Russia Eyes Afghanistan As US Strategy Falters
NEW DELHI: Russia recently held a six nation conference on conflict-torn Afghanistan’s future in Moscow, inviting India, Iran, Pakistan, China, and Afghanistan. The conference was Russia’s second major intervention on Afghanistan, after it had hosted a tripartite meet last year that involved only itself, China and Pakistan.
“The participants agreed to step up efforts to promote the intra-Afghan peace process while maintaining the leading role of Kabul and observing the previously agreed upon principles of integrating the armed opposition into peaceful coexistence,” a press release issued at the end of the conference reads.
Russia’s decision to broaden involvement came after Moscow faced flak for not inviting Afghanistan in the conference last year. The Afghan government lodged a formal protest, alleging that Moscow was deepening ties with the Taliban -- a charge that was further bolstered when it emerged that the December conference agreed upon “a flexible approach to remove certain [Taliban] figures from [United Nations] sanctions lists as part of efforts to foster a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban movement.”
The Conference also stated that the Taliban was an essential bulwark to counter the growing influence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, indicating that Russia’s intervention in the region would involve the militant group in a more strategic capacity.
Even as Russia expanded involvement in the conference this year, the United States and NATO were pointedly left out. The third instalment is meant to further widen the scope to Central Asian countries, but again, there is no plan to include Washington or Nato as yet.
Moscow’s efforts to sideline Washington have received their own share of flak, with commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, outrightly blaming Russia for deteriorating security situation in the troubled country. Addressing a senate panel earlier this month, Nicholson said that Russia was seeking to undermine the US and Nato in Afghanistan and added that there was concern “about the increasing level” of unspecified Russian support for Taliban insurgents.”
The United States on its part is in a flux in terms of its Afghan policy, as President Donald Trump has failed to outline a strategy since coming to power. General Nicholson formally requested more troops in Afghanistan, saying that several thousand new troops would be needed to break the stalemate in the country. It is worth reiterating that the request for more troops comes after plans to rollback American troops were repeatedly extended and modified during Obama’s presidency, and even today, more than 13,000 Nato military personnel remain in Afghanistan, most of whom are American. The original plan was to withdraw all troops by Afghanistan by 2014.
Trump, interestingly, has publicly advocated the rollback of US troops from Afghanistan, and there is no clear indication regarding how he will respond to the General’s request. Although he has moved on several fronts since assuming Presidency, Trump has remained uncharacteristically silent on Afghanistan, and the little that he has said has been largely contradictory.
In the past, Trump has described the US’ involvement in Afghanistan as a “disaster” -- indicating that US troops should be brought home. However, when he spoke to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in December last year, he assured the American-supported Afghan President of Washington’s continuing cooperation. Following the assurance, Trump failed to invite Afghanistan to his inauguration -- sending circles buzzing about the Trump administration’s potentially changing stance on Afghanistan.
The reality, however, is that no matter how Trump’s administration responds, the disasters of the war in Afghanistan are becoming increasingly apparent. Despite a 15 year engagement and billions of dollars pumped in, not to mention lives lost, the Afghan government today controls less territory than it did at any point since the invasion in 2001. The Taliban is growing stronger, with civilian casualties rising year after year to record levels.
Russia has clearly decided to step in and make the most of the vacuum that is emerged through the US’ confused strategy on Afghanistan. The two conferences last year and now indicate a major shift in Russian foreign policy toward Afghanistan, marking the first time Moscow has shown an interest in the country since the end of the cold war.