The echo of “We need Russia in Afghanistan” is reverberating in Islamabad. Almost like a misinformed cliché used by the practitioners of diplomacy and statecraft — for, they’re rather vague on Pakistan’s strategic reasons for seeking the Russian assistance as far as Afghanistan is concerned. Will Russia help us stabilize Afghanistan? Will Russia help Afghan Taliban in consolidating their power?
There’s certainly a method to Islamabad’s foolhardy move to hold Islamabad-Moscow Summit in Moscow last week. This was followed by Islamabad’s abstention in the UN General Assembly vote on a resolution to condemn Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Do these developments indicate a shift in Pakistan’s foreign policy away from the West? Apparently not.
Pakistan and Russia have got close in recent years, especially with regards to their respective positions towards Afghan Taliban. More than once during the past three years, the Russian security officials have obtained pledges from Afghan Taliban that they would continue to fight the ISIS fighters in eastern and northern Afghanistan, and more than once have Russians helped them negotiate a deal with their client groups and leaders in northern Afghanistan to pave the way for the Taliban capture of northern cities in the war torn country.
Russia’s primary security fear with regards to Afghanistan stems from the possibility of a spillover of violence from Afghan territory into Central Asian states.
Similarly, Russians have stressed that the Pakistani security establishment must deal with the threat from ISIS and other radical Sunni groups with a transnational agenda to consolidate their position in Afghanistan. There have been reports in local and Russian media media about the close interaction between Pakistani and Russian intelligence services in connection with the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan. It was precisely for of this convergence of thinking that there was no rise of the Northern Alliance-like military alliance in northern Afghanistan this time when Taliban took over Kabul in August 2021. Last time, when Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, Russians, Indians and Iranians were the main backers of the Northern Alliance led by legendary military commander, late Ahmed Shah Masood.
Russia’s primary security fear with regards to Afghanistan stems from the possibility of a spillover of violence from Afghan territory into Central Asian states — that Russia still considers part of its strategic backyard and within its security parameters. Similarly, Russia also fears that the terror groups with transnational or global agendas, if allowed to consolidate their positions in Afghanistan, may attempt to reach the Russian heartland through the Central Asian territory.
Islamabad will be over-estimating Moscow’s interests in Afghanistan if the basis of the assessment about its ability to convince Moscow into playing a major consolidating role in this war torn country is superficial. Experts believe that the Russian policy towards our region is of low expectation. Russians expect little from Afghanistan and our region. They basically need a proxy — which they have found in the shape of Afghan Taliban — that can counter the influence of terror groups with transnational and global agenda and religious motivations. They also hold that Russia is primarily interested in Central Asian states at the military level and in achieving its dream of Eurasian economic integration; and to maintain Moscow’s influence in Central Asia as the reemergence of Taliban and religious fundamentalism will shake up the region’s balance of power and security dynamics.
Russians have stressed that the Pakistani security establishment must deal with the threat from ISIS and other radical Sunni groups with a transnational agenda to consolidate their position in Afghanistan.
Russians have recently assured the Central Asian countries, like Tajikistan, that are vulnerable to the spillover effects from Afghanistan, of their continued military support in case of violence in their territory.
Pakistan’s elaborate military and security structures are best suited for this security architecture. It can help Taliban consolidate the military hold over the Afghan territory and defeat the groups with transnational agendas — to serve the strategic interests of Russians and Central Asian states.
But such military and security-centric policy choices would transform Pakistan’s orientation. The newly found love for Russia may give rise to tensions between the West and Russia over the Ukrainian war.
Which brings us to ask if, while running a major security project with the assistance of Russia in Afghanistan, is Pakistan’s skillful enough to avoid wrath of the western countries?
Pakistan is a big country with a myriad of security, political, economic and financial interests in the international system. There is a likelihood that the West, led by Washington, will try to make Russia a pariah state after its invasion and destruction of Ukraine. Pakistan is also not a darling of the West after its role in the ascendency of Afghan Taliban. What has made Pakistan desperate to make diplomatic advances to Russia? Has the foreign policy establishment picked up ominous signals from the western capitals?
Whatever may be the answer, clearly Pakistan is approaching a big foreign policy shift.
The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.