Diplomatic Enclave: Renewed threat

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As the security situation has worsened over time in Afghanistan, Russia has been seeking a larger role in the region, even as the United States tries to formulate its policy for the war-torn country. The recent terror attacks in Kabul show the renewed threat faced by Afghanistan from extremist forces.

According to a UN report, the security situation in Afghanistan has worsened, with security incidents between the Taliban and the Afghan security forces increasing by 5 per cent in 2016, as compared to the previous year. The Taliban has expanded the conflict to the northern and northeast part of Afghan- istan, while a new challenge has emerged with the Islamic State (IS) or Daesh taking root in the tribal areas close to the Pakistan border. The IS claimed to have carried out the terror attack at a hospital in Kabul that killed 30 people.

America’s Asia pivot is a thing of the past, and the US administration under President Donald Trump is taking its time to decide on its Afghan policy. Meanwhile, Russia has spelt out its plans at the UN Security Council meeting on Afghanistan last week. The Russian envoy told the UNSC that Moscow would want to involve “Central Asian partners as well as the US,” in a timely fashion in its peace efforts on Afghanistan.

Russia had held a trilateral meeting with China and Pakistan on the Afghanistan issue late last year. Moscow widened the scope of its outreach with another meeting that included Iran, India and Afghanistan, who had protested their exclusion from the earlier conclave. Moscow has since said that it would intensify its efforts for a single regional approach to promote reconciliation in Afghanistan and would widen its approach with the inclusion of the US and other regional countries.

The increasing influence of the Islamic State is a concern for Islamabad, Kabul, Moscow and other neighbouring states. Facing defeat in Syria and Iraq, IS fighters have been moving to remote parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.

According to US commander, Gen John W Nicholson, the IS had formed loose configurations with Pakistani Taliban groups and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Moscow estimates there are 3,500 IS members operating in Afghanistan. Beijing has cause for concern, as there are reports of Uighur militant groups located in Pakistan are shifting base to Badakhshan in northern Afghanistan. China has also increased its involvement in Afghanistan in recent times, and has been in contact with Taliban representatives since 2014.

Afghan-Pakistan relations are at a low. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani did not attend a recent summit of the Economic Coordination Organisation (ECO) in Islamabad. Pakistan has charged that terrorists targeting the Pakistani state were using bases in Afghanistan. Tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan escalated after the terror attacks in Punjab and Sindh, near the Punjab state assembly in Lahore and at the revered Sufi shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sindh. Pakistan shut off its border with Afghanistan at the Torkham and Chaman border crossing points in response to terrorist attacks in Pakistan. The border was reopened after 18 days, following pressure from the Afghan government.

Pakistan is keen to draw the US attention to Afghanistan at a time when Moscow has been showing greater engagement in the country. Islamabad would like to regain its pivotal position in American plans for Afghanistan. Pakistan has conveyed to Washington that if the US does not step in, Russia would intervene in Afghanistan. Senior Pakistan army officials are reported to have told US Secretary of Defence Gen James Mattis that the Afghan security situation was precarious and the US was “losing control”. The IS was increasing its influence and would set base in Afghanistan, if they are forced out Syria and Iraq.

Trump who had promised to bomb the IS into oblivion, may pay heed to reports about its growing presence in Afghanistan. American generals have asked for “additional forces” in Afghanistan. Two Republican senators, Lindsey Graham and John McCain, known for their hawkish views have also called for additional US and coalition forces, with close air support, in an opinion piece in the Washington Post.

Russia sees the IS as a bigger threat to Central Asian republics and its Caucasus region, and is said to have increased its communication with the Taliban at various levels. But the Afghan government, the US and more so, Pakistan are wary of Moscow’s contacts with the Taliban. Moscow has denied allegations of Russian military involvement in Afghanistan as absurd. A Russian Foreign Ministry statement said that the “limited contact” with the banned Taliban was to encourage them to join the national reconciliation process under Kabul’s leadership and ensure safety of Russian citizens in Afghanistan. The uncertainty over the Trump administration’s strategy on Afghanistan has allowed Moscow to draw out its Afghan plans.

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