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Russia in Waziristan; Kabul Needs Support, Not Competition

Paper No. 6237                                 Dated 05-Apr-2017

Guest Column by Alexander Murray

As the recent explosions on the St Petersburg metro are assessed, a continuing theme across the world is the question of whether or not a militant terror network was involved and if so, is it of a transnational design. Due to recurring attacks claimed and attributed to Daesh, this is a common global concern.

Understanding that the presence of transnational terror networks occurs most frequently in governing vacuums partnered with areas of relative ease of economic activity is essential to combatting this concern. For these reasons, eastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan must be secured by their national governments in both a military and civil capacity. As US support in the region wavers, Russia continues to amplify its presence and rightfully so. It is the manner in which these supporting actors augment their presence which must be questioned.

On 30 March, a Russian military delegation accompanied its Pakistani counterpart through areas of North and South Waziristan to assess the Pakistani XI Corps’ progress against extremist militants in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. As Washington struggles to develop a new counterinsurgency strategy for assisting Afghanistan’s National Unity Government (NUG) and the Pakistani government of Nawaz Sharif, Moscow has recognized a looming threat. Just as the United States left the region in shambles during the aftermath of the anti-Soviet struggle and subsequent Afghan Civil War, the region threatens to descend into a similar political vacuum.

During the 1990’s, militant political extremism in the greater Afghan area was primarily directed at western democracies and India. Afghanistan found itself a hub of militancy centered on these targets. As a result of the complacency and covert support of the Pakistani state, the backwater that was Afghanistan of the 1990s was able to efficiently receive militants, funding, and sanctuary with relative ease. It was not the Taliban that partook in a global militancy; it was Lashkar-e-Taiba and Al-Qaeda who were allowed sanctuary by the Taliban and its membership allowed transit by the ISI.

Similarly, there exists a global concern that growing Afghan instability will allow a similar situation as it pertains to the previously mentioned groups among many. However, Daesh now stands as the terror network of primary concern given its notoriety for activities around the world.  This is primarily why Russia has newly involved itself in the Afghan quagmire and why actors around the world should be conspiring to resolve the Afghan security conundrum.

There is no need to mince words when saying that Russia, China, Iran, India, Pakistan, and the United States have a multitude of differing interests in the region. However, the one cause around which they must unite is that of combatting Daesh in Afghanistan.

From Boko Haram in central Africa to separatist groups in the Philippines, the black flag of Daesh continues to be utilized as a means to further domestic insurgencies of a Sunni Islamic nature. The case of Afghanistan is no different. Daesh waxes as the Taliban wanes and vice versa. What must be changed is a removal of the space required for domestic insurgents to utilize the Daesh brand to accomplish this in Afghanistan.

Currently, the Afghan Taliban stands by its 2015 declaration of war on Daesh in Afghanistan.  The Taliban’s greatest concern with Daesh is its ability to sap recruits from Taliban ranks, and a proclaimed war on defectors ensures loyalty.

Though there is validity in disputing Russian claims that its continued engagement with the Taliban is intended to combat Daesh, this should not continue to stand in the way of Kabul and Washington dealing with Moscow concerning the deteriorating Afghan security situation.

On 22-24 March, Washington hosted a conference of sixty-eight nations intent on combating Daesh. In the concluding declaration, the enormous group directed most of their recommendations toward means of fighting Daesh in Syria and Iraq but provided little comment on its presence beyond there specifically. In one sentence, the NUG was praised for its efforts in combating Daesh in Afghanistan.

Notably absent from the conference was Russia. Moscow, due to host its own conference on combating Daesh in south central Asia, has however extended an invitation to Washington.  Though topically relevant to the US-led coalition in Afghanistan, representatives of the US government have categorically declined the invitation citing uncertainty of the meeting’s agenda.

Regarding Daesh in Afghanistan, both of these major international meetings are missing key components required to solve the security dilemma. NUG and coalition forces tasked with building the capabilities and legitimacy of the Afghan state, thus negating the rise of the Taliban and subsequent elements of Daesh, continue to be denied the capacity to accomplish their goals.

Initially coalition led capacity building initiatives did much to empower local governors lending itself to the short term stability witnessed post-invasion. This however handicapped elements of the national government and its ability to regulate often fractured provincial governments. Since 2001, coalition forces and their supporting governments have continued to inadequately support elements of the national government towards its ability to secure the state and gain legitimacy in the eyes of residents beyond Kabul.

Though very different in its desired ends, the Pakistani government has simultaneously executed this policy with Afghan groups outside the Afghan government, most notably the mujahadeen of the 1980s and the Taliban of the 1990s. Even throughout the post 9/11 conflict in Afghanistan, the Pakistani state has pursued provincial interests at the expense of the national government in Kabul by supporting political vacuums to accommodate militant groups aligned with Pakistani regional interests.

Limited in support from its inception, the Afghan national government continues to lose patronage from wealthy countries abroad whose backing is conditioned on repatriation of Afghan refugees. Rather than understanding the domestic ramifications of Afghan insecurity abroad via Daesh, EU countries primarily see an Afghan threat coming financially from a burdensome multitude of Afghan refugees. Before refugees can be successfully welcomed home, support must exist to secure their arrival.

As thoughtful as conferences regarding the rise of Daesh in Afghanistan maybe, excluding influential actors and abstaining for political manoeuvring does little to accomplish the intended goals. While Washington and Moscow have every reason to suspect one another of ulterior motives, Kabul is right to send delegations to both.

Everyone involved should be concerned about the rise of Daesh in Afghanistan, not because the threat to them is currently real, but rather because if Afghan security continues to crumble, the threat will be allowed to actualize itself. Good governance is the solution to this, and it must come from the internationally recognized government in Kabul.

If provincial autonomy is the correct answer to Afghanistan’s governing woes- that decision must be made by Kabul. It is that power which must be ceded by the national government, not provided by outside patrons. When many mouths are fed by many hands, there is no reason for unity. But potentially, when one hands feeds the many mouths, the many competing Afghan factions will see that they are all united in the same goal.

(The author is a political analyst from the University of Chicago.  He can be reached at e-mail