By: Hasan Khan

The aggressive posturing of Russia and the US against each other on Afghan soil is a matter of grave concern – particularly for Pakistan and Afghanistan.

If not managed in an appropriate manner, it could once again result in new deadly proxies on Afghan soil. This will, in turn, prove to be a real nightmare for Pakistan, which has a vast, porous and unmanaged border with Afghanistan.

Experts believe that the growing Russian involvement in the affairs of Afghanistan and the subsequent fears and apprehensions expressed by the US are likely to have deadly implications and could unleash fresh waves of proxies in our backyard in Afghanistan.

A number of recent statements made by the US administration suggest that Washington is annoyed over Moscow’s new-found interests in Afghanistan. The US alleges that by establishing links with Taliban insurgents, Russia is jeopardising its efforts for peace in the war-torn country.

Opting to stay away from the Russian-sponsored conference on Afghanistan’s future – which aims to chalk out a regional approach to stabilise Afghanistan – Washington maintained that Moscow has opted to play the role of a ‘strategic competitor’ instead of joining hands with the US in peace efforts. Besides Pakistan, China and the Central Asian States, Iran, India and Afghanistan are also participating in the fourth round of the Afghanistan peace conference in the Russian capital scheduled for April 14 and April 15.

Expressing concerns over the Moscow-Taliban links, US Defence Secretary Jim Mittas told reporters in London: “I am not willing to say at this point if that has manifested into weapons and that sort of thing, but certainly what they (the Russians) are up to there in light of their other activities gives us concern”.

However, speaking to members of the House Armed Services Committee, Centcom Commander Gen Joseph L Votel said: “[Russia] may be providing some kind of support to them (the Taliban) in terms of weapons or other things…I believe what Russia is attempting to do is…to be an influential party”.

UK Foreign Secretary Michael Fallon also echoed the same concerns when he termed Russia’s new engagements in Afghanistan as an indication of the growing “Moscow belligerence”. He warned the relevant stakeholders “to be extremely watchful of this Russian pattern of interference”.

Moscow has repeatedly admitted that its policy of activating its Afghan mission – over 37 years after the Soviet invasion in December 1979 – has been necessitated by its own national security interests. Russia has taken this initiative particularly in light of its fears that the continued fighting between the Afghan forces and the Taliban will ultimately strengthen the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK) – the regional name for Isis – and further increase its influence in the region.

Apparently, Russia’s fears and apprehensions appear to be genuine, as once strengthened, the terror syndicate will definitely extend its activities from its current abodes in the south of Afghanistan to the northern parts. From there, it can then easily infiltrate into the bordering Central Asian Republics – which are known to be the soft belly of Moscow. This will eventually undermine Moscow’s national security interests.

This has already been confirmed by Mohammad Zahir Wahdat, governor of the Sar-e-Pul province situated in the north of Afghanistan. In a recent statement, Wahdat stated that Qari Hekmat, son of Tahir Yuldashev – the founder of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) – is recruiting for the IS in the province.

Although Russia and the US have locked horns over extending their respective spheres of influence on Afghan turf, a large number of Afghan observers firmly believe that both the superpowers and other regional countries are exaggerating the threats of Daesh in Afghanistan. They strongly believe Russia, China and Iran are making a mountain of a molehill so that they have a pretext to intervene in Afghanistan’s affairs. Meanwhile, it is also believed that US officials are also generating a hype about the IS presence to serve their own interests, justify their stay in the country and seek more funds and troops from Congress.

However, denying the burgeoning presence of the ISK in Afghanistan is definitely tantamount to adopting an ostrich-like approach to the looming threats. The militants affiliated with the IS are facing defeat in Syria and Iraq and are fleeing the Middle East in search of new abodes. The unstable situation in Afghanistan provides a major attraction to these fleeing militants as it provides a perfectly conducive environment for them. The presence of the Islamic State of Khorasan is another reason for the growing interest in Afghanistan.

Russia has played a crucial role in defeating the IS militants in Syria. It has launched successful counter-terrorism operations by infiltrating the ethnic Chechens in the militants’ ranks in the face of resistance from the US and its allies. In addition, Russia has also successfully weakened the US-installed regime in Libya by strengthening the opposition which is led by a retired general of Muammar Gaddafi’s army.

Owing to these US-Russian proxies in Middle Eastern countries, leading defence experts are of the view that the US is itself involved in shifting planeloads of Daesh militants to Afghanistan. This policy is pursued to achieve more than one objective, including destabilising Russia by infiltrating Isis militants into the Central Asian States and keeping all sorts of checks on China’s growing economic and political influence in the region.

Daesh emerged in Afghanistan some two years ago under its regional name of Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK). However, it remained restricted to the eastern Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar, which border Pakistan.

Besides China and Russia’s influence, the growing sway of the ISK is also a matter of concern for both Pakistan and Iran. Pakistan shares a 2,600 kilometre-long border with Afghanistan and has repeatedly maintained that the IS militants operating in Afghan border regions are behind the recent terrorists attacks that have taken place in the country.

Iran also has concerns over Daesh’s anti-Shia agenda. In 2016, the UN has documented a sharp increase in IS attacks, particularly against Shias in Afghanistan. However, if we consider the composition of the 12 countries participating in the Moscow Conference on Afghanistan’s future, it does not appear to be an only-Russian-led affair as almost all these countries are either full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) or have observer status.

It appears that the SCO is trying to form a regional approach or strategy to prevent Afghanistan from falling into further chaos and Daesh spilling over or infiltrating into neighbouring countries which are grouped under the SCO. This regional approach or strategy to stabilise Afghanistan is needed to make sure that chaos and terrorism do not spread from Afghanistan into the SCO sphere or other parts of the region.

For Afghans – and, perhaps, even other stakeholders – the refusal of the US to participate in the Moscow moot has dampened all hopes of success on Afghanistan’s front. The US is a major stakeholder of the conflict. It has 8,400 troops currently stationed in Afghanistan and commands thousands of Nato members. If Washington is not onboard, it will become difficult – if not impossible – for the Kabul regime to settle the conflict with Taliban insurgents.