Kabul: Great game reset

The Russian foreign minister’s visit to Pakistan shows that Moscow does not want the cancellation of Mr Putin’s visit to affect the so-called ‘new start’

When news of Ru-ssian Presi-dent Vladi-mir Putin’s October visit to Pakistan raised eyebrows all around, a Russian diplomat’s throwaway line over how mistaken one was, and that, in fact, Pakistan and Russia had a lot more in common than everyone thought, seemed more wishful thinking than fact.

That India and Russia could be on opposite sides of the Afghan spectrum, unthinkable some years ago, was reinforced when the still sharp former ISI chief Gen. Asad Durrani was received with much fanfare in Moscow this September, becoming the first Pakistani spymaster to ever visit Russia, let alone speak at the Carnegie Moscow Centre. Russia’s former intelligence chief Vyacheslav Trubnikov, part of Politicontact, a forum of experts, reportedly said Mr Durrani’s visit had brought the “right man
at the right time” to Moscow.
Delhi- and Pakistan-watchers perforce sat up and took notice as speculation rose that ambassador Durrani was in Moscow for exploratory talks ahead of the Putin visit, and the equally unusual first foray to the Russian capital by Pakistan’s topmost military official, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, that would follow in October.
Mr Durrani, of course, took great pleasure in the mail that he sent out on the visit, where he corrected Russian analysts who mistakenly described him as the “father of the Taliban”, to suggest in fact that he did much more than play midwife. Indeed, the Intel chief was responsible for not just taking Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan to the next level, but also in cementing his country’s place in the brotherhood of the Gulf states, through whom the first Islamic state in Afghanistan was set up.
That Mr Putin has now cancelled what would have been the first visit by a Russian President to Pakistan maybe something of a setback. Many suspect Delhi — whose relations with Moscow have run aground on a number of issues, including the delayed delivery of the refitted aircraft carrier the Admiral Gorshkov, rechristened the INS Vikarmaditya — prevailed on the Russians to scrap the visit. Except, an inter-governmental Indo-Russian military meet, set to take place in Delhi this week, has also been called off.
Either way, Rawalpindi’s strategy to ensure the vacuum left by an American drawdown in 2014 and a presidential election that could see the exit of Afghan President Hamid Karzai is not filled by yet another US proxy who leans towards Washington — and Delhi — is now largely shared by Putin’s Russia. More so as the US remains reluctant to spell out what its role in Afghanistan will be after the 2014 drawdown.
In the long term, the US would like to set up a military base, and a robust missile defence system in Afghanistan that keeps neighbouring Iran and the Central Asian states, and in the main, a nuclear Pakistan, beset by its own fundamentalists bent on setting up an Islamic state, under check.
The impact of Russia stepping away from backing India on Afghanistan is therefore significant. Russia, long India’s mainstay in the proxy war that played out between a Russia-India-Iran backed Ahmad Shah Masood and the US-Pakistan golden boy Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, saw its own humiliating drawdown after pro-Soviet President Najibullah was strung up from a lamp post by the vengeful Pakistani-backed Taliban. That Russian strategists are willing to look beyond that event, and reach out to Pakistan, resets the new “Great Game” in the region.
This is Russia’s attempt to reclaim influence in the Central Asian states in the face of Washington’s determined efforts to keep Russia out, while actively bringing Tashkent, Dushanbe and Ashgabat, and now Georgian Tbilsi, into Nato’s ambit. Demonstrably obvious when you look at the ease with which Nato, for instance, continues to rent the Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan, committed to building alternative routes to supply US troops in Afghanistan after Pakistan blocked all access for months, as opposed to a Russia, unable to persuade Tajikistan to part with a military base.
The coming together of Russia and Pakistan is also down to Russia — rightly or wrongly — believing that it is worth risking an ally in Pakistan bringing an Islamist Taliban regime to power in Kabul. Given the Taliban’s past linkages with the likes of Uzbek Islamic guerrilla leader Juma Namangani, a similar powerful Pakistan proxy could control the rise of fellow Islamists in the Central Asian states that border Afghanistan, and make it possible for Russia to open up trade routes across the Caucasus, the Caspian, the mineral rich Hindukush and be given access to Pakistan’s warm water ports.
Clearly, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Pakistan this week shows that Moscow does not want the cancellation of Mr Putin’s visit to affect the so-called “new start”.
For Pakistan, which has been unable to quiet suspicions that it runs with the American hare but hunts with the Taliban hound, ties with Washington have never been more patchy. The India-US-Afghan trilateral on the sidelines of the UN last week therefore underlined Washington’s concerns over Pakistan. Clearly, Washington has decided to put its weight behind India’s reconstruction efforts as part of its own bigger plan to set up a self-sustaining Afghan economy when it exits, as US peace talks with the so-called moderate Taliban to ensure Afghanistan does not go the way of Iraq, fall into disarray. Afghan officials close to the US-Taliban talks, which have been held on and off in Doha this past year, even attempting to close the deal with a prisoner swap, have noted how they have been undermined by Pakistan’s efforts to derail talks by assassinating respected figures like former Afghan President Ustad Burhanuddin Rabbani, while arming Taliban groups that systematically prey on American troops.
That India’s greater role in Afghanistan will rile Pakistan, despite protestations to the contrary by its charming foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar, is a given. But can India itself, aware of the Islamic peril knocking on its neighbours’ doors, live with the US putting a pro-Taliban face as its authority of choice in Kabul instead of a true friend of India like Hamid Karzai, is the real question.

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