interests in stability, China’s close ties with Pakistan may help persuade that Islamabad, particularly its military leadership, to come to terms with Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s obsession with an Afghanistan free of Indian influence; India’s maneuvering to humble its western neighbor; and Afghanistan’s own internal weaknesses, including bad governance, corruption and widespread ethnic and group divisions are not only preventing Afghanistan’s lasting stability but also propping up the very groups spreading instability in the region.
As I mentioned in a 2011 article, the situation in Afghanistan is getting worse mainly because of active involvement from Russia and Iran, creating greater concerns for the United States and its European allies.
Notwithstanding the Taliban’s recent claim to control 45 districts, including the surrender of Sangin in the volatile Helmand province, the militants are far from taking over and retaining control of urban centers. Kunduz is an example; the Taliban twice took over the city but could not retain their control for more than a few days. In the meantime, the Taliban’s foreign backers, whether Iran, Russia, or Pakistan, would never like to see the militants take over Kabul for fear of a backlash in their own lands.
The viable way out is a negotiated settlement where Afghans need to be the decision makers in an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process. “The Cold War-era politics need an end. Otherwise, the region will see more conflicts with deeper repercussions,” former Pakistani senator and analyst Afrasiab Khattak (no relation to the author) said in an interview.
Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.