Brahma Chellaney, DNA
India has an important stake in the future of Afghanistan, its natural ally and close friend for long. India, under successive governments, has been a major aid donor to Afghanistan. As the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, recently told his country’s Senate Armed Services Committee, “With over $2 billion development aid executed since 2002, and another $1 billion pledged in 2016, India’s significant investments in Afghan infrastructure, engineering, training, and humanitarian issues will help develop Afghan human capital and long-term stability.” Recent developments, however, do not augur well for Indian or Afghan interests.
Despite being ravaged by successive wars for the past 36 years, Afghanistan remains a playground for the foreign powers that have fomented or engaged in hostilities there. The latest developments suggest that the Afghanistan-related geopolitics is only getting murkier. In the process, the Taliban is acquiring strange new friends.
Russia and Iran, the traditional patrons of the Northern Alliance, are now openly mollycoddling the Taliban and giving it political succour. In this effort, they have the cooperation of China and Pakistan, thus creating a regional axis. This development represents a shot in the arm for the Taliban’s fight against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan and the government in Kabul.
Pakistan, of course, fathered the Taliban and remains its principal benefactor, providing safe havens on its territory to the militia. China, for its part, was just one of three countries along with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that recognized the Taliban regime in Kabul until it was overthrown in 2001 following the U.S. invasion. In fact, China and the Taliban announced a memorandum of understanding for economic and technical cooperation on the day two planes crashed into New York’s World Trade Center. Beijing is now again courting the Taliban. It has hosted at least one Taliban delegation and offered to mediate between Kabul and the rebels.
It is Russia’s U-turn on the Taliban, however, that stands out because it is strategically the most significant development. From a terrorist foe, the Taliban has become a potential ally for Moscow.
Russia’s apparent aim is to turn up the heat and raise the costs for the U.S. military’s continuing role in Afghanistan. It has even sought to obstruct the Afghan government’s U.S.-backed peace deal with a faded warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. While China has frustrated India’s moves to place the Pakistan-based terrorist Masood Azhar on the UN sanctions list, Moscow recently blocked Hekmatyar’s removal from the same list.
What makes the emerging regional axis more surprising is that Iran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia, continues to bankroll the Taliban. Another paradox is that two of America’s allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, are still aiding and abetting the U.S. military’s main battlefield enemy, the Taliban, which has killed hundreds of American soldiers.
As for Moscow, it has sought to underpin its policy shift by warming up to Pakistan. In order to cultivate ties with the Taliban, whose top leadership remains holed up in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, Russia is befriending Islamabad. Russia has held its first ever military exercise with Pakistan and is selling attack helicopters to it. Moscow is also negotiating a $2 billion natural gas pipeline contract with Islamabad.
The new developments in the Af-Pak belt carry major implications for Indian security. Although India and the Afghan government were invited to a round of discussions in Moscow this month, Russia is shaping its new Afghanistan policy not in cooperation with New Delhi and Kabul. Indeed, at the Heart of Asia conference in Amritsar in December, Russia’s special envoy on Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, made some critical comments about New Delhi and Kabul. Subsequently, after discussions with Pakistan in Moscow, Russia and China called for “flexible approaches” toward the Taliban and the removal of some its leaders from the UN sanctions list.
The Russian cooperation with the Taliban, while putting a damper on American efforts to reach a peace deal with that militia, is likely to exacerbate the security dynamics in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt, which already boasts, as Gen. Nicholson pointed out, “the highest concentration of terrorist groups anywhere in the world.” Put simply, Moscow’s new stance represents a setback for counterterrorism and for India’s Afghanistan policy.