By Lt Gen P.C. Katoch (Retd.)*
The recently concluded Sixth Ministerial ‘Heart of Asia’ Conference at Amritsar, attended by some 30 countries and international and regional organisations, emerged as a platform for stronger India-Afghanistan relationship, and for the world to understand more the problems and instability being faced by Afghanistan and the region.
That the instability is primarily because of Pakistan’s decades-old state policy of exporting terrorism is without doubt. However, statements and deliberations at the Heart of Asia (HoA) conference, as well as other recent developments indicate new geopolitical pulls that the region is likely to face in the near and mid-term.
One highlight of the recent HoA Conference was that for the first time, a Heart of Asia (HoA) Declaration expressed concern at the violence caused in Afghanistan and the region by Pakistani proxies and other terrorist groups. The declaration made categorical reference to concern over the gravity of the security situation in Afghanistan and the region, and high level of violence caused by the Taliban, terrorist groups including ISIL/Daesh and its affiliates, Haqqani Network, Al Qaida, IMU, ETIM, LeT, JeM, TTP, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, Jundullah and other foreign terrorist fighters.
Pakistan’s de-facto Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz asserted at the HoA conference that blaming Pakistan for terrorism was too “simplistic” and maintained that the instability in Afghanistan is linked to Kashmir.
But the surprise statement came from Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, who stated at the HoA Conference that allegations made against Pakistan by India and Afghanistan are totally baseless, the allegations game should stop and criticising Pakistan is wrong. He also appreciated the speech by Sartaj Aziz, calling it constructive and friendly.
This was a surprise since Russia’s Spetsnaz Special Forces have been active in Pakistan over the years by proxy to block Pakistani support to Chechen insurgents. It is quite possible that Pakistan may have assured Russia of not supporting Islamic fundamentalism in Chechnya, in addition to pursuing a bilateral defence pact.
Then there has been the recent Russia-Pakistan gas deal, TAPI (Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India pipeline) and CPEC (China–Pakistan Economic Corridor) are coming up and Russia is supplying defence equipment to Pakistan, even as the Barack Obama administration in the US is continuing to pressure Russia from multiple avenues, financial sanctions included.
Obviously, China is capitalising on the US-Russia estrangement by drawing Russia closer to herself and her protégé Pakistan.
Kabulov’s statement indicates Russian support for ‘good’ terrorists of Pakistan — very much like China. The games of Chinese checkers and Russian roulette appear coalescing despite prospects of cooperation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President-elect Donald Trump over Syria.
General John W Nicholson, Commander US Forces and Resolute Mission in Afghanistan, recently reviewed the situation in the region, highlights of which included:
US mission ‘Freedom Sentinel’ for Central Asia-South Asia region is focused on Al Qaeda and ISIS, as also advising and assisting ANSF to defeat Al Qaeda and IS Khorasan (ISK).
Of 98 US-designated terrorist groups globally, 20 are in Af-Pak who mix and converge.
US CT operations during 2016 killed/captured some 50 Al Qaeda/AQIS leaders and 200 cadres.
Mullah Mansour, emir of Taliban, was killed in Pakistan.
Top 12 leaders of ISK, including emir Hafiz Saeed Khan, were killed.
Resolute Support’s programme to train, advise, assist ANSF is the largest and longest NATO operation in history — 39 nations in ISAF together for 10 years-plus.
$800 million is pledged annually to support ANSF through 2020.
International donors at Brussels recently expressed intent to commit another $15.2 billion for developing Afghanistan.
Afghan Air Force has added MD-530 helicopters, eight ground attack aircraft and 120 Afghan tactical air controllers.
Sustainable security strategy during 2016 foiled enemy attempts to capture cities.
ANSF holds about 64 per cent of population, Taliban less than 10 per cent and balance is contested.
Despite Taliban promise to safeguard civilians, vast majority of civilian casualities due to insurgency — 61-72 per cent; Taliban have intentionally destroyed Afghan’s infrastructure while government seeks to build it.
Afghan police and army will focus on replacing ineffective/corrupt leaders.
Future concerns include: risk of Afghan political fracture; malign influence of external actors, particularly Pakistan, Russia, and Iran; convergence of terrorist groups, and; impact of a narcotics trade on insurgency and economy.
US President-elect Donald Trump, in his telephonic conversation with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, has assured that his administration stands ready to support Afghanistan, saying: “If Afghanistan needs more assistance, this administration, after assessing the needs, will focus on providing more security support.”
How the future US-Pakistan relations, which directly affect stability of Afghanistan and the region, will differ from those during the Obama Administration is yet to be seen, but presently the US House of Representatives has cleared $900 million economic aid to Pakistan, which — going by past experience — invariably gets diverted.
Significantly, Afghanistan has accused Pakistan of trying to change Russia’s and Iran’s perception about the Taliban, who are fighting against the Afghan government and Western coalition forces.
Afghanistan’s official spokesperson Sediq Seddeqi told media on November 5 that Kabul was hopeful that Russia and Iran would continue backing the Afghan government and people of Afghanistan, the way they had been over the past 16 years. He suggested that Pakistan was behind the US view that Russia and Iran support Taliban in the war-torn country.
Seddeqi pointed to General Nicholson briefing Pentagon on December 2 that “Russia has overtly lent legitimacy to the Taliban”. This needs to be viewed in the backdrop of Kabulov’s aforementioned statement at the HoA Conference.
Seddeqi also said: “Shifting to Iran, you have a similar situation — there have been linkages between the Iranians and the Taliban in the past”, adding that Nicholson had also said: “Pakistan, a US ally, was lending support to the Taliban, which had launched deadly attacks in Afghanistan in the past week, and; Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network was holding five Americans hostage.”
Sartaj Aziz recently announced that Pakistan was setting up a high-level committee to formulate “a doable and sustainable” policy to highlight the Kashmir issue globally, described by Dawn as “reaching out to Indians who are opposed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘extremist policies’”.
This committee is to consist of senior officials from the Ministries of Defence, Interior and Information, the Military Operations Directorate, ISI and IB — and, significantly, none from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Obviously, the unstated aim would be to destabilise India as much as possible through increased terror.
In the case of Afghanistan, Kabulov’s statement at the HoA indicates Russia getting sucked into the China-Pakistan nexus. This will have ramifications for the Af-Pak region.
Additionally, the US has just announced it will not purchase helicopters from Russia for Afghanistan. What happens to the maintenance, spare parts and assembly of Russian equipment held by the ANSF, including attack helicopters, remains a question mark with the Russian stance changing.
Whatever the pulls and pushes in the ongoing Great Game, the Chinese appear to be on a winning streak as of now.
*The author is a veteran Special Forces officer of the Indian Army. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to [email protected]