In early August, a two-day inaugural meeting of Russia-Pakistan Joint Military Consultative Committee ended with the signing of a ground-breaking military corporation agreement that allows Pakistan’s army officer to be trained in Russia. Russia’s engagement with Pakistan has increased since the realization that the nonchalant US behavior towards the Afghan crisis may jeopardize regional peace, upon which Asia’s success as an emerging economic power of the twenty first century depends. In May 2018, Pakistan offered to have a Multidimensional Strategic Partnership with Russia on the premise that both the countries face mutual fears and challenges in the region. According to former Pakistani army general Yasin Malik, Afghanistan is the center of all Moscow-Islamabad military relations.
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In a related development, in a press conference held after the meeting between Pakistan’s former foreign minister Khawaja Asif and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, on February 20, 2018, both the countries raised concerns over the increasing presence of Islamic State Militants in the Northern and Eastern Afghanistan. Russia has alleged that approximately 10,000 IS militants are operative in the war-torn country. During his interview with the BBC World, General Nicholson, the Commander of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, said that Russia had exaggerated the IS presence in Afghanistan only to justify military assistance to the Taliban. Navy Captain Tom Gresback, the public affairs director at Resolute Support headquarters, made a similar assessment and said there was little evidence of IS expanding role in Afghanistan. Experts on Russian foreign policy believe that by raising IS threat that invites fear and intimidation Russia can achieve three benefits. One it will enable to consolidate anti-west nationalist block around Russia’s expanded diplomatic role in Afghanistan. Two it will strengthen Moscow’s alliance with Central Asian countries. Three, Russia will have a common ground with Pakistan to resolve the Afghan political crisis.
The US has been blamed by the Russian for showing a complacent attitude towards the IS. The argument goes that since the Mother of All Bombs’ strike in April 2017 that killed 92 IS militants, Washington has taken to an unaggressive approach towards IS’s migration to Afghanistan from Syria and Iraq. In view of this policy failure, the Russian special envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov released a statement in December 2017, saying that Russia was the first country to have alarmed the International community about the security challenge that the Islamic State’s expanding footstep posed to the region. Russia, however, wasn’t the only voice that upped the ante against the IS, Kabul has been equally perturbed and wanted the NATO to identify the threat and respond accordingly. A parallel notion running through the policy circles is that the US has been facilitating the IS in Afghanistan. Russian state media outlet Sputnik has quoted Iranian and Afghan military and policymakers to support this allegation that the US has been supporting the IS in Afghanistan to mitigate the influence of the Taliban.
Russia was one of the many countries to support the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Moscow was also not happy to learn about the US decision to leave Afghanistan in 2014 because of the reservation that the US was leaving behind an unfinished business that may haunt the region, especially the Central Asian Countries, with a more organised terrorist organisation. But a new geopolitical situation in the region no more allows Russia to remain neutral. With the realization among the regional players that the US policies have failed to deliver in Afghanistan, the Russian diplomatic engagement has been welcomed and supported. Russia and Taliban leadership first sat across the negotiating table in 2007 to discuss the issue of drug trafficking through the Central Asian countries that border Afghanistan. The mutual fear of the IS has once again brought the two to a common ground. Many political gurus see Russian paradox with suspicion, arguing that Moscow is supporting one militant group to eradicate the other. For the Russians, the Taliban perhaps have always been the part of the solution to the Afghan turmoil rather than its cause, as the US has been taking them, until Washington realized that engagement with the Taliban was indispensable. Many Central Asian countries, previously wary of Russian rising influence, have also extended the hand of cooperation to double down the efforts to handle the IS.
Kyrgyzstan has actively participated in the Russian-led military drills aimed at increasing the Collective Security Treaty Organization’s preparedness against the threat of IS. Similarly, Tajikistan has enhanced security ties with Russia and has assisted it in the supply of light weaponry to the Taliban’s anti-IS operation. Last month, Pakistan held a meeting of the intelligence heads from Russia, China, and Iran to determine intelligence sharing mechanism in the context of the IS threat. Going back, a Joint Working Group on March 21, 2018, was also held between Moscow and Islamabad at the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Pakistan, with the singular aim to designate the emergence of IS in the region as a “grave concern.”
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Whether the IS emergence theory, played out by Russia, holds water or not, only time will tell. The theory that the US has failed in Afghanistan is, however, the linchpin that unites the stakeholders in the region. More so, even with the fears that the US might perpetuate its stay in Afghanistan and keep the flame of terrorism burning – irrespective of regional instability – the Russian initiative to raise the spectre against the IS, and Pakistan’s initiative to step-up Russian Pakistan Security Partnership, through intelligence sharing, seems a step in the right direction.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Lahore.