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Russia to meet ISIS threat from Afghanistan

Afghanistan
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M K Bhadrakumar |

Kulbhushan Jadhav and our “surgical strike 2.0” across the LOC kept the adrenaline flowing in recent days, but it is the regional conference on terrorism hosted by Islamabad last week that is destined to be far more consequential to regional security.

Speakers of parliament from Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, Russia and China were invited. Iran was represented by speaker Ali Larijani (a powerful figure in the foreign policy and security establishment);

Zheenbekov probably did some kite-flying. Moscow could be mooting the deployment of CSTO forces under Russian command to Central Asia’s borders with Afghanistan.

Russia by State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin (formerly head of presidential office in the Kremlin); Turkey by Ismail Kahraman (de facto ‘vice-president) and Afghanistan by speaker Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi (redoubtable Hezb-e-Islami politician from Kunduz who doubles up as opposition leader.)

The conference focused on the Afghan situation. Volodin reported to Putin on his return from Islamabad on Monday:

  • Of course, all the participants in the conference shared a single concern, which is the need to combat terrorism entrenched in Afghanistan. It gets substantial resources from drug trafficking… Pakistan and Iran believe that since the arrival of the US-led joint forces, areas under opium poppy cultivation expanded thousands of times, and the number of drug laboratories surged dozens of times… We spoke of drug trafficking and terrorism being closely intertwined… In that respect, the countries that took part in this conference have serious concerns. In terms of positive cooperation — the Chinese, the Iranians, and we have initially said this — all have spoken of the positive experience that the world has in tackling terrorism and ISIS (in Syria), which could have become a terrorist state.

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Interestingly, Volodin hinted at a parallel between Syria and Afghanistan. Putin responded as follows:

  • Now, regarding what Mr Volodin just mentioned, the terrorist threat, namely the one emanating from Afghanistan. The situation has deteriorated in the period that the coalition forces, primarily the US forces, have been present there. It really has, that is a fact. And it continues to deteriorate, but if it was not for the US forces, it would probably have gotten even worse.
  • Our relations with the United States are complicated, but we have to be objective when approaching this matter, and that is the way it is. Even though there are Taliban forces based along almost the entire length of the border between Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, we simply have to keep that in mind.

Putin seemed to rule out a Russian intervention on the lines in Syria. However, the very next day (December 26), at an ‘informal’ summit of the CIS countries in Moscow, Putin reverted:

  • The CIS countries are enhancing their cooperation in the struggle against terrorism, cross-border crime and drug trafficking… I am convinced that the further deepening of cooperation in the CIS meets the vital interests of our nations. We will work together to resolve our tasks of socio-economic development and consolidating the stability and security of our states.

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The accent is on Russia spearheading an integrated CIS approach to meet the terrorist threat from Afghanistan. Interestingly, President of Kyrgyzstan Sooronbai Zheenbekov took it upon himself to flag the threat of increasing expansion of Islamic State. He said:

  • I think it will be impossible to ensure collective security, reliable protection of state borders and withstand the present-day challenges and threats without efficient cooperation between the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in the sphere of border security.

Zheenbekov probably did some kite-flying. Moscow could be mooting the deployment of CSTO forces under Russian command to Central Asia’s borders with Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, in a rare media interview, which appeared even as the CIS summit was under way, the chief of the Russian General Staff, Army Gen. Valery Gerasimov warned that the bulk of ISIS fighters fleeing Syria after their defeat are heading to Libya and “southwestern Asian countries”. He disclosed that “according to space intelligence and other sources”, hundreds of ISIS cadres are right now undergoing training in the US military bases in Syria. The general regretted that Russian demarches with the Pentagon are getting no response.

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This is the first time such an allegation has been made at Gen. Gerasimov’s level. In the weekend, RT reported an interview by Russia’s special envoy on Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov, who said,

  • Lately IS has boosted its presence in the country (Afghanistan.) Our estimate is that their force there is stronger than 10,000 troops and is continuing to grow. That includes new fighters with combat experience received in Syria and Iraq… IS goals are definitely to expand its influence outside of Afghanistan, which they use as a staging ground. This poses a significant security threat for Central Asia and southern parts of Russia.

It is unclear whether Ambassador Kabulov, who is Moscow’s ace Afghan hand, accompanied Volodin to Islamabad. Possibly, he did.

Pakistan and Iran believe that since the arrival of the US-led joint forces, areas under opium poppy cultivation expanded thousands of times, and the number of drug laboratories surged dozens of times.

These happenings of the past week serve to crystallize the regional opinion that US’ intentions in Afghanistan are geopolitical — a replay of Syrian conflict but on a much bigger scale in the Central Asian region, Russia’s Caucasus and Xinjiang . (Larijani openly called on China and Pakistan to join Iran’s alliance with Russia and Turkey to fight ISIS.) The US is targeting the Taliban and insisting that ISIS is not a serious issue in Afghanistan. The big question is how the regional states would respond.

Read more: India defies US by showing solidarity with Russia

Of course, the recrudescence of India-Pakistan border tensions and the latest US drone attack in Kurram region – although not synchronized moves – mean that Pakistan faces pressure simultaneously on its eastern and western borders. That suits the US gameplan. On the other hand, the Russian remarks suggest that Moscow is considering the practical steps necessary to liquidate the ISIS threat originating from Afghanistan.

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.


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