A report in Pakistan media (The News) has hinted at Taliban expanding its contacts with Moscow, Beijing and Tehran. The report, prepared in the context of US-Pak interactions on Afghanistan, based on inputs from officials hinted the above, and even quoted a Pakistan foreign ministry official stating that Islamabad’s influence over the Taliban is “often overestimated” in Washington.
Who wants whom?
The above hints at two issues – growing contacts of the Taliban with other regional countries and the limited influence of Pakistan over the Taliban. On the latter, there is an understanding on the ability of Pakistan to influence and pressurize the Afghan Taliban on certain issues, that the latter consider as existential. Perhaps, Pakistan has more influence over the Haqqani Network, than the Quetta Shura.
The first issue – contacts between the Taliban and the three countries mentioned is important. Is the Taliban looking to expand its contacts with Moscow, Beijing and Tehran? Or is it the other way around that the countries want to cultivate the Taliban?
Taliban and Russia: “Moscow Shura”?
Few weeks earlier, there was another report in the Pakistani media, on Russia supporting the Taliban. Earlier this year, there were reports in the American media and even statements by US officials including Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State on Russia supplying arms to the Afghan Taliban. A report in the Washington Post, way back in April 2017, based on inputs from a US military official, mentioned Russia increasing supply of equipment and small arms to the Taliban. (Washington Post, 24 April 2017). In May 2017, a Fox News report, quoted a Kabul based analyst mentioning “the success of the Taliban in the north is due to Russian support. In Kunduz province, 30 miles from the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border, Taliban has control…That's where they get Russian finance and logistics and their wounded fighters can get treatment.”
What could be a reason, if any, for Russia to arm the Taliban? Available reports in the media hint that Moscow wants to prevent Islamic State from entering into Afghanistan. Others suggest Russia wanting to trap the US in Afghanistan and return the favour.
Is there a “Moscow Shura” as discussed/denied in the Twitter world? And what about Iran and China? Why would they want to engage the Taliban? Reports and local inputs have always suggested a tactical collaboration at the ground level, but is it becoming strategic?
If there are contacts with the Taliban, can they be leveraged?
Back to Pakistan. Linking Taliban’s contacts with China, Russia and Iran could be a deliberate ploy by Pakistan to deflect the global complaint against Islamabad for supporting Taliban. But, if there is a case, then would it be acceptable to Islamabad to expand the Afghan QCG and bring Moscow and Tehran also in?
Besides the QCG that got reactivated in October 2017 with a meeting in Muscat, Russia hosted a summit in Moscow in February 2017. Though it was initially planned as a parallel quad with Russia, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan, India and Iran were included subsequently.
Clearly, Afghanistan is back in Russia’s strategic outlook. As Suhasini Haidar wrote then about the Moscow summit, perhaps Moscow sees itself a “legitimate stakeholder” in Afghanistan. (The Hindu, 19 February 2017) But, how far would Russia go, along with other three countries – Iran, China and Pakistan?
So, what for India?
While there are no immediate answers for the above questions – the subject needs to be explored further. A larger question for New Delhi would be – if other regional actors are establishing contacts with the Taliban, what should be India’s strategy?
In those Afghanistan meetings in New Delhi outside the government – the issue of India establishing contacts with Taliban did find a mention. Perhaps, with the Chabahar opening, the issue of securing the highway and the goods across it would bring the debate back.
India has invested substantially in the government in Kabul, and the Afghan people. New Delhi should look at Afghanistan from a strategic perspective, and not be tactical. Considering Taliban will be.