Islamic State along Durand Line prompts new regional alliances – III
by Ramtanu Maitra on 13 Jan 2017 2 Comments

Regional Convergence: “Lesser of the Two Evils” Dictum at Play?


If President Ghani’s undercover alliance with Pakistan has been veiled, the change of heart vis-à-vis the Taliban by the big power to Afghanistan’s north, Russia, and Moscow’s establishment of a closer relationship with Pakistan, is now out in the open. Recently Russian Ambassador to Kabul Alexander Mantytskiy made clear that his government maintains ties with the Taliban insurgent group, though they are not “intensive,” as he put it.


“Yes, we do have contacts [with the Taliban] but they are aimed at ensuring safety of Russian nationals and encourage the Taliban to engage in peace talks [with Kabul],” Mantytskiy told the Afghan Senate Committee on International Relations in unprecedented testimony on Dec. 10 (“Afghanistan Continues to Fume over Russia’s Outreach to Taliban,” Ayaz Gul, Voice of America, Dec. 14, 2016).


Last year, Reuters cited Interfax agency quoting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, telling the news agency that Russia’s interests in Afghanistan “objectively coincide” with those of the Taliban movement in its fight against the Islamic State. Russia has established communication channels to exchange information with the Taliban, Kabulov told Interfax. Russia is also ready to supply weapons to Afghanistan, he said, but would do this “with caution and on a commercial basis” (“Russia’s interests coincide with Taliban’s in fight against ISIS: agency cites diplomat,” Reuters, Dec. 23, 2015).


It is also evident that the presumed threat of the ISKP could be one of the reasons Russia has begun making efforts to get closer to Pakistan. Like the Americans - who claim that though Pakistan is not extending its full help to stabilize the Afghan situation, Islamabad is a key ingredient for its resolution - Russia is apparently a believer that Pakistan’s help is necessary to get closer to a stabilized Kabul. Making its intent clearer, during a 16-day period from Sept. 24 to Oct. 10, Russia conducted its first-ever joint military exercises in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa province at a Special Forces academy. In addition, Russia has agreed to sell helicopters to Pakistan, lifting its decades-old arms embargo against Islamabad.


Russian interest in Pakistan had begun to emerge prior to the military exercise. On Oct. 16, 2015, Pakistan and Russia signed an intergovernmental agreement for the construction of a 1,100-kilometer pipeline with a capacity of 12.4 billion cubic meters from Lahore to Karachi. Russia agreed to invest $2 billion in the project, the first phase of which is expected to conclude by December 2017 (“Pakistan, Russia sign agreement for construction of North-South gas pipeline,”, Oct 16, 2015).


In the days following the military exercise, Pakistan offered Russia the use of Gwadar port, its new China-built port on Balochistan’s Makran coast on the Arabian Sea. The port is yet to become fully operational, and its use by foreign ships is still some way off. On the other hand, the Chinese navy has already been granted landing rights there.


The new Russo-Pakistani embrace cannot, however, be attributed solely to the new regional equation emerging around Afghanistan. Pakistan is already slated to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, where Russia is a major player and is deeply concerned about regional security, in 2017. Now that more than 25 years have passed since the dismantling of the Soviet Union, and Russia is in the process of developing closer relations with all Asian countries, it is only natural that Moscow would seek to develop an interactive relationship with Pakistan, a large and important Asian neighbor. Additionally, Russia’s access to the transportation corridor to move goods between China, Africa and Europe that China is in the process of installing through Pakistan could be of immense help to its own economy.


As for Afghanistan’s western neighbor, Iran, that country has long been involved in Afghan affairs. Historically, the Shi’a-majority nation under clerical rule has supported the Tajiks in the north and the Hazara Shi’as living in western Afghanistan. When Saudi Arabia, a sworn enemy of Iran, pumped in money and, with the help of Pakistan, set up Taliban rule in Afghanistan in 1996, Iran did not ignore the development. When U.S. troops moved into Afghanistan in 2001 and ousted the Taliban, Iran began cooperating with the United States.


Iran’s Increasing Support for the Taliban


The U.S. military relied heavily on Northern Alliance foot soldiers to defeat the Taliban. And Iran’s military, elements of which were embedded with Northern Alliance units, could well have assisted the U.S. military effort, Alireza Nader and Joya Laha pointed out in their Rand National Defense Research Institute’s Occasional Paper in 2011.


“Both Iran and the United States were eager to create a centralized Afghan government that would prevent the Taliban’s resurgence. Iran’s influence was instrumental in the establishment of the Karzai government. The Northern Alliance, dominated by Tajik commanders with close ties to Iran, was reluctant to share power with Hamid Karzai, a prominent Pashtun tribal leader. Iranian political pressure on Northern Alliance leaders during negotiations in Bonn, Germany, persuaded them to reach a compromise and agree to the formation of the new government,” Nader and Laha say.


“Iran has also played an active role in Afghanistan’s reconstruction since 2001; it initially pledged $570 million in 2002. At the Conference on Afghan Reconstruction held in February 2006, Iran pledged an additional $100 million in aid, making it one of the largest donor states since 2001. According to Danesh Yazdi, former Iranian representative to the United Nations, as of March 2007, Iran had spent more than $270 million of its pledge on ‘mutually agreed projects in the areas of infrastructure, technical and educational services and financial and in-kind assistance.’ Furthermore, Iran has substantially increased trade and investment between the two nations. Current annual bilateral trade stands at approximately $1.5 billion. Iran’s major investments in Afghanistan include infrastructure and education. One of Iran’s many development projects included a $100 million university” (“Iran’s Balancing Act in Afghanistan,” Occasional Paper: Rand National Defense Research Institute, Alireza Nader and Joya Laha, 2011).


But now Iran’s fears about the Taliban may have subsided, reports indicate. And the reason could be the threat of ISKP, an avowed enemy of the Shi’as, emerging in Afghanistan. As much as Iran disliked, if not feared, the American troops’ presence in Afghanistan, Tehran was quick to notice that the departure of the bulk of American troops in 2014 created a void in Afghanistan that neither Kabul, nor the Taliban, could fill. Tehran fears the void would attract a more virulent anti-Shi’a/anti-Iran terrorist group like the Islamic State. According to an article in Foreign Policy magazine, “Iran teams with Taliban to fight Islamic State in Afghanistan,” Iran now believes that the Islamic State poses a far greater threat than the Taliban.


Foreign Policy quoted the European Union’s special representative to Afghanistan, Ambassador Franz-Michael Mellbin, saying: “The Iranians are already trying to secure their immediate borders towards Afghanistan against ISIS penetration by working together with various groups - warlords [and] Taliban - along their own borders to create a buffer zone. They are already working on this.”


Mellbin also said Iran’s willingness to set aside its historic enmity toward the Taliban stems, in part, from its intensifying rivalry with Saudi Arabia. The article also cites an unnamed U.S. intelligence official who declined to comment on the nature of Iran’s cooperation with the Taliban, but said, “Given Iran’s efforts against ISIL elements in Syria and Iraq, it would not be surprising if Iran is concerned with retribution from ISIL affiliates, including ISIL’s Khorasan branch” (“Iran Teams With Taliban to Fight Islamic State in Afghanistan,” Yochi Dreazen, Foreign Policy, May 26).


Over the years, Iran’s contacts with the Taliban have been reported by the media. Last October, Pajhwok News Agency of Afghanistan cited Pakistan’s news daily Express Tribune report that said, “Maulvi Nek Muhammad, who was education director when Taliban ruled southern Kandahar province before being toppled in 2001, is the Taliban’s envoy in Tehran. ‘Maulvi Nek Muhammad is a frequent visitor to Iran,’ the newspaper quoted a source in the group as saying.”


Officially, Iran has never confirmed the Taliban visits; however, Iranian media close to the security establishment has confirmed such visits on several occasions, the Express Tribune noted. “Taliban leaders were now frequent visitors to Iran as they are campaigning to find new allies”, a second Taliban leader told the Express Tribune. “A three-member Taliban military delegation, headed by Military Commission Chief Ibrahim Sadr, visited Tehran this year in an apparent move to ‘seek military aid’ from Iran” (“Taliban enhance diplomatic contacts with Iran, Russia,” Pajhwok Report, Oct 17, 2016).


Iran assiduously denies reports of its contacts with the Taliban. However, it has been widely reported that Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansoor, the Taliban leader who succeeded Mullah Omar and was killed last May inside Pakistan by a missile fired from an U.S.-operated drone, had first entered Iran almost two months ago, according to immigration stamps in a Pakistani passport found in a bag near the wreckage of the taxi he was travelling in when he was killed. The passport, in the name of Wali Muhammad, also showed he had only just returned to Pakistan from the border crossing of Taftan, some 280 miles (450km) away from the site where he was killed, an area called Ahmed Wal, where he had stopped for lunch (“Death of Mullah Mansoor highlights Taliban’s links with Iran,” The Guardian, Jon Boone and Saeed Kamali Dehgan, May 23, 2016).


According to the Pajhwok report, the Taliban is seeking out Iran because of the increasingly lukewarm response it is getting from the Saudis. It is likely that the Saudis are now diverting most of their Wahhabi-promotional funds to the ISKP and have virtually abandoned the Afghan Taliban. According to The Guardian’s Farhad Peikar, from Tehran’s standpoint, “an Iran-Taliban alliance would not only serve as deterrence vis-à-vis ISIS, it could also act as a bargaining chip in Tehran’s relations with the new government in Kabul, whose recent signals of support for Saudi Arabia’s military strikes against Shi’a factions in Yemen did not go unnoticed. Supporting a fundamentalist Sunni group could also show that Tehran is not in an all-out-war against Sunni Muslims.” (“Why did the Taliban go to Tehran?” Farhad Peikar, The Guardian, May 22, 2015)


China Gets Into the Act


Another Afghan neighbor, to the northeast, China has now become an important voice in Kabul. China has long had concerns about Afghanistan in the context of its own security. When the Soviet Red Army moved into Afghanistan in 1979, Beijing began military assistance to the U.S.-Saudi-Pakistan-backed Afghan Mujahideen. Ostensibly Beijing feared encirclement from Moscow, as the Soviets and their allies were already in control in Vietnam and Cambodia.


On Dec. 31, 1979, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the Soviet ambassador that “Afghanistan is China’s neighbor… and therefore the Soviet armed invasion of that country poses a threat to China’s security. This cannot but arouse the grave concern of the Chinese peoples.” Later, then-Chinese Deputy Defense Minister Su Yu said that China “would firmly stand by the Afghan people.” China boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics and supported United Nations Security Council and General Assembly resolutions in favor of the withdrawal of Soviet Forces (“The Rise of China-Afghanistan Security Relations,” Ahmad Bilal Khalil, The Diplomat, June 23, 2016).


After the defeated Soviet military withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, not much was heard from China on Afghanistan. But after the National Unity Government (NUG) was set up in Kabul in 2014, the relationship began to move forward. President Ghani made China the venue of his first foreign visit. The Diplomat pointed out that during Ghani’s visit to China, Ghani and Xi Jinping reached a “new important consensus” on combating the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), also called the Uyghur terrorist groups, of China’s western Xinjiang province bordering Badakhshan province of Afghanistan.


“Afghanistan will not allow any activities that threaten China’s (security) on Afghan territory,” the Afghan president stated. A Chinese Foreign Ministry official clarified that Ghani had pledged to “firmly support China to fight the ETIM,” The Diplomat noted. After Ghani’s visit, in February 2015, the Afghan government arrested and handed over 15 alleged ETIM members to China.


Clearly Beijing is keen to have a “friendly” Kabul. That would help China invest in Afghanistan’s vast mineral resources and also prevent anti-China activities carried out from Afghan soil by the Uyghurs. In January 2015, the Washington Post reported that China had hosted a Taliban delegation in Beijing in December 2014. The visit was believed to be part of an effort by the Chinese government to mediate a dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban. While Beijing did not confirm the Taliban visit, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China is willing to play a “constructive role” in supporting the Afghan reconciliation process (“What Is Behind China’s Growing Attention to Afghanistan?” Zhao Huasheng, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 8, 2015).


In July 2016, a Taliban delegation led by Abbas Stanakzai, head of the group’s political office in Qatar, visited China at the invitation of the Chinese government, a senior member of the Taliban told the media. China, along with Pakistan, the United States and Afghanistan, is a member of the four-country group that tried to restart peace talks with the Taliban earlier this year. But that effort was wholly sidelined with the killing of the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansoor by a U.S. drone. China has also expressed concerns about the growth of the ISKP and, in essence, has lent its support for the Taliban.


Taken all these developments together, it suggests a regional alignment taking place between Iran, Pakistan, China, Russia and Kabul around a collective assessment that the much-dreaded terrorist group, Taliban, is the new horse to ride against the threat of the so-called Islamic State. The gelling ingredient for this realignment, the IS threat, is the reported growth in eastern Afghanistan of the ISKP - a loosely-knit outfit compared to the Afghan Taliban and one whose source of arms and funds remains mysterious.


So while some may wish to see in this a new and potentially viable path toward peace in Afghanistan, are we not in fact simply witnessing a new installment of Pakistan’s “Pushtun game”?



User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top