A Russia-led initiative involving China and Pakistan that seeks a political settlement to Afghanistan’s civil war has the makings of a diplomatic alliance that could supplant the United States as the leading power in Central Asia.
The grouping was unveiled after a third meeting in Moscow late last month and may be expanded to include regional powers Iran and Turkey, which formed a separate tripartite grouping on Syria with Russia in talks preceding the parleys on Afghanistan.
The Afghan government reacted angrily to the Moscow meeting, to which it had not been invited, because the meeting proposed the relaxation of UN restrictions on the movement of key Taliban figures involved in pre-dialogue negotiations. This contradicted Kabul’s call in November for the UN to blacklist Taliban chief Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada because of his refusal to enter peace talks.
Instead, the tripartite talks in Moscow echoed one of two Taliban preconditions for dialogue with Kabul, reiterated by spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid earlier in December. The other condition is the withdrawal of US-led Nato forces from Afghanistan.
“This is a focused attempt to deal with the aftermath of Western withdrawal from Afghanistan and an opportunity that Russia senses might have opened up for itself in Central Asia. After West Asia, it’s Central Asia where [Russian President Vladimir] Putin feels he can reassert Russian authority and China is happy to provide a helping hand,” said Harsh V. Pant, a professor of international relations at King’s College London. “However, if we take the Indo-Pacific strategic landscape, there China is the leader and Russia will have to follow China’s lead.”
The emerging quid pro quo between Moscow and Beijing comes amid uncertainty over whether US president-elect Donald Trump will endorse an agreement reached last July by leaders of the Atlantic alliance to extend financial and military support to the Afghan security forces until the end of 2020.
Since Trump’s election victory, Nato leaders have repeatedly warned an earlier withdrawal of US forces would have disastrous consequences for the Afghan government, which has lost control of significant territory to the Taliban since its forces assumed leadership of the war effort in January 2015.
At the heart of the Russian move lies a September 2014 bilateral security pact between Afghanistan and the US that allows the Pentagon to maintain nine military bases across Afghanistan after Nato forces pull out.
Zamir Kabulov, Putin’s special envoy to Afghanistan, last week said the US needed the bases to contain Russia’s resurgence as a leading player in West Asia and China’s growing influence in Asia. “Having this infrastructure as a basis, America will need two to four weeks to redeploy up to 100,000 soldiers on the same bases,” he told Anadolu news agency. “We warned Afghans from the very beginning [the security pact] may have implications for our bilateral relations if Americans use this infrastructure against our national interest.”
The tripartite talks on Afghanistan establish a forum to counter the influence of the US and its newfound security partner India, which has recently drawn close to the Afghan government after Pakistan proved unwilling to pressure, beyond a point, the Taliban leadership based on its soil to talk to Kabul.
India and the US agreed last year to allow their forces to use each other’s military bases, in response to increased Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean since President Xi Jinping assumed power in 2013.
The Indian minister of state for foreign affairs, M.J. Akbar, on Tuesday criticised the tripartite talks for excluding the Afghans, although India’s long-time friend Russia has said Kabul would be invited to participate in future meetings of the forum.
“We do not believe that holding meetings about Afghanistan alone is going the solve the problems of Afghanistan. Eventually, it is all about delivering benefits on the ground which [can be] seen by the people of Afghanistan.”
Any “political settlement has to be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled… Nothing else is going to work in Afghanistan”.
Under Xi’s flagship “One Belt, One Road” project, an initiative to link regional economies into a China-centred trading network, China has undertaken massive infrastructure investment in Pakistan that has given it overland access to the western Indian Ocean and oil-rich Persian Gulf for the first time, via the port of Gwadar.
Chinese warships have been deployed there to provide security escorts to Chinese commercial vessels which began using the Pakistani port in November.
As in Syria, Russia is casting its increased involvement in Afghanistan in the context of the growing Islamic State (IS) presence there, which Moscow claims has been boosted by the recent arrival of 700 IS families fleeing the Middle East. The statement issued after the talks in Moscow “expressed particular concern over the increasing activity of extremist groups in the country, including the Afghan wing of [IS]”.
The Afghan interior ministry on Tuesday said IS was now active in “at least” 11 of the country’s 34 districts.
By maintaining “limited contacts” with the Taliban, facilitated by the government of Tajikistan, to halt the spread of IS activity from Afghanistan to Central Asia, Russia is moving along lines similar to Iran, its ally in Syria. The Taliban last year agreed to work to prevent the spread of IS into Iran by establishing a buffer zone in neighbouring western and northern Afghan provinces.
Much will depend on whether Trump upholds his vow to prioritise the destruction of IS and works with Putin to that end. “Putin certainly thinks he can pull off ‘another Syria’. But Afghanistan is not Syria, and where battle lines were relatively clearly drawn in Syria, there are so many internal contradictions within Afghanistan and among regional players that Russia will find it hard to manage smoothly,” warned Pant.
“Putin thinks that with China’s help, he can manage Pakistan and the Taliban. It’s a tall order and regional rivalries will be hard to manage.”