Russia’s recent diplomatic overtures toward Afghan peace and its secret rapprochement with the Taliban show that the country wants to play a new “great game” in Afghanistan. In this regard, President Vladimir Putin seems to have capitalised on the election of Donald Trump as the US president to steadily outsmart Uncle Sam in . Under President Xi Jinping, China is also poised to stand by this ‘Russian strategic adventure’ against US pre-eminence in the region.
The new great game in Afghanistan is likely to culminate into the formation of a new security partnership in South Asia, making the region a major centre of power politics for, at least, the next two or three decades. Given its vital geostrategic position, Pakistan should brace itself diplomatically and militarily because the looming Russo-American muscle-flexing and sabre-rattling will have adverse impacts on the country’s security dynamics as well as the economy.
Russian’s strategic invasion of 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 question. This Russian diplomatic manoeuvring is chiefly calculated to outweigh the US’ diminishing clout in Afghanistan.
Russia began its new great game in Afghanistan back in 2007 when it established communication links with the Taliban. When a delegation from 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 had 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, the 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 pursue this objective, Russia supplied arms to the Taliban for the takeover of the northern city of Kunduz. Russia will presumably continue its intelligence coordination with the Afghan Taliban and providing 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 cordial friendship between Iran and Russia and their convergent strategic interests 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 lines through Afghanistan.
Third, Russia is highly apprehensive of the spillover effects of Daesh over the Central Asian Republics (CARs). As per the recent estimates, there are about 2,700 Russian and nearly 4,000 Central Asian fighters within the fold of the militant outfit. So far, America and the Afghan government have displayed a lack of seriousness to flush Daesh out of the terror-infested Afghanistan.
Russia suspects that the US has allowed Daesh to overtly establish its foothold in Afghanistan so as to weaken the Taliban and create debilitating instability in Russia’s backyard. The Kremlin has decided to partner with the Taliban in order to weaken Daesh in Afghanistan so that it may not 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 an all-out assistance for the construction of Islamabad’s share of the IP gas pipeline. However, the PML-N government has not shown its 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 has resorted to a rapprochement with the Afghan Taliban as they 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 Russia’s 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. If China continues increasing its economic footprint, Russia will probably lose its hegemonic role in the region. This has prompted Putin to merge the Russia-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 opium in Afghanistan has severely impacted Russia over the past five decades. Russia is not only a transit route for Europe-bound Afghan opium, but is also a major consumer market. According to some estimates, Russians consume around one-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 seems increasingly perturbed over the Russian inclination toward 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 the nuclear programmes of Iran and Pakistan.
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 will 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 such diplomatic steps that serve the country’s greater national interests.