Russia’s IS alarm
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov echoed each other’s positions in a joint press conference in Moscow on February 20, 2018. They announced the setting up of a commission for promoting military cooperation while expressing alarm over the growing footprint of Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan. Even more alarming to both sides was the seeming indifference of the US-led NATO forces to this development in Afghanistan. The alarm was prompted by the possibility of IS deploying near the Pakistan border in the case of Asif, and in the north of Afghanistan for Lavrov. Asif feared IS could try to destabilise neighbouring Pakistan while Lavrov was concerned that the IS presence could spill over into Central Asia and eventually Russia itself. The former was voicing concerns at a new element of terrorism finding its way into Pakistan while the latter, whose country has overcome a Chechnyan insurgency after years of bloodshed, sees the resource base and ability of IS to recruit locals on a franchise basis as a new and real threat to the region as a whole. Both had complaints about the US failure in Afghanistan. Asif resented Pakistan being scapegoated for Washington’s failure, Lavrov reiterated the received wisdom that only a negotiated settlement through talks offered any hope of a solution to the Afghanistan quagmire. Lavrov went on to describe US President Donald Trump’s ‘new’ strategy for Afghanistan as lacking potential. That strategy is playing out as cutting off civil and security assistance to Pakistan and forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table through hoped for victory on the battlefield. There is little doubt that the US embarked upon mission impossible when it invaded and occupied Afghanistan after 9/11. The inherently difficult enterprise of subjugating Afghanistan, which has historically fought invaders to a standstill and retreat through irregular warfare, proved even more perilous because the Afghan Taliban enjoyed refuge inside Pakistan.
The internal situation for the unity government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is not bright either. One northern governor has gone after initially defying the president, another is sticking to his guns and refusing to go. The internal fissures of the government add to the angst over loss of about 40 percent territory to Taliban control. If Bush invaded Afghanistan without knowing what he was getting into, that initial mistake was compounded by Obama’s announcing a major troop withdrawal prematurely. Neither event deterred the Afghan Taliban from pursuing their protracted guerrilla war strategy. Despite IS being viewed by the Taliban as an interloper in Afghanistan, there has been little effort by the Americans or Kabul to try and take advantage of this rivalry in the insurgent camp. Nothing describes the US approach better than Einstein’s famous saying: doing the same thing over and over again (even more intensely) and expecting different results. Overthrowing the Taliban government through shock and awe has proved easier than winkling out the insurgency or even being able to point towards significant progress, militarily or politically. In the latter sphere falls the consensus that only a negotiated settlement can end the Afghan conflict, thereby denying IS the fertile soil into which it is inserting itself. How to bring that about however, is a thorny conundrum. Pakistan has been simultaneously criticised for allegedly supporting the Afghan Taliban while being pressured to bring them to the negotiating table. Given the developments on the Afghan front in recent days with the Taliban and IS claiming deadly attacks in Kabul and the US retaliating by cutting off aid to Pakistan and threatening a more muscular battlefield approach, Washington lacks negotiating peace partners, certainly the Taliban, arguably even Islamabad now. If the conflict does not yield to peace negotiations because of the tangled web of competing interests, the Afghan war, already the longest in the US’s history, seems destined to continue, a situation precisely that has let IS in the door in the first place, and whose continuance is the best IS can hope for after its defeat and retreat from Iraq and Syria.