At a high-level meeting held in Moscow on December 27, 2016, representatives from Russia, China and Pakistan underlined the growing influence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Afghanistan and the deteriorating security situation in the region.
According to the statement issued at the end of the meeting: "The Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China as the UN Security Council permanent members confirmed their flexible approach to delisting Afghan individuals from the UN sanctions lists as their contribution to the efforts aimed at launching peaceful dialogue between Kabul and Taliban."
What has surprised everyone is the exclusion of Afghanistan from the negotiations, apparently aimed at discussing the security situation in conflict-ridden Afghanistan. This trilateral initiative stands in open contrast to the publicly-stated positions of all the countries of supporting the Afghan-owned and Afghan-led reconciliation process. Sensing the mounting Afghan opposition, the group has finally decided to include Afghanistan in the next meeting. While Iran is soon going to be part of the group, there is no proposal to involve India.
Much to India's disappointment, the emerging axis between Moscow, Islamabad and Beijing seems to have put Pakistan in the driver's seat, according it greater control over the future of Afghanistan.
|Russia's engagement with the Taliban, its military cooperation with Pakistan and possible support for the CPEC have the potential to harm India's vital strategic interests. Photo: PTI|
Russia's diplomatic efforts to accommodate the Taliban as an instrument against the ISIS, in tandem with Pakistan and China, may also have unexpected ramifications for Indo-Russian ties. The Indian leadership, both publicly and behind diplomatic corridors, has been trying to convince Russia that Pakistan is the fountainhead of terrorism in the region. But India's traditional ally Russia is not convinced.
Even though Russia' diplomatic engagement with the Taliban has begun to strain Moscow-Kabul ties, as well as put Russia's historic and strategic partnership with India at great risk, Moscow's engagement with the Taliban is driven by a number of counterterrorism and security reasons.
Russian foreign policymakers believe that engagement with the Taliban is essential for maintaining long-term political stability in Afghanistan; Moscow can use the Taliban's opposition to Islamic State (ISIS) to further Russia's counter-terrorism objectives; and Pakistan's role is crucial in bringing peace to war-torn Afghanistan.
The Russian leadership views the Taliban as a useful partner in its fight against the ISIS. Putin has long worried about jihadists from former Soviet republics joining the ISIS' fight in Syria. For this very reason, Russia sees ISIS as a particular threat in a way it doesn't see Taliban.
Speaking in December 2015, President Putin's special representative to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, candidly acknowledged that "Taliban interests objectively coincide with ours... We have communication channels with the Taliban to exchange information".
In December 2016, Russia's ambassador to Afghanistan, Alexander Mantyskiy, conceded that Moscow maintained relations with the Taliban, while insisting that Russia's contacts with the Taliban were not "intensive" and aimed only at ensuring the safety of Russian citizens.
The war against the ISIS has necessitated a most unlikely alliance of convenience between Russia and Taliban, and between Pakistan and Russia. Moscow's diplomatic outreach toward the Taliban has provided legitimacy to the Taliban insurgency and frustrated the efforts of the Afghan government to militarily defeat the Taliban.
The Russian argument hinges on the view that ISIS is a global threat, while the Taliban is just a localised phenomenon. Even as Russia is more worried about the ISIS than about losing India's friendship, Pakistani policymakers are making all-out efforts to be seen as acting in Russian interests. Islamabad does not want to miss the historic opportunity of exploiting Russia's sense of vulnerability arising from the ISIS threat.
Russia's major strategic partners in the region Iran and China have also increased their engagement with the Taliban. Strategically, these circumstances have put Pakistan in a more advantageous position than India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi categorically stated in Amritsar in early December 2016 that action should be taken not only against the forces of terrorism, "but also against those who support, sustain, train and finance them".
India also continues to oppose the integration of the Taliban into the Afghan government so long as it does not renounce terrorism. At a time when New Delhi has been trying hard to isolate Islamabad for supporting terrorism in the region, Russia is moving toward greater acceptance of Pakistan, much like China has done.
During the last two years, several high-ranking Pakistani officials have travelled to Moscow to boost bilateral ties, which has also resulted in the Mi-35 helicopter deal between the two countries.
The growing bonhomie reflected in the first-ever Russia-Pakistan joint military exercise held in September 2016 in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, and the first-ever Russia-Pakistan consultation on regional issues in mid-December 2016 at Islamabad.
Moreover, after initially denying Pakistani media reports that Russia would join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and acquire access to the Gwadar port, Russia's ambassador to Pakistan, Alexey Y Dedov, has now clarified that Moscow and Islamabad have held discussions to merge the China-backed CPEC with Russia-backed Eurasian Economic Union.
Although Russia continues to insist that its ties with Pakistan will not come at the cost of its ties with India, Moscow's tilt towards Islamabad has certainly injected growing uncertainty in the direction of the India-Russia relationship.
Russia's engagement with the Taliban, its military cooperation with Pakistan and possible support for the CPEC have the potential to harm India's vital strategic interests.
US President-elect Donald Trump has indicated that he wishes to curtail American military involvement worldwide. If the Trump administration continues with the previous US policy of supporting the peace process led by the Ashraf Ghani-led national unity government, it will allow India to continue with its current policy of deeper economic and strategic partnership with Afghanistan. But if Trump decides to reduce Washington's focus on Kabul, India's options would be very limited.
Although there may be uneasy times ahead for India's relationship with Russia, the Indian diplomacy will have to be both dynamic and imaginative to secure New Delhi's security interests in Afghanistan.