By Samim Arif*
International bickering and bloc building could soon further jeopardize security in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is being positioned in an outlandish situation as international political maneuvers become more complicated between the United States and Russia. The country could soon be squeezed between blocs built by the two countries, compromising the safety of Afghans.
While the U.S. and Russia have not been full-fledged allies since World War II, their relations have gradually deteriorated after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Syrian conflict. It has reached an even more critical point after Russia’s alleged interference in U.S. 2016 presidential election, subsequent sanctions on Moscow and ejection of Russian diplomats from Washington by President Barack Obama on December 29.
That scenario poses an ever more complicated ground for Afghanistan, a country still grappling with enduring, protracted violence.
The U.S. has spent about $783 billion—and counting—and lost over 2,300 troops since 2001 in Afghanistan. It has also provided Pakistan, a supposed ally in “War on Terror,” with billions of dollars in military compensation and supplies through the Coalition Support Fund, in a bid to bar Islamabad from supporting terrorist fighters in Afghanistan. That strategy has not been successful as Pakistan continues to harbor Taliban. Ever since the resurgence of Taliban in 2004, Pakistan has been the main funder and backer of Taliban—using it as a proxy tool to gain strategic depth in Afghanistan. Every single negotiation effort by former President Hamid Karzai and current President Ashraf Ghani has failed to deter Pakistan from hostile approach toward Afghanistan. The Pakistani military and officials have repeatedly admitted that they actively support Taliban despite U.S. pressure on them.
The Taliban are responsible for the plight of Afghan and U.S. military. In total, the Afghanistan war bore 104,000 casualties over the course of 15 years. In 2016 alone, Afghan security forces have lost over 15,000 personnel in the war. Also, more than 1,600 Afghan civilians have been killed in 2016.
With President Obama conceding on December 7 that the U.S. cannot defeat Taliban, Moscow saw a window opportunity to cling on by hosting a conference on Afghanistan with China and Pakistan, but that summit excluded Afghanistan. Perhaps Russia feels there is a vacuum that needs to be filled.
After having enough of devilment, U.S. lawmakers have recently moved to pass a bill, labeling Pakistan as a “state sponsor of terrorism.” That has worried Pakistan and is why it has started seeking a new patron in Russia, besides China.
In September, Pakistan hosted a team of Russian troops for a joint military drill. Moscow has also used Pakistan to approach Taliban. By making amends with Taliban, it is perhaps in a mood to seek revenge of its defeat in Afghanistan in 1980s by switching roles. Even though publicly it has been political relations so far, Taliban have reportedly met a few times with Russian officials in Tajikistan and elsewhere and received tactical warring directions.
To add to Afghanistan’s turmoil, Iran too has been lately arming Taliban and funding their insurgent activities for three major reasons: to harass the U.S. mission in Afghanistan; to take advantage of the instability in Afghanistan and conscribe Afghan Shias for its proxy wars in the Middle East; and constrain any developmental projects on rivers flowing to Iran from Afghanistan.
Even though China is the most influential part of the quartet (China, Iran, Pakistan and Russia), it has not engaged in hostility in Afghanistan so far. The economic competition between China and U.S. has been in full swing for long, especially, after the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, vis-a-vi the World Bank, China could extend its territorial speculation to South and Central Asia, with Afghanistan being the most strategic country. U.S. already has trusted partners in the region — Afghanistan and India — it only needs to come to decisive terms with Pakistan. While Russia speculates to form a Cold War-like bloc alongside Iran, China and Pakistan, U.S.-China trade partnership and shared interests in global leadership will play a deterrent role in the formation of that alliance. It would not be optimal for China to wrest militarily with U.S. Of that quartet, Iran pledges to extend its Shiite hegemony throughout the Middle East by projecting violence and proxy wars, Pakistan also has proved to be ‘an worthy ally’ and terrorist sponsoring state who can change sides at any given time and Russia seeks to cement its unchallenged grip on Central Asia. All those agendas are against the international order U.S. and NATO perceived for the world after the Second World War.
In that region, Afghanistan, India and U.S. need to push their boundaries of trade and regional collaboration as wide as they can. U.S. and Pakistan are at a contradicting juncture in terms of dealing with Afghanistan. Pakistan is backing violent, non-state actors in Afghanistan, and U.S. is supporting the government and funds its military, in order to prevent a Sept. 11-type replica and other national security threats.
Any U.S. effort would be in vain until Pakistan stops its state sponsorship of terrorism. The U.S. needs to go beyond its use of soft power on Pakistan, time for imposition of economic sanctions and targeting militant leaders has come. Afghanistan and India are the two like-minded and genuine partners of the U.S. in that region, U.S. needs to team up with those nations and foil the making of a China-Russia-Pakistan-Iran bloc that would prolong the conflict in Afghanistan, and put U.S. national interest at risk. The major factor in revival of Taliban as a hostile power was U.S. distraction toward Iraq in 2003-2011. The U.S. cannot afford to repeat the same mistake and take expansion of support for Taliban lightly. Taliban published a note on their website, confirming that Iran and Russia recognize them as a legitimate power and are supporting them.
On the other hand, Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, warned that Afghanistan is on the verge of extinction as a nation. This comes amid Russia-Pakistan new chapter of relationship. Pakistani military elite have been proposing for long that there should be created a buffer zone from Afghan territory and given to Taliban. This is an indication of a new regional alliance in the making. On the other hand, Afghan officials have said that Russia is blocking to Afghan government’s peace deal with Hizb-e-Islami by delaying the process of removal of Gulbudin Hekmatyar’s name from UN’s sanctions list. Hekmatyar publicly denounced Taliban as a terrorist group and endorsed the Afghan government in September of 2016.
If Afghan and U.S. statesmen do not play diligently as we speak, sooner than later the Taliban will gain regional support, and seize some part of Afghanistan, and undo all the enhancements, and government and nation-building processes underpinned by U.S. and allies and Afghanistan in the last fifteen years. This will not only make the blood spill to continue in Afghanistan, but the conflict will encompass the whole region and will have global repercussions.
*Samim Arif, is an Afghan Fulbright scholar. He studied Political Journalism and Public Relations at Indiana University and tweets at samimarif