By Ayaz Ahmed
The recent Russian diplomatic overtures towards Afghan peace and its secret rapprochement with the Taliban show that Russia wants to play a new Great Game in Afghanistan.
In this regard, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have capitalised on the fateful election of Donald Trump as the US president to steadily outsmart Uncle Sam in Afghanistan. Under President Xi Jinping, China is also poised to stand by this ‘Russian strategic adventure’ against US preeminence in the region.
This emerging new Great Game is likely to result in the formation of a new security partnership in South Asia, making the region a major centre of power politics for two to three decades. Given its vital geostrategic location, Pakistan should brace itself diplomatically and militarily because the projected Russo-American muscle-flexing and saber-rattling will have adverse impacts on the country’s security dynamics and economy.
The Russian strategic incursion in Crimea and its successful bolstering of the tottering Assad regime in Syria have ‘potentially’ emboldened Putin to smartly play his diplomatic cards with regard to the lingering Afghan stability. This Russian diplomatic manoeuvring is chiefly calculated to outweigh the US’s diminishing military presence in Afghanistan.
Russia began its new Great Game in Afghanistan in 2007 when it established communication with the Taliban. When a delegation from the Afghan Taliban’s Qatar office visited Iran in May 2015 for talks on countering Daesh in Afghanistan, some Russian officials are believed to have taken part in the deliberations. The Taliban have lately disclosed that Russia provided tactical support to them for the takeover of Kunduz in October 2015.
Russia’s ongoing flirtations with the Taliban and its sudden interest in Afghan peace are designed to attain some economic and military objectives in the region. First, resurgent Russia cherishes the grand dream of watching American failure in terms of defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan. Moscow considers Afghanistan a suitable war theatre to ravage its cold war rival that trained and funded the mujahideen to defeat the Red Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
To maximise this objective, Russia is believed to have supplied arms to the Taliban for the takeover of the northern city of Kunduz. Russia will presumably continue to maintain intelligence coordination with the Afghan Taliban and support the group with arms and ammunitions against US and Nato forces in Afghanistan.
Second, Russia not only wishes to dominate Afghanistan’s uranium resources, it also wants to spread its economic and military wings to the Persian Gulf via the Chabahar Port. Moscow has already connected itself with Afghanistan by means of road and rail links through energy-rich Central Asia. India, Russia’s long-standing regional partner, has built a 600-kilometre-long highway linking Chabahar to Zahedan in Iran’s north. New Delhi has also completed the Delaram-Zaranj Highway in the Nimruz province of Afghanistan, thus connecting the Delaram district in Afghanistan to the northern border of Iran.
Given the long-lasting friendship and convergent strategic interests between Iran and Russia in the region, Tehran is likely to permit Moscow to use its transport and port infrastructure to access the warm waters of the region. But insecurity and insurgency in Afghanistan will create impediments to the Russian dream of reaching the Persian Gulf. Russia has, therefore, decided to reset its relations with the Taliban so as to rely on the insurgent group to safeguard its supply line through Afghanistan.
Third, Russia is highly apprehensive about the spillover effects of Daesh over the Central Asian Republics (CARs). As per latest estimates, there are about 2,700 Russians and nearly 4,000 Central Asian fighters within the fold of the militant group. So far, America and the Afghan government have displayed a lack of seriousness to flush Daesh out of terror-infested Afghanistan.
Russia is suspicious that the US may have allowed Daesh to overtly establish its foothold in Afghanistan so as to weaken the Taliban and create debilitating instability in the Russian backyard. The Kremlin has decided to partner with the Taliban in order to weaken Daesh in Afghanistan so that it cannot pose a security threat to the Russian peripheries.
Fourth, Russia has shown concern over the supply of Central Asian gas to South Asia through the US-sponsored Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (Tapi) Pipeline. Russia is opposed to Tapi because it wants the CARs to remain dependent on it as the main purchaser of natural gas. Such reliance will help Russia play an overriding role in the security matters of the region. Moreover, Moscow is fearful of US interference in Central Asian security domain because Washington has already shown its willingness to acquire Turkmenistan’s Mary airbase for the security of Tapi.
Russia has continued to use backstairs influence to discourage the CARs from diversifying their natural gas markets to energy-starved South Asia. To divert Pakistan’s attention from Tapi, Moscow has repeatedly offered Islamabad all-out assistance for the construction of Islamabad’s share of the IP gas pipeline. However, the PML-N government has not shown the inclination to complete its portion of the IP due to the apprehension that economic sanctions could be snapped back on Iran anytime in the future.
Now, Moscow is trying to these if the Afghan Taliban can block the supply of Central Asian energy resources to South Asia. In this regard, Russia has taken a surprising step by burying the hatchet with those Taliban leaders who once played a pivotal role in inflicting a humiliating defeat on the Russian predecessor – the Soviet Union – in Afghanistan. Apparently, the failure of Tapi will compel the CARs to remain heavily dependent on Russia as the main buyer of their natural gas.
Fifth, more and more Central Asian states are falling under China’s economic influence in the region. If China continues increasing its economic footprint, Russia will probably lose its hegemonic role in the region. This has prompted Putin to merge the Russian-backed Eurasian Economic Union with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Therefore, Putin is trying to reset relations with the Taliban so that the insurgent groups will support Russia for the protection of this grand connectivity initiative in Afghanistan.
Lastly, the cultivation of drugs in Afghanistan has severely impacted Russia over the past five decades. Russia is not only a transit route for Europe-bound Afghan opiate, it is also a major consumer market. According to some estimates, the Russians consume around a fifth of the world’s opiate supply. For the Kremlin, it is imperative to partner with the Taliban and work with them to block opiate smuggling to mainland Russia.
The Trump administration is increasingly perturbed over the Russian inclination towards Afghan reconciliation and its geostrategic interests in the region. What is important to note is that the US is inclined to stay in Afghanistan to contain China’s influence and monitor Iranian and Pakistan’s nuclear programmes.
So, Russia’s new Great Game will prompt the Trump administration to increase its military and intelligence presence in Afghanistan. The declining superpower will evidently employ punitive diplomacy, disruptive power and deliberately meddle in China’s Xinjiang unrest, Balochistan’s low-intensity insurgency and Iran’s clandestine nuclear programme.
Pakistan should move cautiously and avoid siding with any of the two rival powers with regard to the unfolding new Great Game in Afghanistan. The government needs to take only those diplomatic steps which serve the country’s greater national interests.
The writer edits The Asia Watch.
The article was originally published in The News.