The Hindu explains

Moscow takes the lead on Afghanistan

Moscow took centre-stage for a six-nation conference on Afghanistan’s security future in the region, hosting India, Iran, Pakistan, China and Afghanistan, on Wednesday, and cutting out the U.S., Europe and NATO from its deliberations. What makes the conference, and its location, significant is Russia’s leadership, 30 years after Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan. The meet follows from a previous conference two months ago when Russia invited only Pakistan and China, drawing protests from Afghanistan and India. The trilateral initiative, however brief, denoted a major shift in Russia’s thinking on Afghanistan, in particular on its security future.

Legitimate stakeholder

To begin with, Russia now believes the Taliban is a “legitimate stakeholder” in the conflict, that must be engaged, and is the “lesser evil” than Islamic State/Da’esh forces in Afghanistan. To this end, Russia and China have been cooperating closely at the U.N. Security Council Taliban sanctions committee to delist key Taliban figures. Russian officials now freely use the Good Taliban/Bad Taliban narrative once adopted by the U.S. to push for talks between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the Taliban even as the Afghan National Army faces terror attacks and fights pitched battle with Taliban guerrillas.

While the Kremlin denies it, several international reports hold that Russian President Vladimir Putin met Taliban leaders at a secret meeting in Tajikistan in December 2015.

Part of solution

Unlike India and Afghanistan, which believe Pakistan is part of the problem, and voiced their concerns at the Moscow conference, Russia and China believe it is part of the solution. After decades of shunning military ties with Pakistan, Moscow has doubled down on increasing engagement with Rawalpindi.

In 2016, Russian forces held their first military exercises with Pakistan, Pakistan’s military signed up for Mi-35 helicopters from Russia, and according to reports, the Pakistan Air Force signed an agreement with Russia’s Rosoboronexport for the refurbishment of its fleet of Ilyushin Il-78 air-to-air refuelling tanker aircraft originally procured from Ukraine. The new ties won’t put a dent in traditional Russia-India defence ties worth billions, but they add to the strain in them, given India has pulled away closer to Washington for military procurement.

China is already engaged deeply with Pakistan’s security establishment, and its $51-billion investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) depends on it. For the past few years, China has been investing in Afghanistan. Last year, a high-level Taliban delegation from Qatar visited Beijing for talks, and China has emerged as an important interlocutor in the peace process. China has also played a role in nudging Moscow towards Pakistan in search of a solution for Afghanistan’s conflict.

Shia-Sunni faultline

That leaves Iran, which is often seen to be a silent stakeholder in Afghanistan security, given the Shia-Sunni faultline. Furthermore, Iran is keen on connecting the CPEC with its own initiatives on the Chabahar port and the International North-South Transport Corridor. Iran and India have cooperated on these as well, but the impending storm from the U.S., where President Donald Trump appears to be preparing for a tough line on Iran, could push New Delhi and Tehran apart. Mr. Trump is yet to spell out his plans for troops in Afghanistan and amid all the confusing signals out of Washington, Russia’s new confidence in planning Afghanistan’s future following its own recent successes in the Syrian conflict denotes a desire to undermine American presence.

For India, each of these signals is being viewed very closely, especially given its own stakes in Afghanistan, where it has both development projects and a strategic partnership. National Security Adviser Ajit Doval made a special trip to Moscow in January, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will attend a conference in St. Petersburg later this year, where regional security issues will be prominent. After all, a shift in the centre of gravity from the West to Eurasia and Washington to Moscow on Afghanistan’s future could set off major tremors in the Indian subcontinent as well, along the bitter faultlines between India and Pakistan.

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Printable version | Aug 14, 2020 5:05:17 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/moscow-takes-the-lead-on-afghanistan/article17326762.ece

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