The Regional Dynamics of Post 2014
Having waged the longest ever military campaign of its history in Afghanistan, the clock has finally begun to tick on the US withdrawal plans scheduled towards the end of 2014. The US led NATO alliance has failed to defeat the Taliban; barely managing to keep the lid on by averting the possibility of a run over by the guerrilla forces a la Tet Offensive and a stalemate of sort has emerged on the dusty Afghan steppes.
Glaring ominously in the backdrop of a mission unaccomplished is the emerging US vulnerability duly highlighted by a failure to stitch together a supporting political coalition duly backed by an effective National Army and the Police Force that could cover their tail and provide environment for maintaining a strategic footprint in the resource rich Central Asian Region. It is worth remembering that between the Soviets calling it a day in 1989 and the hanging of Najibullah, their puppet, in September 1996 in Kabul by berserk mobs, lay a period of around seven years. No such arrangements are manifestly in place for US strategic planners and the chances of a mayhem erupting in the wake of their departure is worrisome for the Regional Powers including Russia.
When the Yankees launched their devastating Afghan military sweep in Oct 2001, following the calamitous September Eleven strike, the Taliban held sway virtually over entire Afghanistan barring around 5% of the territory in the extreme North where a long logistic route emanating from Russia and Iran and passing through Tajikistan enabled the last remnants of Northern Alliance to defy a Taliban run-over by hanging on to the precariously held Afghan panhandle. The possible re-emergence of an identical scenario is starkly evident to the Russians who have started deploying precautionary measures to protect their soft underbelly against threats emanating from Afghanistan as well as the Central Asian Region. Nothing remains static on the Afghan chess board and the ingress by US as well as the recalcitrance of Russia’s erstwhile allies is calling for innovative exercise in diplomacy. In a move that few years ago would have seemed surreal, the Russians are asking the US and NATO to prolong their stay in Afghanistan even going to the extent of offering them logistic facilities to ease up American difficulties in sustaining forces and even facilitating dismantling of huge infrastructure that had sprouted up over the past decade.
Notwithstanding the traditional wariness of NATO by Russia, a tacit understanding has developed that its longer presence in Afghanistan serves fundamental Russian interest. “It [US withdrawal] would lead to dramatic worsening of the situation in Afghanistan, and perhaps a repeat of all the turbulence that followed the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. “We are watching (the approaching deadline for NATO withdrawal) with deep wariness and perplexity”, reflects Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the State Dumas foreign affairs committee, while musing over post withdrawal scenarios. It is in line with this spirit of accommodation that since 2009 Russia has allowed NATO to use an air transport corridor through former Soviet territory to supply its forces in Afghanistan with “non-lethal” equipment and has made available an advanced Russian airbase in the Volga Region of Ulynovsk as a transit hub for supplies moving to and from Kabul. While facilitating the US to stay in Afghanistan for a longer duration the Russian attitude is couched in a marked degree of ambivalence because she realizes that the US permanent presence in Central Asian Region is cross grained to the perennial Russian interest.
An impending US-Russia rivalry in the Region is made manifest by the US efforts to find toeholds for military bases in the Region; an area which since long has remained the prerogative of Russia to station forces to control the politico-military developments in Afghanistan. Russia finds it unacceptable that US is engaged in negotiating deals with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan for stationing of military bases. This wrangling is most visible in Tajikistan which shares longest borders with Afghanistan and remains the pivot state in the post 2014 backdrop. Russia has stationed elements of motorized division in three garrisons maintained in Dushanbe, Kurgan-Tube and Kulyab. It is currently haggling with Dushanbe to renew the lease for maintaining bases which is scheduled to expire in 2014; sign of eroding Russian influence in Central Asia.
The Russian efforts to find enhanced traction in the area has opened up the possibilities of a reset in the Pak-Russia relations which have traditionally remained stymied by the Pak-US affinity during ,and more poignantly, in the terminating years of the Cold War in Afghanistan. This has become manifest in the emergence of Pakistan as a key state in the Russian plans to open up the land locked Central Asian States to outside world by building energy and trade corridors that link the Region to Pakistan and as such to the outside world. Efforts are in hand to rebuild the dormant economic ties. Russia has signed MoUs that envisage cooperation with a view to strengthen the economic and energy infrastructure in Pakistan and giving a boost to the economic relations. While the direct sale of military hardware remains elusive at present yet the transfer of military technology through third party (China and Ukraine) has not been objected to by Russia and can become the nucleus to build up further military cooperation.
Russia’s relations with India, too, are undergoing a tectonic shift; aninescapable fallout of the evolving Central Asian conundrum and changing shades of US endearment of India. Russian position as the largest defense hardware supplier for India is under revision in face of US and Israeli vendors’ relentless assault to sell their weapon systems and the newly found Indian partiality to their technology. The much delayed supply, originally planned for 2008, of the $2.3 billion Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov (rechristened INS Vikramaditya by India) and its escalating costs have contributed to the mutual unease while the Indian efforts to impose strict safety regulations for importing Russian atomic reactors have annoyed the Russians. Moscow was visibly embarrassed by the anti-nuclear protests at the site of Kudankulam Nuclear Plant provided by Russia; perceiving it as an attempt to publicly deliver a rebuke over apprehensions in Indian nuclear establishment that the rough and tumble nuclear technology imported from Russia was inferior to newly made available US and Western nuclear technology, whose doors have recently been opened by the US-India Nuclear Deal.
The approaching withdrawal of US and NATO Troops from Afghanistan is likely to usher in a spell of instability and radicalization with an unpredictable lifespan. Such prospects confront Pakistan with hard choices to make because unrest in Afghanistan is bound to percolate across the porous border and make an impact on the hinterland that may further accentuate the existing on-the-boil internal security situation. US forces are likely to continue maintaining a military presence in Afghanistan as well as in the Central Asian Region – a reality we have to contend with. The impending scenarios have forced open a window of opportunity to forge meaningful ties with Russia which must be seized upon. Needless to say that we need to be maintaining a broad contact with the active players in Afghanistan and continue to work to restrict the liberty of action of terrorists who are using the Afghan soil to launch cross border attacks in Pakistani territory.