With First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum’s visit to Moscow in search of military support, and Russian confirmation that it was seriously considering such a request, the stakes just got raised in the battle for Afghanistan.
On the surface, both the request and willingness on Russia’s part to assist make perfect sense: Afghanistan is a nation void of any real industry and relies almost exclusively on international aid to continue the fight against the Taliban. The impending withdrawal of US and NATO forces would almost certainly ensure wide-spread destabilization inside Afghanistan and the Taliban could, once again, regain control of the state. Russia, meanwhile, has no interest in seeing the Pakistan-backed Taliban reestablish control of Afghanistan and incentivize radical groups within Central Asia, which would then threaten Russia’s broader interests in the region. So a more stable Afghanistan is vital to Russian security. But could this deal be that simple or are there far more complex forces at work in the background?
The current proposed agreement would have Russia sending small arms, artillery, and Mi-35 choppers to Kabul. What Russia does NOT propose to send at this time would be Russian soldiers. Loath to be pulled back into the quagmire that cost them over 15,000 troops during their decade of fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Russian officials have so far ruled out that as an option. This then begs the question: how does Russia expect, if US and NATO troops do proceed with a pull-out, that an infusion of weapons and ammunition could provide the means by which the current Afghan leadership might secure the country? Considering that the United States alone has pumped billions of dollars into Afghanistan since the start of its own campaign, it seems highly unlikely that this influx of Russian arms could fill the void left by the withdrawal of Western troops. So what then are the real goals and objectives?
One possible plan could be that Russia simply expects that the shipments of arms and munitions into the country effectively forces the US and NATO to remain in place. Given the highly-charged nature of American politics, especially during a presidential election cycle, any decision to remove US support could have devastating effects, especially if viewed by the American public as caving in the face of Russian advances. This scenario is currently being played out in Syria: already Republican leaders have characterized the Afghan leaders’ approach to Russia as a symbol of failed leadership by the White House. This likely represents the most desired solution for Russia: embarrassing the US while gaining greater influence. It is unlikely that Russia has any vital interest in the internal struggles of Afghanistan and would likely be willing to work with any regime as long as it doesn’t pose a threat to Russia in the region.
It is not inconceivable that Russia, Iran and other old allies have also struck a deal to reconstitute their earlier partnership and form a new “Northern Alliance” so as to thwart the Pakistan-supported insurgency in the Northern regions of Afghanistan. First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, who was a General in the Soviet-backed Afghan army during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, was also a key member of the original Northern Alliance during the latter part of the 1990s. Dostum is no stranger to Moscow-provided military aid as his own militia battalions received extensive financial and arms support from the Russians in his battles against the Mujahedin guerrillas. In such a scenario one could see aid received from Russia used by President Ghani and Vice President Dostum to secure Kabul and the Northern Provinces of the country and then aim to see US/NATO forces remain in place to conduct operations against the rising tide of DAESH fighters along with the Taliban fight.
For Iran, a stabilization of Afghanistan is vitally important given its close cultural and religious ties. Iran has been attempting to increase its trade and investment interests there for a long time and, like Russia, has an on-going national security interest in slowing the rampant drug-trafficking problem that only increased during the US-led occupation. As in Syria, it is easy to see a scenario that includes Iran working in conjunction with Russia and other local Afghan leaders to stabilize the region: Iran is coming under increasing threat from DAESH forces. The door is also slightly open for Iran working with the United States in some aspect as well. Because the two nations share the same end-state goal of stability and economic development in Afghanistan, there is room for the two nations to cooperate, although the recent announcement by Iran that it will not partner up with the US in Syria to fight DAESH could throw a monkey wrench into this potentiality in Afghanistan.
That Afghanistan would turn to Russia at this time is, however, indicative of a larger trend across the region: with Russia underwriting an expansion of Iranian influence, increasing its own presence in Syria, creating a new intelligence-sharing cell in Jordan, and receiving the recent request by the Iraqi PM for Russian assistance, it is only logical that Afghanistan would also reach out for increased support. For the Russians the decisions are almost no-brainers. Currently in Syria they are largely using the Iranian-backed Shiite and Hezbollah militias already in place. The same would be true, for the most part, inside Iraq. The upside for the Russians is huge: they are able to shine the spotlight on what has been an incredibly schizophrenic Middle East strategy by the United States and, at the same time, put themselves in place to become the dominant player in Middle Eastern geostrategic affairs. For President Putin this is an enticing double play. All of this is also not lost on the Iranians: the Tehran-Moscow alliance has effectively outflanked Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni-dominated countries of the GCC in terms of strategic outcome and influence.
Regardless of the scenarios that ultimately play out in Afghanistan, the message from the Russians is clear: they are resolved to impress upon the world that the news of their global demise has been greatly exaggerated. For Russia these moves also allow it to influence oil and gas pipeline routes so as to minimize competition with its own energy supplies into Europe and bring additional revenue through the sale of arms. Furthermore, the moves allow Russia to have a more direct impact on one of the biggest threats to its own Muslim-speaking regions: the spread of jihadism into sovereign Russia. At a recent Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit in Kazakhstan last week, Vladimir Putin said the situation in Afghanistan was “close to critical” and that terrorist groups were gaining more influence and not hiding their plans for further expansion toward Russia and the other CIS states. These moves go a long way toward addressing those concerns. Indeed, the whirlwind of Russian strategic positioning in 2015 has been surprisingly powerful.
What’s forthcoming for Pakistan-USA relationship?
It was the first day of 2018 and the United States (U.S.) President Donald Trump – who had just welcomed the New Year with a lavish party in his private club – decided to take on the United States of America’s (U.S.A.) “misaligned ally”, Pakistan. Resorting to his symbolic practice of using twitter to express himself, President Trump lashed out at Pakistan accusing the South Asian nation of using “lies” and “deceit” while dealing with the U.S.A. Later in August same year, the U.S.A cancelled Pakistan’s participation in the International Military Education and Training Program (I.M.E.T) followed by the cancellation of military aid in September. These measures were classified as part of President Trump’s South Asia Strategy, which involved pressurizing Pakistan to help combat militant groups in Afghanistan.
Months below the line, bitterness between the U.S.A and Pakistan has reduced significantly. Besides using its military muscle in the battlefield to defeat the battle-hardened Taliban – an objective that seems distant with each passing day – the U.S.A opted for a more sagacious path and sought negotiations with Taliban to end the sanguinary war. Even though Taliban may have been exhausted after such a long war, yet convincing the hardliner group to come to negotiating table for meaningful talks was a daunting task and this was the occasion the U.S.A looked back towards its “misaligned ally” and all of a sudden, expectations from Pakistan changed from curbing its support to the militant outfit to use its influence over Taliban to enter into talks with the U.S.A.
Admittedly, Pakistan played its role in coaxing Taliban to the negotiations and by September 2019, a deal was almost ready to be inked but to the astonishment of Pakistan and Taliban, President Trump’s cancelled the peace talks using twitter citing the killing of an American soldier as the reason. Pakistan again played a crucial role in bringing the two parties together and a landmark deal maybe just days ahead.
Ups and downs in U.S.A.-Pakistan relationship is not a novel phenomenon. For past seven decades, it has been a classic transactional relationship with Pakistan’s geostrategic vitality in the region rendering it inevitable for the U.S.A to seek its help in return for economic, military and diplomatic support. But after each such transaction, there has been years of bitterness and strains due to the absence of common strategic objectives, which only contributed towards deepening of trust-deficit and suspicion between the two countries.
Undoubtedly, during the past one and a half year, there have been a few positive headways in the relations between the U.S.A and Pakistan but these advances are too minuscule a gauge to conjecture about the larger canvas of relationship between the two countries. Hence, the grand geopolitical picture of South Asia ought to be brought into consideration to analyze the contours of the future relationship between the U.S.A and Pakistan.
At present, the U.S.A is stuck in Afghanistan – the graveyard of Empires – where it is fighting the longest war of its history. Before assuming the Oval Office, Trump criticized the U.S. military adventures abroad and wanted a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. Now, less than a year before running for his second term in the oval office, the erstwhile real estate tycoon wants to publicize the superpower’s extrication from Afghanistan as one of his noteworthy achievements. Given Pakistan’s indispensability for the success of the Afghan peace process, burying the hatchet despite trust deficit and suspicion was the most realistic option for the U.S.A and this is exactly what they did. The recent military-related concessions and Pakistan’s probable salvage from the FATF quagmire essentially seem to be yet another transaction from the U.S.A in return for Pakistan’s role in the Afghan peace process and after the peace deal has been signed, facilitation of U.S. withdrawal from landlocked Afghanistan.
Apart from Afghanistan, the prospects of cooperation between the U.S.A and Pakistan are extremely thin. The tectonic plates underpinning the South Asian regional order have been shifting since the beginning of 21st century and at the moment, expedited by the trends in the global order, the regional order offers a transformed illustration. As a consequence, a new balance of power arrangement has emerged in South Asia featuring Pakistan as a strategic partner of China in the opposite bloc of U.S.A. Contrariwise, India – the arch-rival of Pakistan and aspirant strategic peer to China – has been branded as the linchpin of the U.S.A’s Indo-Pacific Strategy which is essentially aimed at containing the rise of China to preserve the U.S.A’s “liberal hegemony”.
The U.S.A. and India have joined hands to oppose China’s geo-economic venture of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its flagship, China Pakistan Economic Corridor(CPEC) which is hosted by Pakistan. The U.S.A has been particularly vehement and U.S. officials have consistently been labelling the BRI projects as a “debt trap” for the host countries – not out of consideration for the BRI hosts but purely due to the geopolitical angle associated with the trillion-dollar mega-scheme. Indubitably, the B.R.I projects may have some pessimisms attached, yet the committed enticements in the form of infrastructure improvement and industrial development are too much to refuse for some of the world’s most impoverished countries eager to receive investments. On the contrary, despite being the geostrategic superpower, the U.S.A doesn’t have a solid geo-economic alternative to offer to countries like Pakistan, let alone something as grandeur as BRI. This has resulted in the steady decline of the U.S.A’s geopolitical influence in BRI host countries including Pakistan and the endmost victor is proving to be China, both in geo-economic and geopolitical realms.
Although Pakistan’s geostrategic significance has increased manifold in the emerging world order, the regional geopolitics and balance of power realignment in South Asia are likely to impede any long-term cooperation between the U.S.A and Pakistan. The U.S.A has pinned towering hopes in India to be used as an off-shore balancer against China and despite the recent uncertainties about illiberal and unstable India’s ability to assume the grand demanding role, U.S.A is highly unlikely to move closer towards Pakistan to project its influence in South Asia at the cost of losing India’s propinquity. Nonetheless, the characteristic“ transactional relationship” is likely to continue…
Questioning the Novelty of India’s New Normal
In recent years Indian notions of Pre-emption and so-called surgical strikes have been referred to as the ‘new normal’ by many in India. These have contributed to further affecting the security, stability and strategic equilibrium in the South Asian region. This is evident in how the top-brass within the Indian military has repeatedly asserted that India reserves the right to punish Pakistan with such notions of preemptive strikes across the Line of Control (LoC) under its limited war doctrines, which themselves belie a desire to wage a low-intensity conflict across the border. At the doctrinal level, India has been planning for this for quite some time as evident from its 2004 Cold Start Doctrine (CSD)as well as its more recently released doctrines such as the 2017 Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces (JDIAF) and the 2018 Land Warfare Doctrine (LWD). These doctrines are all based upon proactive strategies and indirect threats of preemptive strikes against Pakistan. Based on the current patterns of Indian aggression these ideas hold immense significance when considering the latest rounds of tensions over the disputed territory of Kashmir as witnessed in the short-lived military engagement between the two countries in February 2019.
Inspired by such notions and in typical fashion, the new Army Chief of India Gen. Manoj Mukund Naravane wasted little time in blaming Pakistan for sponsoring terrorism in India. The same day he took charge of his new appointment he claimed that India reserves the right to respond in the same way it had previously done through its so-called ‘surgical strikes.’ Moreover, he openly asserted to physically taking control of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) if his government ordered him to do so.
However, such assertions from the Indian political and military leadership are simply repetitions of the same statements that have been made by Prime Minister Modi, Mr. Rajnath Singh, and former Army Chief Gen. (R) Bipin Rawat in the recent past. Representing the same aggressive and jingoistic posturing, there is not much novelty in these statements. In fact, even in this so-called ‘new normal’ which these leaders have repeatedly described over the last few years, there is nothing new at all.
Even the oft-quoted notion of a preemptive ‘splendid first strike‘ is not new for Pakistan as it had already formed a key part of the discourse surrounding the Indian and international strategic community since the years 2016-2017. According to this, if in India’s assessment, Pakistan was found to be deploying nuclear weapons, as a contingency, India would likely resort to such a splendid first strike which it has always hinted as being a nuclear strike. As such all this does is prove Pakistan’s pre-existing doubts over India’s long-debated ‘No First Use’ (NFU) Policy. Yet, what’s worth noting here is that this overt shift towards declaring a more offensive doctrinal posture from India represents a more focused attempt at undermining the deterrent value of Pakistan’s own nuclear posture, thus ultimately destabilizing the South Asian region.
Instead, the only thing new to come out from all these assertions from Indian leaders is the prevailing fascist mindset within India that is being fueled by a false sense of racial superiority and hatred against Muslims. This was clearly stated by Prime Minister Imran Khan in his tweet when he attributed the cause of such provocations to the RSS’s extremist ideology. Hence, Pakistan perceives the recent statements from India’s top military brass as also being wholly politically inspired and as a routine attempt to divert attention away from the rampant domestic socio-economic issues currently plaguing India. The fact remains that Pakistan’s response to this Indian self-proclaimed ‘new normal’ which was on full display during the Balakot crisis itself set a clear example of its full spectrum deterrence. Contrary to the notion that a conventional asymmetry of sorts exists between the two countries, Pakistan had responded conventionally and more befittingly while holding its own toe to toe. In other words, Pakistan proved that it can also restore deterrence via conventional means despite the quantitative edge of India’s conventional forces and military hardware.
It is also worth noting that while India is spending billions of dollars on its military modernization program both in terms of its conventional and unconventional acquisitions; allocating billions for defence spending does not necessarily guarantee military supremacy. Especially if the adversary is determined to thwart any such attempts right from the outset. India’s actual capabilities still differentiate widely from what its political and military leadership inspires and projects itself to be. In fact, there is a huge gap between the Indian leadership’s expectations and what its military can actually deliver. As apparent not only in the absurdity of Gen. Naravane’s statement but also in Prime Minister Modi’s and others, the credibility of such threats already remains highly questionable.
Hence at the present, it seems that India is more keen on simply projecting military supremacy vis-à-vis Pakistan as opposed to actually attaining it, as reflected in the statements of its political and military top brass. Its favored notions of preemption at the doctrinal and strategic levels are evidence of such aspirations. As such the increasingly provocative posturing against Pakistan in the form of this so-called ‘new normal’ seems to represent simply a jingoistic approach to manipulate Indian public sentiment in the ruling government’s favor. However, the fact remains that Pakistan has already nullified such notions of preemption in the recent past and has proved it time and again. As such India’s aggressive posturing seems to be collapsing on itself with its self-proclaimed ‘new normal’ unlikely to pose any serious challenges to Pakistan’s strategic posture at least for the time being.
From Scapegoat Back to Key Ally: Pakistan and the Perils of US Maximalism
In the two years since President Trump accused Pakistan of giving nothing but deceit and lies, relations between both countries seem to have undergone a dramatic turnaround. This is evident not only in the official narrative being put forth by both countries with respect to one another, but also in how this growing sense of cordiality has culminated into a series of high-level visits and meetings between key representatives. For instance, the icy indifference with which US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was greeted with in Islamabad back in September 2018 now stands in stark contrast to the frank more amicable meetings that have been held between Prime Minister Khan and President Trump thrice since then. Not to mention the back to back visits from Alice Wells, the current US government’s focal representative for South Asia, that have further accompanied a steady yet gradual thawing of tensions.
Signs of this turnaround are further evident in how last month’s resumption of military education and training programs for Pakistani Officers marks one of the first steps towards renewed strategic cooperation. This represents an important milestone since President Trump had announced the cancellation of all forms of US military aid to Pakistan in early 2018. Similarly, acknowledgments of the progress made as per the requirements of the FATF review, as well as the ‘concern’ expressed over India’s recent actions in Kashmir are all signs aimed at placating some of Pakistan’s most pressing interests. Thus, hinting at what more cordial relations with the US could look like for Pakistan, while just stopping short of making any concrete commitments.
Yet, to say that Pak-US ties have begun to ‘normalize’ or ‘revert’ towards a mutually beneficial status quo would be ignoring the age-old complexity that has characterized relations between both countries. Especially for a relationship that has been long described as blowing hot and cold, on and off, as a rollercoaster ride, or simply a love-hate one. History has borne witness to the fact that US foreign policy towards Pakistan has more than often been based on a ruthless pragmatism and maximalism. This all or nothing approach has brought immense amounts of aid and funds for Pakistan which have been always cut off just as abruptly as they were initiated. Often without any long-term assessment or appreciation of what such actions are likely to lead to beyond the US’s more immediate goals.
None of this has been more evident than in US expectations from Pakistan regarding Afghanistan and the Taliban. It’s no secret that the very inception of the Taliban came from US funds and training during the waning stages of the Cold War for which Pakistan played the role of an indispensable intermediary. Yet following the 9/11 attacks, US policy towards the Taliban changed overnight when the US in lumping the Taliban together with Al-Qaeda brought down its military might on the entire Afghan State. What’s more it forced Pakistan to join its War on Terror almost at gunpoint. The infamous statement attributed to then US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage where he allegedly threated ‘to bomb Pakistan back to the stone age’ stands as a stark reminder of how even labeling this relationship as ‘complex’ is simply an understatement.
This aspect is further reinforced in the damning revelations of the Afghanistan Papers that were released just last month. Representing a cache of candid interviews of key officials responsible for formulating and implementing the US’s Afghanistan policy, these interviews have been used to piece together crucial mistakes at the strategic and policy levels made by successive US governments over the last two decades. One of these mistakes has been highlighted as ‘trusting Pakistan as a friend’ where Pakistan has been repeatedly accused of providing sanctuary and support to certain militant groups. Hence, accusations of Pakistan playing a double game, as well as the confusing distinctions between good and bad Taliban all contributed to a narrative that Pakistan was doing more to upend US progress than support it. This had caused much of the resentment and mutual distrust specifically during the Obama years which starting from calls to ‘do more’ resulted in the US unilaterally and covertly taking out Osama Bin Laden deep inside Pakistani territory. As ties worsened, the advent of the Trump presidency brought with them an overt sense of finality in the form of his new year tweet that was referred to in the beginning of this article.
Yet, even now as both countries come full circle with the US asking for help in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table, one fears that the US may still not have learnt anything from its adventurist debacles. As the Afghanistan Papers themselves testify, Pakistani officials have remained quite candid in their desire to hedge their bets against the US by maintaining limited ties with the Taliban. This was made clear to Ambassador Ryan Crocker who had served as the US ambassador in Islamabad from 2004-2007. In one of his interviews in the Afghanistan Papers, the former ambassador directly quotes a conversation he had with Gen Ashfaq Kayani who was then the DG ISI.As Mr. Crocker himself recounts, the general had quite explicitly made clear his reservations against an abrupt US withdrawal that would force Pakistan to once again pick up the pieces while having made the Taliban a mortal enemy. Hence justifying the reasons behind Pakistan’s so-called duplicity.
But considering how it is in fact the US now that is pressing Pakistan to use those same ties to help extricate itself out of the Afghan quagmire, Pakistan’s strategy against the Taliban seems to have stood wholly vindicated. In fact, it appears downright visionary considering how in hindsight, Pakistan had repeatedly called on the US to consider negotiating with the Taliban – especially when the US had the upper hand following its initial successes back in the early 2000s.However,the US after squandering its own reputation and credibility and already having missed multiple chances to engage with the Taliban are now ironically banking on Pakistan to help secure an exit. A kind of exit that not only allows the US to perhaps save face at the international level, but also offer something palatable to the American people during an election year. Thus, once again reeking of the reactionary maximalism that has so often brought into question the US’s reliability and trustworthiness as an ally. Not to mention President Trump’s own ‘America First’ policy, which already risks squandering whatever little credibility the US has been left with in the first place.
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