US Russia Rivalry in Afganistan

Moscow and Washington seem to be heading for a face-off in Afghanistan. Last December, Moscow initiated a regional dialogue on Afghanistan. It has held three meetings of the group which contains Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, China, India and a few Central Asian republics. The US declined the invitation to attend the last meeting saying that the agenda of the meeting was unclear. The US sees the Russian initiative as a counterweight to its influence in Afghanistan. US President Donald Trump is still in the process of shaping his Afghanistan policy. Last week, he sent his National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster to Kabul, Islamabad and New Delhi to take stock of the situation. On April 13th, the US dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan, ostensibly to destroy some caves being used by the Islamic State fighters. This happened on the eve of the third multinational meet on Afghanistan conveyed by Russia. It also preceded General McMaster’s visit to the region. As Russia begins to reassert its influence in Afghanistan and the Trump administration is yet to formulate its Afghanistan policy, what does the Russia-US face-off in Afghanistan would mean for the Afghan region?

US Russia Rivalry | Is Afghanistan the next theatre for Russia-US rivalry?

Historically, the US has used Afghan Mujahideen to dislodge the Soviet Union from Afghanistan during the cold war era. Most probably this situation would not be recreated again to settle current rivalries.

Russia is allowing the northern route to operate in Afghanistan for supplies to the region. They also realise that the United States has a role to play in circumscribing the ambitions of Islamic State in the region, but it simultaneously doubts the intentions of the US in manipulating these extremist groups to its advantage. This American support for Islamic militancy in Afghanistan would destabilise Central Asia with spill-over effect on the Russian federation.

Apart from taking action against the drug trafficking business emanating from Afghanistan borders, Russia has not taken any significant political stance on Afghanistan yet. But with the emergence of Islamic State extremism in Afghanistan, it is bound to take a concrete initiative in Afghanistan to secure its strategic interests in the region. But this does not necessarily imply a ‘face-off’ between the Americans and the Russians again.

US Russia Rivalry | Credibility of Islamic State threat in Afghanistan

Russia has been permeating a belief that Islamic State is gradually gaining ground in Afghanistan and it would subsequently affect the Central Asian republics and the Russian federation in the future. Whereas, the US is alleging that Russia is sharing critical intelligence inputs and military hardware with the Taliban groups to safeguard itself against the onslaught of Islamic militancy in the region.

But the boots on the ground confirm that the threats posed by Islamic State in Afghanistan are nowhere close to the threat of Taliban. Afghan ISIS consists of Pakistan-backed Taliban, Pakistani terrorists, Afghan Taliban, a few local criminals and an omnipotent force of Salafists in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces of Afghanistan. Hence, it might be premature to conclude that ISIS will pose a direct threat to the region beyond Afghanistan itself.

But the people who are following the Islamic State militants very closely in Syria confirm that the second most spoken language in the ISIS is Russian. This means that a number of people from the Central Asian republics who speak Russian language and Chechen rebels are growing in ISIS. Once they are squeezed in Syria by a strong attack on Raqqa initiated by the anti-ISIS forced, they will possibly gravitate to another ungoverned territory, most probably, Afghanistan. Hence, the Islamic State militancy at the doorstep of Central Asia is not a non-serious threat for the Russians.

US Russia Rivalry | Russian peace initiatives in Afghanistan

Apparently, the Russian peace initiative in Afghanistan undermines the efforts of NATO in the region. NATO wishes to keep the pressure high on Taliban to improve the security situation and streamline Taliban into the political process.

If the reports suggesting Russian material help to Taliban is correct, then it would only complicate situations which would finally benefit Pakistan as the pot keeps boiling. Russia sees the current political dispensation in the form of division of powers in President and Chief Executive of Afghanistan as a more US-oriented system. Russia has been wishing to reinstall former Afghan President Hamid Karzai to the leadership position as evident from his recent visits to Moscow in the last few months.

Russia wishes to replicate the regional collaboration strategy in Afghanistan by aligning with Iran, China, Central Asia and India to establish peace in the region. The same strategy has been followed by the Russians in Syria where they have aligned with Iran and Turkey to defeat the Islamic State militancy and anti-Assad rebels. The biggest drawback in this strategy is the absence of Russian assets on the ground in Afghanistan unlike in Syria. Therefore, this report of aligning with the Taliban could be an effort in this direction by the Russians.

US Russia Rivalry | Are the fears of the Russians justified in Afghanistan?

Russians believe that Islamic State is gaining ground in Afghanistan and it could be another arena for conflict between Islamic State fighters and the Russians. However, the experts believe that these concerns are exaggerated and the Salafists ideology is marginal in Afghanistan. Taliban is driven and stretched for so long due to the philosophical underpinnings of the ‘Deobandi’ movement.

As far as the issue of drugs is concerned, Taliban does not control poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, except once when they acted as ‘market stabilisers’ due to excess cultivation in Afghanistan. During that period, Taliban enforced ruthless market stabilisation techniques under the leadership of Mullah Omar, who is absent today and the leadership vacuum makes Taliban a weak force to be easily dealt with in Afghanistan.

There is no issue in opening channels of communication with the Taliban to secure one’s strategic interests, but the outright military support to them could boomerang to the Russians similar to the Americans in the last decade.

US Russia Rivalry | American response to Russian peace initiatives

The US has described the Russian initiative to Afghanistan as a ‘unilateral’ attempt to assert influence in the region, even when it is in practice a multilateral initiative to find solutions for the conflict. Americans do not find it constructive at this point because of their own strategic calculations.

The meeting of the Russia-led peace initiative in December was third in such direction. While the previous two meetings were low key, the third meeting in December was planned at a higher level of government participation from all the multiple stakeholders, yet it excluded Afghanistan from the talks. Therefore, it created a range of controversies and raised questions about the Russian initiative.

The American position is justified in the context that it has boots on the ground and with such presence, it wishes to utilise the present stalemate in peace negotiations to strengthen Afghan soldiers to prepare them for the future war of struggle of power.

US Russia Rivalry | Confusion in American strategic calculations about Afghanistan

America continues to be suffering from a basic dilemma of ‘how to contain Taliban’, even after close to two decades of entanglement with the Afghan affairs. Moscow has been alerting the Americans that until the safe havens in Pakistan are destroyed, Taliban will continue to flourish in Afghanistan and this quagmire would only get deeper with every thrust on Afghan soil by the NATO or even Russian forces.

The military aid given to Pakistan is being used to flourish Taliban in madrasas of Pakistan. Until these sanctuaries are destroyed, the issue cannot be resolved. The Americans understand it, yet they prefer to surrender themselves to Pakistan for petty contemporary interests.

US Russia Rivalry | India’s strategic realignment

Under the Modi Government, India has shown the political will to meet Afghanistan’s request for lethal supplies in the form of combat helicopters. The US has requested India to continue its military and developmental assistance to Afghanistan as both have been astoundingly successful in its objectives so far in Afghanistan.

Among the Afghan National Army, the Special Forces Division is actually capable of giving a tough blow to Taliban. Hence, there is a need to strengthen this small 17,000 men division to ensure a peaceful post-NATO period for Afghanistan. India has been actually training this division on Indian soil to manage a rapid action force to secure Afghan sovereignty over its territory.

US Russia Rivalry | Conclusion

India should make a discreet contact with the Taliban but we should take the Afghan Government in the loop to ensure stability and peace in the region. Each stakeholder already has established contacts with the Taliban at different levels, India should maximise its channels of communication with most of the Taliban factions. It is high time for the Americans and the Russians to realise that a Pakistan engineered Taliban would be deplorable for not just India and Afghanistan, but for the rest of the world too.

Raj Malhotra IAS Study Group.