Afghanistan and its Evolving Regional Dynamics
On 15 February 2017, Russia hosted a six-party meeting with high level officials and special envoys from Afghanistan, Iran, India, Pakistan and China to discuss the Afghan security situation and potential for stabilizing the area. This was not the first Moscow-led meeting on the matter with regional countries. The previous meeting was held in December 2016 and involved officials from Russia, China and Pakistan. There have been other such meetings in 2016. The US was not a participant in any of the meetings.
Considerable evidence of Pakistan’s dubious role in Afghanistan’s security situation exists, and as a result, Islamabad’s role becomes important in any attempt towards resolving the security problems in Afghanistan. The other players of consequence are Moscow, Beijing, Washington and Tehran. The direction in which relations between these countries evolve will determine the course of developments vis-à-vis Afghanistan. Due to the complex nature of interests and objectives of all players, a straightforward shaping of alliances seems unlikely.
At the meeting in February, there was consensus regarding maintaining the peace process as an Afghan-led initiative and “observing the previously agreed upon principles of integrating the armed opposition into peaceful coexistence,” found a mention in the press release issued after the meeting. Significantly, the parties also agreed on the necessity to explore the potential of the Central Asian countries to boost regional efforts towards securing stability in Afghanistan should there be a possible expansion of the negotiation format.
However, different actors view these two aspects of the meeting differently. Russia’s keenness to take on an active role in Afghanistan is not surprising. Moscow is apprehensive of insecurity spilling over from Afghanistan into Central Asia – a natural resource rich region that Russia views as its strategic backyard and zone of influence. Moscow’s preference to negotiate with the Afghan Taliban appears to stem from a potential assessment that the Taliban would be more manageable than groups like al Qaeda or IS as they have not exhibited an expansionist agenda. How this calculation plays out for Afghanistan and the region remains to be seen. However, it is evident that Russia intends to take on a larger role in shaping relations in the region.
Conversely, the emphasis on “…integrating the armed opposition into peaceful coexistence,” is particularly unnerving for considerable sections of the US administration – especially the military. The US military was of the opinion that Russia, in its attempt to tackle the Islamic State-Khurasan (IS-K), was legitimising the Afghan Taliban with an ulterior motive of undermining the US and the NATO’s influence in the country – as demonstrated in the Commander of the US Forces in Afghanistan Gen John Nicholson’s recent testimony to the Senate. Citing manpower requirements in the ‘Train and Assist’ mission, Gen Nicholson indicated the need and means to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan and said “we have a shortfall of a few thousand. This is the NATO assist mission. It can come from the U.S. and allies.”
On the other hand, any potential role of the Central Asian countries will be systematically monitored by both Russia and China – both of whom have strategic interests in the region. Moscow views Central Asia as its zone of influence. Beijing, due to its several trade, logistics and energy deals with the Central Asian countries, undoubtedly seeks stability in that region and would not want those to be vulnerable to Russia’s influence.
Meanwhile, relations between Russia and China are on the upswing. Numerous high level meetings have been scheduled between the two countries, giving both sides ample opportunity to consult and strategize. In a related development, both Russia and China expressed similar positions in opposing the current US administration’s aggressive stance against Iran. It is unlikely that Moscow and Beijing will change their stances in the foreseeable future.
Unsurprisingly, the US would not view such developments as favourable. Yet, Gen Nicholson’s testimony did not contain a sentiment of antipathy towards China – which is a participant in the Russia-led initiative, as well as in the US-led Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) along with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Interestingly, two days after the Moscow meeting, the Afghan Presidential Palace demanded that Pakistan implement its commitments – to eliminate all forms of terrorist groups, regardless of their national origin, operating in its territory – under the aegis of the QCG. This is significant, because the US-led QCG – which does not include Russia, Iran or India – had been relegated as a lost cause by many after a fallout between Kabul and Islamabad in 2016. It is possible that a nudge from the US has some role to play in the recent change of stance and could point towards an attempt by the US to revive the QCG to counter Russia’s regional manoeuvres.
Overall, it appears that the US wants to retain its influence in the region and senses an increased need for urgency. Although US President Donald Trump’s rhetoric has been that of wanting to improve US-Russia relations, it is not inconceivable that Washington will not prefer a cooperation where Moscow sets the agenda towards resolving the conflict in Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban – which reportedly controls at least 5-10% of the Afghan territory (albeit the figures vary and are disputed because Afghan security forces recaptured several territories they had lost) – will launch their 2017 spring offensive in a few weeks. If Gen Nicholson’s testimony is any indication, the US will need to decide on troop levels before precious time is lost. The attempted exhumation of the QCG is telling. In this evolving situation, it might be useful to watch how China balances its relations with the US and Russia on Afghanistan.
Views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the organisations to which she is affiliated.
Image "31st Georgian Light Infantry Battalion" Courtesy DVIDSHUB/CC BY 2.0
About the Author
Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy is Assistant Director, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi, where she also coordinates the Institute's Centre for Internal and Regional Security. Her research focuses on security dynamics and politics in South Asia and West Asia, covering issues in international security, armed conflict, peace processes, and political stability. She has been a South Asia Visiting Fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington DC.