Shifting contours in region

Russia is warming up to Pakistan and it’s real. There seems to be a reversal in Russia’s South Asia policy with New Delhi and Moscow drifting apart. Russia is looking at the region through the prism of its larger geopolitical struggle with the West and seems ready to join the China-Pakistan axis.

China has found a new ally in Russia which is keen to tie up with Beijing, even as a junior partner, to scuttle western interests. Jettisoning its traditional antipathy to the Taliban, Russia is now indicating that it is ready to negotiate with the Taliban against the backdrop of the growing threat of the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has emerged as an important player in this context where China and Russia are now converging to challenge a number of western objectives. Moscow and Islamabad held their first ever joint military exercise in September 2016 and their first-ever bilateral consultation on regional issues in December. After officially lifting an arms embargo against Pakistan in 2014, Pakistan’s military will be receiving four Russia-made Mi-35M attack helicopters this year. It is also likely that China-backed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) might be merged with Russia-backed Eurasian Economic Union.

In December, Russia hosted representatives of China and Pakistan to discuss developments in Afghanistan and the three agreed upon “a flexible approach to remove certain (Taliban] figures from [United Nations) sanctions lists as part of efforts to foster a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban movement.” The three states underscored their concern about “the rising activity in the country [Afghanistan] of extremist groups, including the Afghan branch of IS” and underlined that the Taliban was a necessary bulwark in the global fight against the IS.

The Taliban obviously welcomed the move. “It is joyous to see that the regional countries have also understood that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is a political and military force,” a statement issued on their behalf said. “The proposal forwarded in the Moscow tripartite of delisting members of the Islamic Emirate is a positive step forward in bringing peace and security to Afghanistan.”

Though the Afghan government too has reacted strongly against Russian attempts to bolster Taliban’s credibility, there are now indications that Afghanistan will also be invited in the next round of talks. Iran might also be invited. But so far no mention has been made of India, one of most significant actors in Afghanistan in terms of capacity building.

India’s policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan will also have to evolve with these changing ground realities. New Delhi has been demanding dismantling of safe havens and terror sanctuaries in the region, besides pressing for deeper engagement of various stakeholders for Kabul’s stability. That’s easier said than done. Indian interests are being repeatedly targeted in Afghanistan. The attack on the Indian consulate in Jalalabad in March last year was the fourth such assault since 2007.

Other Indian consulates in Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif and the one in Kabul have also been attacked. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Afghanistan to inaugurate the new Afghan Parliament and the decision to gift Mi-25 attack helicopters to Afghan forces were meant to underline India’s seriousness to preserve its equities in the troubled neighbourhood. India signed the TAPI pipeline agreement to showcase its continuing commitment to Afghanistan’s economic viability.

India has also signed a deal to develop the strategic port of Chabahar in Iran and agreed on a three-nation pact to build a transport-and-trade corridor through Afghanistan that could potentially reduce the time and cost of doing business with Central Asia and Europe.

Russia’s change of heart comes after helping the Afghan military by supplying helicopters and also agreeing to a supply route for coalition materials through Russia. But that cooperation is a thing of the past as contacts between Moscow and the Taliban have surged in recent years to an extent where the two have also shared intelligence about the IS. For Russia, the Taliban is a local nuisance and has given up the idea of global jihad whereas the IS are the global jihadists.

Broader shift
Zamir Kabulov, Vladimir Putin’s special representative for Afghanistan, has suggested that in so far fighting the IS is concerned “the Taliban interest objectively coincides with ours.” Russia’s warming up to Pakistan is part of this broader shift in Moscow’s foreign policy.

Russia has an interest in hyping the threat from the IS in Afghanistan and it is doing so rather effectively. As Russia works with China and Pakistan to engage the Taliban, jettisoning its historic animosity to the group, India might find itself regionally isolated.

The Afghan government is too weak to assert its primacy in the process. And given Trump’s soft corner for Russia, if he decides to buy into the Russian argument, then India’s Afghan policy will once again be at a crossroads.

There was once a time when the US wanted to reach out to the Taliban. Despite the threat of isolation, India stuck to its stand on the group. Eventually, it were New Delhi’s views that prevailed as the Pakistani shenanigans made sure that the so-called peace process with the Taliban did not go anywhere. Today, India once again looks isolated.

New Delhi would be hoping that Washington and Kabul will heed its advice on Afghanistan and stand up strongly against the China-Pakistan-Russia axis to manipulate regional strategic realities to serve their short-term ends. But hope is not a policy and it’s possible that India may have to revisit some of the fundamental assumptions of its Afghan policy soon.

But India which was once complaining about the readiness of the West to talk to the Taliban is now faced with another reality: its long time close partner in Afghanistan, Russia, is now ready to engage with the Taliban. How India addresses this challenge will in all likelihood determine the final size of India’s footprint in its neighbourhood.

(The writer is Professor of International Relations, King's College, London)

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