A public remark of great significance that the visiting Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani made while in Delhi this week appeared in his interview with the Hindu newspaper where he expressed the hope – out of context, apparently – that India, “as a good friend of other countries in the region like Russia and Iran, can convince those countries to work with the Afghan government to support the peace process.”
Prima facie, Rabbani’s remarks in the Hindu interview may appear to suggest that the Kabul leadership is counting on India to team up with the US in Afghanistan
Anyone who is familiar with the Afghan way of using the “objective correlative” to insert a nuanced stream of consciousness, Rabbani spoke with deliberation to introduce a startling thought against the backdrop of the US President Donald Trump’s new strategy toward the war. Indeed, on the whole, Rabbani was not exactly euphoric either about the Trump strategy – all he would say guardedly was that “the focus on the peace process and the condition, not time-based, approach gives it a higher chance of success than previous (US) policies”. Thus, his remark about Russia and Iran becomes intriguing.
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Was he in a subtle way calling attention to the geopolitics of the region surrounding his country, cautioning that apart from Delhi, no regional capital has voiced enthusiasm for the Trump approach? Rabbani possibly couldn’t have been admiring Delhi’s regional influence and capacity to shift Russian and Iranian policies riveted on their core interests.
Moscow, of course, harbors serious reservations over the new US strategy announced by Trump on August 21, as apparent from the following trends:
- On August 24, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova belittled the new US approach as a rehash of failed policies under previous American administrations. She stressed that the new US strategy was silent on ISIS and drug production (issues of direct concern to Russia) and might lead to American military operations that trample upon Afghanistan’s national sovereignty and “infringe upon the national interests” of the regional states.
- On August 29, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov told the then US ambassador to Russia John Tefft at a meeting that: a) Moscow needed clarifications on a number of issues relating to “both the parameters and the modalities of the US military presence in Afghanistan”; b) the US strategy aimed at “solving the Afghan problem by force”, which of course is futile; c) US military activities lacked transparency, which in turn “evoked justifiable concern in Russia and other regional partners”; d) Moscow disagreed with Washington’s “selective pressure policy directed at certain states in the region”; e) Moscow expects “equitable interaction and coordination of approaches to the Afghan settlement” which takes into account “the interests of all states in the region without exception”; and, f) the US strategy is flawed in its omission of the fight against the drug threat and the absence of “a comprehensive approach to counteracting the expansion of ISIS influence in Afghanistan.”
- In a subsequent briefing on August 31, Zakharova: a) criticised the US air strikes as causing civilian casualties; b) alleged that the US is hushing up the killings; c) highlighted the growing ethnic and religious differences in Afghan society (and implicitly held the Afghan regime accountable).
Like Russia, Iran also faces a concerted US containment strategy. Put differently, if the US pushes forward the new Afghan strategy the John Wayne way, it will run into serious Russian/Iranian countermoves
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Again, Zakharova highlighted that the US military presence in Afghanistan was originally under a mandate of the UN Security Council and hence the need to “bring on board” regional players and organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization “with its anti-terrorist structures” who should also be “engaged in the settlement process – fighting terrorism in Afghanistan.” Again, she disclosed that Moscow and Washington have not had a dialogue regarding Afghanistan for months. According to Zakharova, the American side developed cold feet after proposing a few months ago to hold expert-level dialogue with Moscow.
Meanwhile, Reuters carried an exclusive report from Washington on Tuesday quoting US officials that Trump is weighing a “strategy that could allow more aggressive” politico-military moves against Iran’s forces. It said the plan is intended to “increase the pressure on Tehran to curb its ballistic missile programs and support for militants”.
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Indeed, on the whole, Rabbani was not exactly euphoric either about the Trump strategy – all he would say guardedly was that “the focus on the peace process and the condition
Clearly, the Iranian stance vis-à-vis the US strategy cannot be very different from the Russian thinking. Like Russia, Iran also faces a concerted US containment strategy. Put differently, if the US pushes forward the new Afghan strategy the John Wayne way, it will run into serious Russian/Iranian countermoves. To be sure, Afghanistan is going to be a theatre of severe contestation between the US on one side and Russia and Iran on the other.
Prima facie, Rabbani’s remarks in the Hindu interview may appear to suggest that the Kabul leadership is counting on India to team up with the US in Afghanistan. In reality, though, it could be a taunt as well – say, a much-needed “reality check”, Afghan style.
M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.