What light does Afghanistan throw on the Russia-India tie in 2018?
Inspired by Russia’s global interests, Moscow’s cooperation with the Taliban and Pakistan goes against India’s interests in Afghanistan and shows that Russia does not expect much from India there. Russia’s Afghan strategy also raises questions about India’s influence in Afghanistan.
Highlighting differences with India on the occasion of the Russia-India-China trilateral in New Delhi in mid-December, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asserted that inclusive political dialogue for peace in Afghanistan should include the Taliban and ‘other’ countries. His call to India to join the dialogue with the Taliban came as Russia announced the partial withdrawal of its troops from Syria. Significantly, while talking about the need to defeat international terrorism in New Delhi, he mentioned defeating ISIS (and another terrorist outfit), which threaten the regime of Russia’s client, President Assad of Syria. The Pakistani-trained Afghan Taliban, which India regards as a threat to its own security, were omitted from his speech.
The call for talks with the Taliban and the reference to ISIS should be seen in relation to Russia’s intervention in Syria and its wish and efforts to build up its global status through a complex strategy. Afghanistan is one of the strategic stages on which Russia is trying to build up its image as a world power. Among the others are Ukraine, Syria, North Korea, the Baltic countries and the Arctic.
In September 2014, some seven months after Russia incurred the West’s wrath by invading and severing Ukraine, Washington and Kabul signed an agreement which gave the US access to several bases in Afghanistan. They bases spotlighted the prospect of the US improving its military access to the Middle East, Central and South Asia. For Russia such a situation would be intolerable.
Why does Russia want to talk to the Taliban? In December 2015 Moscow announced that Russia’s interests coincided with those of the Taliban over their common enemy, ISIS. Russia had already established contact with the Taliban several years before that. Having viewed the US as the common enemy of both over the last decade, the Taliban continues to want Russia’s support to oust NATO from Afghanistan. For its part, Russia wants all foreign troops to leave Afghanistan as quickly as possible.
Moscow has had strong regional interests to advance by talking to the Taliban and Pakistan. Russia now sees Taliban as a ‘national military-political movement’, but ISIS as a global terrorist force that could spark conflict in its Central Asian near-abroad.
Such conflict in turn could push refugees into Russia. Moscow therefore retains an interest in seeing ISIS militants crushed in Af-Pak to pre-empt their security threat to Central Asia and the North Caucasus area of Russia. Moscow has made known that it has shared intelligence with the Taliban with the intent of combating ISIS.
Political need has shaped a major change in Russia’s perceptions of, and attitude to, the Taliban and Pakistan. During the Cold War Moscow saw Pakistan as a destabilising fomenter of extremism in South Asia and beyond. In 1989 the Pakistani-trained mujahedeen forced the erstwhile Soviet superpower to retreat from Afghanistan. But now, as it tries to cultivate Islamabad, Moscow has revised its Cold War opinion of Pakistan and perceives it as a victim of global terrorism and as a lesser threat to its security than the US.
In December 2014 Russia sprang an unpleasant surprise on India by breaking its arms embargo on Pakistan and selling it military helicopters.
Russia could reasonably place its bets on Pakistan, which has long sustained and steered the Afghan Taliban. Always playing a double game with anti-US extremists, Pakistan first denied, and then confirmed the presence of ISIS on its soil in 2015. But Islamabad turned – or appeared to turn firmly – against ISIS after the group mounted an attack on the northwestern town of Quetta in October 2016.
Pakistan would not want its Taliban ally to be defeated by ISIS. For the last 16 years, Pakistan has displayed its ability and will to keep the Taliban fighting a powerful western alliance such as NATO – while getting arms from the US. So Russia may have surmised that Pakistan can steer the Taliban against ISIS.
Like China, its main Asian friend, and the US, its global foe, Russia has swallowed Islamabad’s claim that Pakistan’s Taliban clients are indispensable to achieve peace in Afghanistan. Negotiations reflect reality on the ground, and the reality is that a military stalemate prevails in Afghanistan.
Moscow has reason to rule out the chances of the US achieving much in Afghanistan. At times an uncertain US has viewed the Taliban as a partner in ending the fighting, pushing reconciliation and even joining a national government in Kabul –although the Taliban have yet to accept any provision of the Afghan constitution or settle for less than NATOs complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. Trump’s administration says several things in the same breath. While threatening Pakistan with action it says that Pakistan’s cooperation is essential to bring peace to Afghanistan. Lavrov, meanwhile, has warned India that Trump’s stress on military force will not lead to America’s victory in Afghanistan.
The instrument of diplomacy
At another level, Russia has been miffed at being excluded by Washington from talks with the Taliban. In January 2016, the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) on Afghanistan included China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan but kept Russia out. The QCG’s parleys with the Taliban failed but an internationally status-conscious Russia resented America’s attitude.
Russia sponsored its own dialogue on Afghanistan. In December 2016, when the US had less than 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, Russia excluded America from the talks in Moscow between the Foreign Secretaries of Russia, China and Pakistan. Russia’s logic was simple. America’s “superpower” had failed to trounce either the Afghan Taliban, or ISIS in Afghanistan and Syria. So why should Russia include the US in any talks in the first place?
Afghanistan, whose future was under discussion, was also kept out of the meeting, which focused on the growing influence of ISIS and the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan.
Seeking to engage with the Afghan Taliban against ISIS, the three countries called for peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban.
Russia distances itself from India
Earlier, in September 2016, Russia had ignored Indian objections and held its first-ever military drills with Pakistan. Its diplomatic support for Pakistan was obvious when it joined China in refusing to name or condemns Pakistani-based terrorist organizations in the UN Security Council or at the BRICS summit in October 2016.
At last September’s BRICS meeting India appeared to have gained ground against international terrorism when the BRICS declaration named the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed and linked them to global terror groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. But Russia and China did not allow the RICS trilateral to follow suit in December.
The US, Russia and Afghanistan
Meanwhile, the US cannot object to Russia’s overtures to the Taliban talks since it has been parleying with the Taliban itself. If fact President Obama allowed the Taliban to establish a diplomatic mission in Qatar in 2013. Then he organized the exchange of five senior Taliban leaders who had been jailed at Guantánamo Bay for a US Army sergeant captured and imprisoned by the Taliban. Obama thus conferred legitimacy on a fundamentalist, terrorist organization that has been responsible for the deaths of more than 2,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan.
The US has yet to take military action against Taliban havens in Pakistan and has remained a major arms supplier to Pakistan. The Taliban are also noticeably absent from Washington’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
What price the Taliban and Pakistan will demand from Russia in return for taking on ISIS? Both want the Taliban to return to the helm in Kabul. Russia may be playing it both ways. It has given the Afghan government light arms for the Afghan armed forces. But the US has accused Moscow of supplying the Taliban with heavy weapons – a charge denied by Russia. Do Russia’s global interests imply that it wants the US and President Ghani’s government to trounce or lose to the Taliban? Does Moscow really want an extremist Taliban government in Kabul? Or is it hoping to use the Taliban against ISIS but otherwise leaving Afghanistan to its fate?
In the foreseeable future Afghanistan will remain a war-torn country. Indo-Russian differences will remain on Afghanistan. For India, Afghanistan is an urgent national security issue – and it has advised Russia against engaging with the Taliban. India’s counsel has been rejected: in December 2016 Russia said it was more worried about ISIS than about losing India’s friendship.
Moscow wants to deal with Afghanistan in a way that will enhance Russia’s regional and global influence. Add to that Russia’s long-term engagement with China – as a partner in its Belt and Road Initiative, and as they carry out military exercises to challenge America’s primacy in Europe and Asia.
The huge arms deals between Russia and India may signal partnership. But how much closer will they come on Afghanistan? India is not the largest investor in Afghanistan – China is. And India will not contribute troops to shore up President Ghani’s government. Nor will China and Russia. Nevertheless, China’s greater economic power and Russia’s greater military wherewithal will give them an influential say in any international negotiations on a settlement of the Afghan war.
Yet India is trying to improve its bargaining position in Afghanistan by building up Afghanistan’s air capabilities. It may buy second-hand Russian Mi35s for the Afghan security forces. This would also strengthen Russia-India cooperation on Afghanistan.
But given New Delhi’s enmity with Pakistan and China, and its refusal to talk to the Taliban how useful will it be to Moscow as the Kremlin engages with the China-Pakistan-Taliban nexus? Finally, as Moscow’s complicated strategy prioritizes the boosting of Russia’s world standing, India should search for more ways to strengthen its cooperation with Russia in Afghanistan, and to enhance its status as a power that can help to secure Afghanistan.
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