Pakistan-Russia Cooperation in Afghanistan

Spearhead Analysis – 22.05.2017

By Shirin Naseer
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Pakistan-Russia RelationsDespite a long history of mutual distrust in the Moscow-Islamabad relationship, Pakistan has emerged as a strong supporter of a greater Russian role in the Afghanistan peace process. Russia’s December 2016 disclosure of communication with Taliban leaders on fighting ISIS revealed the similarities in Pakistan and Russia’s strategy towards tackling the Afghan political crisis.

Russia has won Pakistan over by not only expressing a willingness to bring Pakistan’s concerns to the table but also engaging Pakistan’s long-term ally China in finding a solution to the Afghan issue. Pakistan’s former envoy to Russia, Khalid Khattak recently confirmed Pakistan-Russia relations are a direct result of Sino-Russian engagement on Afghanistan’s future.

Additionally, the Kremlin has also expanded bilateral military cooperation with Pakistan. The March 30 Russian military delegation visit to the North and South Waziristan border, and the September 2016 joint counter-terrorism drill with Pakistan demonstrated Moscow’s willingness to invest in the bilateral relationship and further suggested that Moscow indeed considers Pakistan as a constructive counter-terrorism partner.

Progress in this partnership is particularly interesting in terms of its likely impact on the future trajectory of Afghan politics.

Since 2015 Russia has been working closely with the Taliban to weaken the role of ISIS in Afghanistan and keep the US from establishing a strong military presence in the country. Washington has been reluctant to include or discuss the stabilization of Afghanistan with Pakistan or China. In diplomatically engaging Pakistan, Russia has helped curb US efforts to contain Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan.  

Perhaps this is one reason why Pakistan has supported Russian involvement in the Afghan conflict. In a recent meeting between the Pakistani Minister of Defense Khawaja Asif and his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu in Moscow, Asif urged Russia to lead the stabilization of Afghanistan. It was agreed upon by both parties that an effective counter-terrorism strategy can only emerge with consultation of all participants involved in the conflict.

Pakistani officials have echoed Russia’s preference for a multilateral solution to the Afghan crisis. In March, Pakistan applauded Russia’s efforts for an Afghan-led peace process that would engage opposing factions and invite them to the bargaining table. It was decided that Pakistan will partake in the 12-party conference on Afghanistan, which was to be held in Moscow.

The change in Pakistan’s attitude from an indifference to Russia’s role in the Afghan crisis, to vocal support for Russia coincides with Russia publicly confirming its preference to work together with the Taliban and actively establishing informal diplomatic relations with the group.

Special Assistant on Foreign Affairs to the Pakistani PM, Syed Tariq Fatemi has said that Russia is “positively” influencing the Taliban by encouraging the group to engage in peace talks over Afghanistan’s future.

Various policymakers have established that as the Taliban gain strength, Pakistan only gains greater influence over an unstable Afghanistan.

Pakistan has a lot to be weary of in case of a stable Afghanistan.

A stable Afghanistan may encourage a stronger India-Afghanistan partnership that can threaten not only Pakistan’s strategic interests but can also become a grave security concern. Such fears are primarily rooted in Indian PM Narendra Modi’s anti-Pakistan foreign policy agenda that he has voiced on numerous occasions, and incidents of India-Afghanistan cooperation in cornering Pakistan in the past– the Heart of Asia Conference being one example of Afghanistan’s willingness to work with India at the cost of its relationship with Pakistan.

While it is established that Russia desires close relations with India, analysts have argued that Russia and Pakistan both find instability in Afghanistan as beneficial for their larger regional interests.  

Other than the shared goals of expanding their respective geopolitical influence, Russia-Pakistan regional cooperation and support for the Taliban can also be understood against the threat of the Islamic State’s encroachment into Afghanistan. The Taliban have deployed elite fighters to fight the ISIS since late 2015 and Pakistan has played its role in assisting the Taliban recapture Afghan territory by providing material support in addition to supporting diplomatic recognition of the group. OnFebruary 17, Pakistan faced one of its deadliest terror attacks in the southern Sindh province at the shrine to Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan that stunned the nation and raised questions on Pakistani authorities’ ability to contain militant groups. Following the attack Pakistan escalated efforts for internal repression of ISIS affiliates. The incident raised significant fears of a spillover of ISIS from Afghanistan to Pakistan.

Equally concerned about the ISIS threat, Russia is also apprehensive about the security of the North Caucasus and Central Asia.

Despite having distinctive reasons to forward the Russia-Pakistan cooperation, Islamabad’s support for greater Russian involvement is mainly motivated by Russia’s willingness to cooperate with the Taliban. For Pakistan, the partnership is not only significant for security reasons, but it also poses important challenges to Washington’s desire to single-handedly decide the future course of Afghan politics. The consolidation of the Pakistan-Russia partnership should be welcomed as it can give Pakistan a stronger footing to influence the future course of Afghanistan’s political development.