A new regional dynamism on peace and conflict led by Russia and China has emerged. With the presence of armed groups and the emergence of new terrorist bands such as Daesh there, Afghanistan remains at the core of these new developments. The third session of a trilateral “working group” comprising Russia, China and Pakistan held on December 27 in Moscow also underscores what is playing out in the region.
Following the rare meeting, the group announced that Kabul will be invited to participate in future meetings on the threat posed by Islamic State (IS) militants in Afghanistan. The decision appeared to be a response to Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmad Shekib Mostaghani who, in a note of disapproval, had asserted that “regardless of the good intentions of the participants, the Moscow talks would not help the situation in Afghanistan.” In a joint statement the three nations also reiterated their interest in facilitating peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban. The most striking in the statement was the collective “particular concern” over “increased activities of extremist groups including the IS (Daesh) affiliates in the embattled country.”
A cursory look as to what is driving the new developments and guiding the Moscow-Beijing-Islamabad consultations entails some worrying as well as encouraging realities. Firstly, the stalemate on ground in Afghanistan, with 2016 having been the bloodiest year in over a decade of conflict between Taliban insurgents and Kabul. Secondly, the realisation that only a regionally-led and coordinated solution might work following failure of international, US-led efforts to normalise Afghanistan. This might also result in the cooption of Iran, one of the two strategic neighbours of Afghanistan, into the dialogue, which should serve as a big facilitating factor. Third, the birth of Daesh, which most regional players view with extreme skepticism, resonated also by Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, Permanent Representative of Russia to the UN, in a rather dramatic way only days before the Moscow meeting.
Speaking during the quarterly review of the Afghan situation at the Security Council on December 19, Churkin said elimination of Taliban leader Mullah Mansoor only strengthened the influence of irreconcilable radicals which only compounds the current situation in the country.
The most startling was Churkin’s revelations on the expansion/activities of the IS/Daesh influence in Afghanistan. Some excerpts from his statement are quite alarming. He stated that “There is also information about the presence in Afghanistan of IS camps and safe harbors where people from Central Asian states and Northern Caucus’ republics are being trained and where 700 terrorist families from Syria have already arrived. The intensive nature of hostilities in Syria and Iraq make fighters look at Afghanistan increasingly frequently because they can find refuge there and can find a new platform for expanding their influence to Central Asia and Russia as well as China. Some of our partners are not averse to contacts with the extremist and terrorist groups existing in Afghanistan. We know many events when ISIL fighters were re-deployed into northern provinces of Afghanistan by helicopters without any identification signs”. Raising serious, intriguing questions on the US-NATO “attempts to diminish the threat of IS in Afghanistan,” he also quoted the US- NATO forces Commander General John Nicholson who had “stated that the terrorist organisation IS had set itself the goal of creating Caliphate in Afghanistan and the fighters Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan joined in with so-called Khorasan Velayat.”
Churkin also spoke of combat helicopters being used for the transfer of terrorists from one place to the other within Afghanistan, resonating similar apprehensions by Afghan law-makers in recent months. Fourth, the increasing craving for regional trade connectivity — epitomised by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Fifth, despite the stated intent to help the Afghan peace process delisting Afghan individuals from the UN sanctions lists.
The joint statement said that China and Russia, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, had confirmed their “flexible approach to delisting Afghan individuals from the UN sanctions lists” as a contribution to peace efforts in Afghanistan. The Taliban has identified removal of international travel and financial restrictions on its leaders as one of its conditions for engaging in reconciliation talks.
Keeping in view these aspects, one wonders whether the new regional group will eventually trump the Quadrilateral Contact Group comprising China-Pakistan-USA-Afghanistan that was created on the sidelines of the Heart of Asia conference at Islamabad on December 9, 2016. Or is the beginning of a new geo-political game between two obvious blocs (Indo-Afghan-USA and Moscow-Beijing-Pakistan-Iran) divided by conflicting views on sources of terrorism and shared interests in regional peace and development?