Moscow Returns to The Great Game

One of the most noticeable developments on the world stage has been the resurgence of Russia as a global player. Moscow has risen from the ashes of the USSR and is now once again spreading a challenge across not only its own back yard in Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic states.

It is now not only fighting a proxy war in Syria and making investments in foreign countries and selling weapons to a host of countries to cultivate better relations with them, it has its own Eurasian connectivity program as well, and has thus set itself up as one of the most formidable US rivals, challenging its unilateral domination of the world since the 1990s.

The latest theater is Afghanistan. The recently held Afghanistan summit in Moscow was only the latest manifestation of Russian resurgence in a region that was partly instrumental in the demise of the USSR back in the 1980s. Russia’s ability to bring together politically and militarily opposed states and actors such as the Taliban and the US, the Afghan High Peace Council, Pakistan, India and Iran in the recently-held summit certainly attests to its rising regional diplomatic clout, which has been concomitant with its economic and military resurgence ever since the demise of the USSR and the rebirth of Russia in June 1990.

The Moscow summit has also certainly stamped the fact that Russia is no longer a distant observer of the war despite the debacle resulting from its disastrous occupation from 1979 to 1989, which nearly destroyed Russia itself. It expects to be playing a super-active role in the Afghan end-game so as to not just prevent the spread of the Islamic State in Khorasan into Central Asia and Russia, but also to alter the geopolitical chessboard to its advantage.

Moscow has thus already set itself up in the new Great Game, with rising headaches for the United States, with the Trump administration no better equipped to deal the Afghanistan than were the Obama and Bush administrations before it. The US answer, delineated in Bob Woodward’s new book “Fear,” (Simon & Shuster, New York, 2018) is no answer. Trump’s top officials have basically said, rightly or wrongly, that the US-backed coalition forces can’t win and can’t leave for if they did it would create a vacuum to be filled by the world’s jihadis from ISIS and Al Qaeda, who would rush to a safe haven and use it to attack western forces.

The summit, the first of its kind, was nothing short of a watershed development in itself. In fact, the Taliban were quick to point out that no dialogue was possible with Kabul unless the US was to first agree to a full withdrawal of its troops. Thus the summit only saw the Taliban reiterating what they have been saying for many years.

And while the summit had nothing magical to offer in terms of a peace formula, Russia wasn’t seeking that either. The Afghan government wasn’t even officially present in the summit. Therefore, the purpose of this summit was never going to be to find a magic answer. Rather, the purpose was to showcase Russia’s new role in the region, which it did quite effectively. And, as the post-Summit statement showed, Russia was quite able to affirm its role as a new potential mediator, emphasizing that the parties, particularly the Taliban and High Peace Council, had “agreed to continue consultations within the framework of this mechanism.”

That the US president’s special representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, is going to pay a visit to Moscow in early December also attests to the fact that even the US can no longer afford to just accuse Russia as it initially tried to do when US generals started repeatedly blaming Moscow for providing weapons to the Taliban.

Therefore, while the absence of Kabul at the summit may signify how the US is wanting to limit the role the Russians can play, the fact that the US itself was present and that Khalilzad is himself coming to Moscow to ‘discuss’ Afghanistan illustrate that limiting the role the Russians can play in Afghanistan isn’t the only option the US might be considering.

If nothing else, the idea of a military solution of the Afghanistan war has already died out. The US military seems also to be coming around to this eventuality as General Austin Scott Miller recently admitted that the war “is not going to be won militarily … This is going to a political solution.”

With emphasis on a political solution now finding acceptance in all quarters, the idea of coordination with Russia to this end makes better sense than the idea of simply engaging it in a blame-game. Of course, that works well some time when the US needs to blame somebody for the Afghan debacle, but the utility that this coordination offers, and the results it can yield in terms of ending the US’s longest-ever war carry their own significance.

True, the US would ideally want to keep itself militarily entrenched in Afghanistan to maintain a balance of power and a military force closer to Russian border, but Afghanistan’s objective conditions are no longer favorable for such a long-term plan despite the Trump administration’s grim determination to hang on.

The US, despite spending billions, has been unable to defeat the Taliban for 17 years. In 2001, neither Russia nor China were in Afghanistan, coordinating with the Taliban. Now they are. Opposition to the US military presence is no longer confined to the Taliban. Many in political circles have started publicly questioning whether the US ever wanted to withdraw when it actually invaded. The Ghani regime has reportedly expressed its dissatisfaction over how the US is talking to the Taliban directly.

We must add to it how Afghanistan’s regional neighbors, in addition to Russia, have also started blaming the US for creating the mess that Afghanistan is today. “The West has lost the war in Afghanistan … the presence of the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] hasn’t only failed to solve the problem, but exacerbated it,” said the Russian presidential envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabuli.

And, as against the US and NATO, Russia has brought, through the Moscow summit, almost the entire Beijing-based Shanghai Security Organization into Afghanistan, giving the US a clear message: the matter falls in ‘SCO’s jurisdiction’ and that they will be the ones leading the settlement within this mechanism.

This is the new geopolitics of the Afghan end-game, and the way it is unfolding implies that the new players intend to keep it simply regional, with no extra-regional players able to prey on it.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan-based academic and regular contributor to Asia Sentinel