The Russia, China and Pakistan informal alliance on Afghanistan, met in Moscow in end December and put forward plans to take discussions forward. They agreed to invite the affected nation, Afghanistan, for its subsequent interactions, however ignored India and the US. There are claims,in the media, of this axis haunting India. While such an axis would be worrisome, as Russia, an erstwhile Indian supporter, joins hands with two anti-India nations, China and Pakistan,however, realistically the alliance has been formed more out of individual national interests rather than being anti-India.
The security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated in the recent past. The unity government remains hampered by lack of cooperation between alliance partners. The US, with its limited deployment, has been unable to stem the spread of violence and the Taliban appears to be gaining ground. 2016 has been amongst the worst years for the country. Casualties within the Afghan military have been at an all-time high and the Taliban controls almost twenty percent of the country. The IS has also established its presence and attracted erstwhile fighters from the Pak and Afghan Taliban factions as also from the al Qaeda. Its estimated strength varies between two to three thousand fighters. Post the IS leader Al-Baghdadi calling the late Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, ‘a fool and an illiterate warlord’, the Taliban declared jihad on the IS.
Russia and China blame the US for the current situation in Afghanistan. While the US has reduced its presence in the country, it has failed to ensure peace nor degraded the Taliban, while the Afghan military is ill equipped to ensure security. This instability has led to the increased presence of the IS. The Afghan government on the other hand blames Pakistan’s policy of providing sanctuary and support to the Taliban for the present situation. The Afghan Government considers both the Taliban and the IS as equal threats, since they target the population and the state. Russia and China are willing to support the Taliban and are in talks with them, basically because they battle the ISIS.
For Russia, Pakistan and China, the IS threat is real. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, forming part of the Central Asian Republics (CAR), still under Russian influence, border Afghanistan and hence are directly affected by the Afghan conflict. Further, the Chechen crackdown in Russia had resulted in thousands of rebel Chechen fighters joining the IS in Iraq and Syria. As the war in West Asia moves to its termination stage, these fighters are likely to seek newer pastures. In its present condition, Afghanistan appears most ideal. Russia fears the inflow of Chechens and Uzbeks into Afghanistan and subsequently back into theirregions. This could increase difficulties for the Russians, who were barely able to control the Chechen rebellion. They would prefer them being dealt with in Afghanistan itself.
For China, trouble continues to brew in Xinjiang province. Terrorist incidents are on the rise while Chinese media only reports a part of the true picture. China blames the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and related terror groups for the same. It is also known that these groups have their sanctuaries in Pakistan and are provided shelter and training by Pak based terror groups. China claims that Uighur radicals who have returned from Syria are planning strikes in a big way in the region. China has therefore declared Uighur and IS as interconnected, while exiled Uighur leaders disagree with the Chinese claim. Employing this excuse, China has increased repression in the region and barred locals from owning passports or travelling abroad.
Pakistan is the most affected nation. It borders Afghanistan and would be the first to be injected with the IS outflow. The threat is real, as disillusioned members of the Pakistan Taliban are joining the IS. It could easily infiltrate into remote parts of the state and adversely impact the security situation. IS already has support within the country and there are regular reports of arrest of its cadres from as deep as Karachi. Due to instability in Afghanistan, military operations by the Pak army results in IS shifting base to Afghanistan and subsequentlyreturning.
India is presently relatively safe,unless Pakistan or Bangladesh, are deeply impacted. Small cells do exist; however, a true threat is still some distance away. For Russia, China and Pakistan, it is their national interests which has governed the creation of this alliance. They are willing to take any measure to stem the advance of the IS into the region. Hence, the alliance nations are in touch with the Taliban. The Pak ISI’s proximity to the Taliban is well established and it could have acted as the go-between the nations of the alliance and the Taliban. It was reported that a Taliban delegation visited China, while the Russian ambassador to Afghanistan admitted to interactions with them.
For India, Afghanistan and the US, the Taliban is the enemy. President Ghani had commented in the ‘Heart of Asia’ summit, that if Pakistan stops providing bases to the Taliban, it would cease to exist in as short a span as one month. Materialistically, each nation visualizes the scenario in Afghanistan from its own security point of view.
The future of the alliance would depend on what policy the new US government adopts towards Afghanistan. If it increases troop presence and enhances their involvement or engages into a closer alliance with Russia on degrading the IS, then the alliance may vanish into the unknown. If it continues with its present policy of limited engagement, then the alliance may seek to support the Taliban to protect their own interests. Simplistically, the enemies of one group of nations isa friend of the other, again proving the adage, ‘there are no permanent allies or enemies, only interests’.
(The author is a retired Major General of the Indian Army )