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Russia and Evolving Regional Order

By Imtiaz Gul

 Weekly Pulse, July 20, 2012


For the past couple of years, Russia has been pursuing a pro-active engagement with both Afghanistan and Pakistan, shaking off the controversial and atrocious past resulting from its occupation of Afghanistan, probably in an attempt to position itself for events beyond 2014. The Putin-Karzai meeting in Beijing on June 7 was an indication towards this changing attitude in Moscow. 

This meeting was followed by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov's visit to Kabul on June 14. Lavrov told media after his talks that he discussed intensification of the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking and that President Karzai showed full understanding on “our concern” as to how terrorism and drugs affect our neighbours in Central Asia, and through them the Russian Federation. 

The primary Russian concerns oozing out of these high level meetings were: 

a) volatility of Afghanistan; 

b) its spillover into Russia via CAR(Central Asian Regions); and 

c) its skepticism of the US role there. 

As a follow up of meetings in June, both Kabul and Moscow have decided to create 7 working groups to promote confidence-building measures (CBMs) and cooperation in various fields, including the fight against terrorism, the production and marketing of drugs, and commercial and humanitarian interaction. In this regard, a Russian-Afghan intergovernmental Commission is already functional. 

Russia facilitated grant of observer status in the SCO to Afghanistan, and has expressed the readiness of the state-run Gazprom to be involved in the construction of the TAPI gas pipeline, even if Russia is not part of it, signaling a huge CBM. 

What is Russia’s Afghan policy? 

In the words of Russian President’s special envoy to Afghanistan, ZamirKabulov, "Russia's Afghan policy is determined and guided by the preservation of Afghanistan’s interests alone. We support anti-terror efforts which are being made by the U.S. in Afghanistan because this meets Russia’s national interests. What we want from the U.S. and NATO is that they create an independent army and an economy that will feed the armed forces. There is a need to do everything so that local people defend themselves from Taliban militants, while the central government and coalition forces cover them." 

Russia supports the national reconciliation in Afghanistan provided it’s led by only Afghans themselves – the Afghan government, and if the opposition recognizes the constitution of Afghanistan, stops fighting against Kabul and breaks off its ties with al-Qaeda (This is pretty much in sync with the US-Nato position on the Taliban). But criticism and skepticism on the past and the future also resonates in the Russian statements made on various occasions.

The criticism is centred on "wastage of almost a decade "in raising the Afghan security apparatus, and on the consequences of the possible pull out of NATO forces in 2014. 

A critique of China and Russia's Afghan policy, however, and their responses to the US-NATO Afghanistan policy must be viewed against two narratives emanating from within the United States because any thoughts, analysis, assessment and forecast on implications, and the role of regional powers essentially are predicated on how the western coalition progresses. 

The official narrative states that the US and allies want to disrupt and destroy al-Qaeda, make sure Afghanistan is not used again for any attacks on the United States or its interests elsewhere. The US also wants to ensure free flow of goods and people through international water-ways and land-routes. Protecting and Promoting a Democratic World Order is the primary stated goal. 

The Unofficial Narrative, on the other hand, stems from American geo-political objectives and the geo-commercial interests of Corporate America as well as that of Corporate Europe. This narrative comprises conspiracy theories in the region as well as within the United States, led by groups such as the American Empire Project, The Nation Institute, CIA Veterans Organisation and, of course, parts of American Media. 

Many recent high-profile publications by the American Empire Project such Devil’s Games (Robert Dreyfuss), The United States of Fear as well as The End of Victory Culture by Tom Engelhardt intricately focus on the unofficial narrative. The latest book, co-authored by Tom Engelhardt and Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050. This narrative essentially speaks of an American militarist expansion and consolidation from the Far East, Southeast Asia, South Asia up to the Horn of Africa as well as rocket deployment projects with some of the Baltic states. 

In this context, during a recent speech in Arlington, Virginia, AFRICOM Commander, General Carter Ham calls for greater understanding, saying “the absolute imperative for the United States military [is] to protect America, Americans, and American interests; in our case, in my case, [to] protect us from threats that may emerge from the African continent.” As an example, Ham named the Somali-based al-Shabaab as a prime threat. “Why do we care about that?” he asked rhetorically. “Well, al-Qaeda is a global enterprise... we think they very clearly do present, as an al-Qaeda affiliate... a threat to America and Americans.” 

Tom Engelhardt maintains that the United States has failed to draw lessons for its decade long failed military campaigns. From Pakistan and Afghanistan to Yemen and Somalia, the evidence of failure and ineffectiveness of these campaigns is already in: such “solutions” solve little or nothing, and in a remarkable number of cases seem only to increase the instability of a country and a region, as well as the misery of masses. 

A September 20, 2011 report in the Washington Post had also spoken of how "the Obama administration is assembling a constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of a newly-aggressive campaign to attack al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen. One of the installations is being established in Ethiopia, a U.S. ally in the fight against al-Shabab, the Somali militant group that controls much of that country. Another base is in the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, where a small fleet of “hunter-killer” drones resumed operations this month after an experimental mission demonstrated that the unmanned aircraft could effectively patrol Somalia from there." 

Viewed against these developments, one wonders whether the United States is currently working for conflict resolution or for perpetuating the status quo presumably through proxies. Iran, Russia and China seem skeptical of Washington’s plans on the region. So is Pakistan, or at least part of the military establishment here. And in this context, hedging becomes an unwanted necessity not only for Pakistan but also for Russia, which feels threatened by the simmering and possibly continuing political chaos even beyond 2014. The military consolidation of the United States is equally upsetting for Moscow. 

That is why it is trying to close ranks within the region by reaching out to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. 

But the American geo-political policies possibly far outweigh the efforts by regional countries to throw their weight around and coordinate policies on Afghanistan or even increase multi-lateral cooperation. And quite likely, though unfortunately, the long-term US geo-political objectives will continue to overshadow all such efforts, and also shape the Russian policy on Afghanistan.

The writer is executive director of the Centre for Research and Security Studies  

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk