Unfolding New Great Game

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The British newspaper Telegraph carried a sensational interview on Sunday with “a senior Pakistani Army source” who underscored that the Afghanistan situation is in a “total mess” and the West now faced “losing control”.

The Pakistani military official warned that there might be a Syria-like intervention by Russia, using the pretext of an Islamic threat to Central Asia, Moscow’s strategic backyard. He disclosed that in recent weeks, the military brass in Rawalpindi had held discussions with United States Defence Secretary James Mattis and the US commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson. He was quoted as saying:

“A stalemate is still a win for the Taliban. We have told Gen Mattis that Afghanistan is slipping out of control, and that if things are not put right, America will have a huge crisis on its hands. Da’ish is also developing there, and if they leave Syria and Iraq, the next place for them to gather in is Afghanistan.”

(Da’ish is the Arab acronym for the Islamic State terrorist group).

In the Pakistani assessment, only about 20,000 personnel from the 350,000-strong Afghan army are “capable of combat missions”. He added derisively, “They [Afghan Army] also have about 1,000 generals, most of whom are appointed because of their tribal affiliations rather than on merit. The problem is that you can’t teach a donkey to gallop.”

It is a strange interview strewn with contrarian views. It mocks the strategy of the Pentagon, the headquarters of US Department of Defence, on “capacity-building” of Afghan armed forces to flag the stalemate in the war (which, of course, works to the Taliban’s advantage).

Yet, it cautions the US against heading for the exit, as Russia will grab the opportunity to intervene.

Russia is Pakistan’s newfound friend, but Rawalpindi apparently prefers US President Donald Trump’s generals to guard the Hindu Kush.

Strangely, there is not a word in the entire interview regarding China, although media reports on Wednesday said the Islamic State had threatened to swamp Xinjiang – home to the Uighur Muslims who have reportedly joined forces with the terror group – in rivers of blood. China also happens to be the investor in the $54-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which will connect Gwadar in Pakistan to Kashgar in Xinjiang.

Above all, the interview appears at a time when the Afghan security situation is touching a crisis point, its government is crumbling and the Donald Trump administration is yet to announce its strategy for the region.

Talk of Russian intervention

What explains the interview? Simply put, there is an old bear trap lying in disuse in the attic of the General Headquarters of the Pakistani military in Rawalpindi, which was originally crafted to vanquish the Soviet Red Army during its invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Pakistani military apparently hopes that with some clever tweaking, it could be modified to entrap other living objects as well.

Indeed, the intriguing part is about possible Russian intervention. What would a “Syria-type” Russian intervention in Afghanistan entail?

It would entail deploying Russian aerospace capability to support allied forces fighting on the ground. No Kremlin leader would ever again put “boots on the ground” in Afghanistan.

In Syria, Russia has capable regional allies – Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards and the Hezbollah militant group – who do the heavy lifting. But in Afghanistan, it has no such regional ally willing and capable.

The Taliban remain blacklisted as a criminal organisation under a Supreme Court verdict of February 2003 in Moscow. Whether Moscow’s present communication channels with the Taliban could morph into dialogue over common interests will depend almost entirely on the future trajectory of Russian-American relations.

Moscow’s preferred choice is to work with the US to eliminate terrorist groups in Afghanistan. However, if new Cold War conditions develop, Moscow may challenge US policies, including in Afghanistan.

The Syrian conflict may provide the signpost. Moscow remains cautiously optimistic that the Trump administration could turn to cooperation with Russia on Syria.

Thus, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regional tour of “frontline states” of Central Asia in February sought to convey that Russian military posturing is in standby mode.

The big question, therefore, remains: What is the Pakistani motivation at this point to raise the bogey of the Russian bear on the prowl in the Hindu Kush?

The short answer is, Pakistani generals want to engage with Trump’s generals proactively.

Pakistan’s real motive

The salience of General Nicholson’s testimony at the US Armed Services Committee last month has been that the Pentagon regards Russian intentions warily. Accordingly, the “senior military source” in Rawalpindi played on these Manichean fears.

From the Pakistani viewpoint, it pays to inject a dose of geopolitical rivalries into the Afghan turf if only to revive the flavour of its past role as the “key non-NATO ally” of the USA in those halcyon days of the George W Bush era – that is, until former President Barack Obama spoiled the party.

Pakistan has come closer than ever to realising its ambitions of putting the Taliban in power in Afghanistan. The Pakistani generals know that Trump – who said last week that the $6 trillion the US squandered in West Asian wars could have rebuilt America twice if not thrice – will never opt for an open-ended Afghan war.

Their game plan, therefore, narrows down to keeping the US military presence in Afghanistan a just a little bit longer until Kabul becomes a low-hanging fruit for the Taliban to pluck. President Ashraf Ghani’s government is imploding.

On the other hand, limited US presence in Afghanistan is necessary at a time when Pakistan-Afghan relations are in crisis. Six Pakistani soldiers were killed on the border with Afghanistan in recent days. Pakistan shut the two crossings with Afghanistan after a wave of suicide bombings three weeks ago that were allegedly linked to a group operating from across the border. The Pakistani military shelled targets inside Afghanistan.

A string of Afghan statements, including by former president Hamid Karzai, have challenged the legality of the Pakistani actions and touched on the explosive Durand Line (the Afghanistan-Pakistan border) question.

Clearly, things may reach a flashpoint. Pakistani generals are convinced that they are caught in a pincer movement by Kabul and New Delhi.

Trump’s strategy

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Programme at Wilson Centre wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine last week, “Fortunately, all-out [Pakistan-Afghanistan] war is unlikely. Afghanistan’s Army is in no position to take on its superior Pakistani counterpart… However, a limited conflict – additional cross-border shelling from Pakistan coupled with possible retaliatory strikes from Afghanistan’s highly disciplined Special Forces – is highly likely.”

The South Asia scholar forecast that if a limited conflict ensues, Kabul may call on New Delhi, and invoke the defence pact with Washington, which stipulates that “in the event of external aggression… the Parties shall hold consultations on an urgent basis to develop and implement an appropriate response, including… available political, diplomatic, military, and economic measures”.

Given the “alarming prospect of an escalation in cross-border tensions involving three countries in a nuclear-armed region housing nearly 9,000 US troops”, Kugelman suggested that Trump’s forthcoming strategy should include an early positioning by itself to step in as “formal mediator” in the region, “to help broker an accord to ease border tensions”.

He estimated that Trump, “who prides himself on his deal-making prowess”, would relish such a challenge.

Entrapping the US in a mediatory role in the region is a long-standing Pakistani objective. India should make its moves thoughtfully and wisely. These are extraordinary times when it is prudent to hide the head below the parapet.

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