The six-nation conference on Afghanistan due to be held in Moscow on Wednesday – including Russia, China, India, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan – is already in the US’ crosshairs. A Voice of America commentary has accused that by taking this initiative, “Russia is more interested in undermining the United States than in solving the regional problems.” The commentary lamented that the US and NATO have not been invited to the conference in Moscow. It nonetheless admitted that regional analysts “are looking at the development with more optimism.”
Washington is worried like hell about Russia’s “return” to Afghanistan. The US fears that Russia might do another “Syria” in Afghanistan by hastening the war to a definitive end and erasing the Islamic State from the Hindu Kush and Central Asia, which would of course deprive the raison d’etre for the open-ended western military presence in Afghanistan.
This issue is also linked to the future of “Euro-Atlanticism” and the relevance of NATO as a security organization. Evidently, wars create corporate interests and the 15-year old Afghan war, the longest in US’s history, has created a gravy train involving tens of billions of dollars (much of it unaccounted for.) The American war contractors and the politicians who lobby for them are having a whale of a time. It now transpires that Pentagon has been spending billions of dollars as salaries for Afghan “ghost soldiers” who existed only on paper!
Then, there is the larger issue of the US-Russia relations. The US intelligence and the Pentagon, do not favour President Donald Trump’s idea of improving relations with Russia. They also reject Trump’s notion of NATO being “obsolete”. The Afghan war showcases the continued importance of NATO.
The logical thing will be for the US to accept Russia’s long-standing offer to cooperate to bring the Afghan war to a successful conclusion. But Americans won’t have anything to do with the Russians. They’d rather keep fighting an inconclusive war at their own sweet pace. Of course, geopolitics comes in, given Afghanistan’s strategic location.
Meanwhile, in the prevailing civil war going on within the Washington Beltway between the Trump administration and the Cold Warriors – National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s ouster is the latest savage episode – it is also necessary to cast Russia in an “enemy” image. With an eye on all this, Senator John McCain scheduled a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee (which he chairs) last Thursday regarding the “stalemate” in the Afghan war. The real agenda was discernibly to underscore that Russia is “legitimizing” the Taliban and “undermining” the US and NATO.
The top US commander in Afghanistan General John Nicholson dutifully played ball by giving the appropriate sound-bytes. Nicholson kept repeating that US military presence in Afghanistan is in the interests of “US homeland security”, an argument that goes down well with Trump.
McCain represents Arizona where the US arms industry is located and Nicholson is an advocate of the Afghan war. They are a match made in heaven. The upshot of the 2-hour special senate hearing is that the same kind of pressure that forced Barack Obama to backtrack from his 2008 electoral pledge to shut down the war and instead opt for the catastrophic “surge” in Afghanistan seems to be repeating itself.
The Pentagon is genuinely upset that Russia is moving systematically on the chessboard. A ‘trilateral’ with China and Pakistan in December in Moscow provided the foundation to create the new 6-country regional format. Meanwhile, Moscow also worked hard behind the scenes to get Kabul on board. The visit by the Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani to Moscow last week helped the two countries to understand each other’s intentions and harmonise their thinking (here and here).
If one knows how Russian diplomacy works in such perilous times, Moscow’s next move will be to take a hand in fostering cordial ties between Kabul and Islamabad. Indeed, in this highly sensitive enterprise, the “thaw” in Russian-Pakistani relations is useful. (The North-South gas pipeline project would enhance Russian influence.)
To be sure, Rabbani’s talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov set alarm bells ringing in the Pentagon. Within 48 hours of Rabbani’s talks in Moscow with Lavrov, Trump telephoned Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to emphasize “the ongoing importance of the U.S.-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership” and US’ support for the leadership in Kabul.
There is an imperative need for the regional opinion to assert to end this war, which is only spawning more terrorist groups such as Islamic State. The Indian stance on the Moscow conference strikes the right chord. The MEA spokesman Vikas Swaroop has been quoted as saying,
India is a major development partner of Afghanistan and stands with it in meeting the challenges, most importantly terrorism. India has always believed in close and constructive cooperation for peace, stability, security and development in Afghanistan. To this end, we actively participate in several bilateral and multilateral consultations. In this context, we are happy to accept the invitation of Russia for consultations.
The Moscow conference becomes a unique opportunity to assert the regional opinion. Let McCain, Nicholson & Co. migrate to Yemen or Libya or wherever and take their gravy train along with them.
Ambassador M. K. Bhadrakumar is the former career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service.
Source: Author’s blog