By Fawad Kaiser
Although ISIS/Daesh is in the process of moving from de rigueur to de facto to de jure many factors coagulated to produce the threat that is ISIS/Daesh: the US invasion of Iraq, Gulf Arab sponsorship and financing, as well as Turkish complicity on many levels. To this list could be added the growing power of Iran, the sectarian reign of Iraq’s former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the chemical bombs of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Hizballah’s intervention into Syria.
While the Obama administration claims its forces are fighting terrorist groups in Syria, it openly funds and equips militant groups, who are waging war against the Syrian government. Since 2013, the CIA has trained approximately 10,000 terrorists, many of whom later joined Daesh. US President-elect Donald Trump says the United States should fight the Daesh terrorist group, but stop attacking the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The president-elect criticised Obama administration’s policy of attempting to find “moderate Syrian opposition groups” to boost fighting against Assad, saying he will seek a possible rapprochement with Russia and find a solution for the Syrian conflict. Trump told The Wall Street Journal “My attitude was you’re fighting Syria, Syria is fighting ISIS [Daesh], and you have to get rid of ISIS...Now we’re backing rebels against Syria, and we have no idea who these people are,”
The war in Afghanistan has cost American taxpayers in excess of $800 billion — including $115 billion for a reconstruction effort, more than the inflation-adjusted amount the United States spent on the Marshall Plan. The Afghan government remains weak, corrupt and roiled by internal rivalries. The casualty rate for Afghan troops is unsustainable. The economy is in shambles. Resurgent Taliban forces are gaining ground in rural areas and are carrying out barbaric attacks in the heart of Kabul, the capital. Despite an international investment of several billion dollars in counternarcotics initiatives, the opium trade remains a pillar of the economy and a key source of revenue for the insurgency.
Conflict in Afghanistan and the emergence of ISIS/Daesh has produced ripple effects on the regional as well as international levels. All the major stake holders including Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia are building consensus that the Afghan conflict has attracted foreign fighters and establishing a joint anti terrorism mechanism could yield positive results. Realising the importance of regional cooperation in the war against terrorism, Russia is working on forming “Afghan–regional project” involving China and Pakistan to a tripartite consultative meeting on Afghanistan to gain wider partnership in order to protect themselves from the terrorist spill over. It is very clear that Russia is focused on its own interests.
Russians view ISIS/Daesh in Afghanistan as an “American project”, and believe that Washington wants to facilitate the expansion and spill over of violence into the Central Asian countries, and then to Russia through Afghanistan. Moscow has been critical of the United States and NATO over their handling of the war in Afghanistan. Although Russia was supporting the presence of the US-led NATO coalition in Afghanistan but most of that cooperation has fallen apart as relations between Russia and the West deteriorated in recent years over the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. These are the very concerns forcing Russia to change its policy in Afghanistan, and establish relations with the Taliban besides the Afghan government. Ironically this has caused alarm bells ringing in the region, which could potentially see Kabul embroiled into another Syria like war conflict.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's Special Envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov said they were still in contact with the Taliban after the death of Mullah Mansoor and the appointment of Haibatullah Akhundzada as the new Taliban leader. Kabulov’s remarks and reports on Mansoor’s meeting with Russians in Iran show that Russia is returning to engage in a proxy war in Afghanistan by building relations with the Taliban.
By forging relationship with the Taliban, Russians want to prevent the expansion of ISIS/Daesh in Afghanistan, making the country a battlefield of a proxy war between Russia and America, which will only further hurt the already war-stricken, war-weary Afghan nation, and benefit the two global powers. Russia’s ties with the Taliban are dangerous for the future of Afghanistan and the region. Taliban are getting themselves invited to the Russian Roulette while at the same time paving the ground for another regional and global power to become a player of this dirty proxy war.
United States and Afghanistan are increasingly worried that any deepening of ties between Russia and Taliban could complicate an already precarious security situation, an analysis evenly echoed by the top US commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson. Moscow has, however, denied they provide aid to the insurgents, who are contesting large swathes of territory and inflicting heavy casualties, and say their limited contacts are aimed at bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. Russia’s Ambassador to Kabul Alexander Mantytskiy told reporters that his government’s contacts with the insurgent group were aimed at ensuring the safety of Russian citizens and encouraging peace talks.
Taliban see US as a common enemy and claim that they need support to get rid of the United States and its allies in Afghanistan and Russia want all foreign troops to leave Afghanistan as quickly as possible. If Russia manages to team up with the Taliban, it will be the biggest threat for the protraction of Afghan conflict because in such a scenario, the Taliban and ISIS/Daesh terrorists will be fighting a proxy war for Russians and Americans. Caught in the middle of the war, Pakistan and Afghanistan will be forced to either choose between them, or fight both simultaneously.
Afghanistan has long been the scene of international intrigue and intervention, with the British and Russians jockeying for power during the 19th century “Great Game”, and the United States helping Pakistan provide weapons and funding to Afghan rebels fighting Soviet forces in the 1980s. Today’s security environment is dramatically different than the one region has been engaged in for the last 25 years. This arises with particular severity in the case of US/NATO exercises on the edge of Russian territory, especially Kaliningrad a heavily defended Russian enclave wedged between Poland and Lithuania. Until recently, American forces had largely been primed to defeat insurgent and irregular forces, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan. Now, however, the United States is being readied for “a return to great-power competition,” including the possibility of all-out combat with high-end enemies like Russia.
Fawad Kaiser is a professor of Psychiatry and consultant Forensic Psychiatrist in the UK.