Pakistani foreign minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif’s visit to Russia from Feb. 19 to Feb. 22 was a desperate attempt by Islamabad to woo Moscow into countering mounting American pressure on Pakistan to close safe havens used by the Taliban, most notably the Haqqani network. However, the growing Moscow-Islamabad bonhomie is not good news for Washington’s current Afghan strategy, as it unmistakably signifies changing Russian perceptions and priorities in South Asia. Pakistan and Russia are now aligning their approach to support a “political solution” to the Afghan conflict, which effectively means the Taliban’s rehabilitation in Afghan governing structures on Pakistani terms.
Several factors have brought Russia and Pakistan closer, including U.S. President Donald Trump’s aggressive posture toward Pakistan and the U.S.’s quest for a Taliban military defeat. Pakistan’s security establishment is strongly opposed to these policies and is trying hard to find trusted friends in its neighborhood. Moscow feels that Washington’s insistence on defeating the Taliban on the battlefield will only prolong American military presence in Afghanistan. It also diverts attention from the rising threat of ISIS’s Khorasan affiliate in Afghanistan’s north, which Russia sees as a direct threat to both its own national security and that of the Central Asian states within its sphere of influence.
Russia’s growing ties with Pakistan are primarily aimed at serving two strategic purposes for Moscow. First, to blunt the threat of ISIS-Khorasan, and second, to undermine American influence. On Feb. 1, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zemir Kabulov, warned that “ISIS has nearly 7,000 active fighters, without taking into account several thousand of reservists.” Since Russian and Central Asian citizens constitute a sizeable chunk of ISIS, Pakistan is more than keen to exploit a Russian sense of vulnerability.
The fight against ISIS-Khorasan has led to an unlikely alliance of convenience between Russia and the Taliban. Russians are of the view that ISIS is a global threat and see the Taliban as a localized phenomenon. In December 2015, Kabulov stated that “Taliban interests objectively coincide with ours... Both the Afghan and the Pakistani Taliban have said they don’t recognize ISIS and they don’t recognize the ISIS leader [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi as the caliph; that is very important.” Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Alexander Mantyskiy, conceded in December 2016 that Moscow maintained relations with the Taliban in order to ensure the safety of Russian citizens in Afghanistan. During his visit to India in December 2017, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that Russia was in favor of diplomatic engagement with the Taliban, relating that no Afghan peace settlement could proceed without the Taliban’s participation.
Even though Moscow’s links with the Taliban have begun to strain Russia-Afghanistan and Russia-India relations, it is driven by a number of security concerns. Russian policymakers believe that dialogue with the Taliban, which they see as essential for maintaining long-term political stability in Afghanistan, would reduce the risk of terrorism diffusing from Afghanistan to Central Asia. They also believe that Pakistan can play a vital role in bringing peace to Afghanistan. On Feb. 20, Russia appointed an honorary consul to Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, prompting the provincial governor to term it a “new chapter” of renewed diplomatic ties between Pakistan and Russia.
Russia has also hosted regular diplomatic talks on resolving the Afghan crisis, ranging from the Moscow-Islamabad-Beijing summit in December 2016 to a multi-nation conference involving the Central Asian states, Iran, India and Afghan representatives in April 2017. These have yielded little fruit as far as reconciliation is concerned.
Pakistan too does not waste any opportunity to project itself as a valued partner in countering the threat of ISIS-Khorasan. Moscow and Islamabad are now planning to establish a commission on military cooperation to counter ISIS. On Feb. 20, Sergey Lavrov stated that, “We have confirmed Russia’s readiness to continue boosting Pakistan’s counterterrorism capacity, which is in the entire region’s interests.” This is ironic given that Pakistan has been accused by Washington, Kabul and New Delhi of exporting terrorism in the region. Moreover, Moscow’s efforts to accommodate the Taliban as an instrument against ISIS-Khorasan are bound to negatively impact the geopolitics of Afghan conflict.
Pakistan’s enhanced relationship with Russia assumes particular significance in the wake of steep decline in relations between Washington and Islamabad. American and Afghan officials have repeatedly demanded that Pakistan take decisive action against the Taliban and Haqqani network fighters operating on its soil. As the U.S. continues to threaten the Pakistani military with punitive sanctions, and Washington continues to stall military sales, Pakistan is desperate to stave off U.S. pressure by cozying up to Russia. In Moscow, Khawaja Asif repeated what has been Pakistan’s stance on the resolution of the Afghan conflict: “The presence of foreign forces [the U.S. and NATO] in Afghanistan has achieved nothing over the last 17 years. Their monumental failures in Afghanistan and there is an effort to (blame) Pakistan and other countries for these failures.”
The Afghan conflict is one in which no single power holds the key to resolution. Though the ISIS-Khorasan is trying to take advantage of Afghanistan’s political and ethnic divisions, it has little future in the country. In fact, ISIS-Khorasan is more of a noxious nuisance than a strategic menace to Afghanistan as it does not control much Afghan territory: it predominantly operates in parts of Nangarhar province, particularly in areas where neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban have much control. It is largely made up of anti-Pakistan militants as well as disgruntled Taliban elements. Moreover, the sheer brutality of ISIS-Khorasan methods has aroused much local resistance.
If Pakistan takes decisive action to deny ISIS-Khorasan sanctuary on its soil and shows genuine willingness to cooperate with the Afghan government, ISIS-Khorasan would never be able to expand its territorial reach. The best course of action would be to strengthen the feeble Afghan security forces in their fight against the Taliban and ISIS-Khorasan, rather than emboldening the Taliban in an attempt to weaken ISIS-Khorasan.
Photo by: Mikhail Tereshchenko\TASS via Getty Images