The ongoing war in Afghanistan, the longest in US history, received only scant attention during the 2016 presidential election campaign that saw the unexpected election of Donald Trump. Trump, who appears to be indifferent to the war, has described the conflict as a “total disaster” for the US. And he has termed the vaunted “nation-building” project another disaster and has vowed to end it.
The war is in its 16th year and according to General John Nicholson, commander of US-led forces in Afghanistan, the Nato coalition is far from a decisive victory. In asking for more troops to train and advise Afghan soldiers, he has warned Congress that the war is nearing a ”stalemate,” with minimal options to reverse the Taliban’s increasing influence and control in the country.
Trump is said to support the idea of sending more troops, but such a move is unlikely to make a difference. Afghanistan remains a high-risk region where challenges, according to a recent report by the Special Inspector-General For Afghanistan Reconstruction (Sigar), go beyond what military forces alone can tackle.
ISIS, which the Sigar report surprisingly doesn’t mention as a threat in Afghanistan, requires not only a military response but a political settlement with the Taliban who are equally opposed to the radical Islamist group.
Enter the Dragon and the Bear
While the US weighs its military and political options, Russia and China are engaged with Afghan leaders and the Taliban in a bid to prevent ISIS from spreading across the central and east Asia and to mediate a deal between the warring parties.
Trump’s do-nothing policy has allowed Russia and China to insert themselves into the conflict with the intent of reducing the US role and to prevent it from turning Afghanistan into a permanent US military base. Chinese officials have confirmed that Beijing is participating in “joint counter-terrorism” operations in Afghanistan.
China’s participation in the conflict bolsters President Xi Jinping’s stated aim of building a “great wall of iron” to prevent the spread of extremist ideas in Xinjiang, a restive border province in northwest China. This cooperation could not happen without Beijing having a solid political understanding with Kabul. China has also been working with Pakistan and Russia to negotiate a peace deal — something the US has been attempting through Kabul.
Russia has also increased its contacts with Kabul and is set to host a global peace conference on Afghanistan in Moscow. Almost three decades after the end of the Soviet Union’s disastrous nine-year war in Afghanistan — a war that enfeebled the economy and led to the breakup of the Soviet Union — Russia has moved to establish itself as a central actor in Afghan affairs. Surprisingly, the Kremlin has embraced the Afghan Taliban, who fought the Soviets to a standstill in 1989.
Afghan officials are speculating about the role Moscow and Beijing will play in the country. For them and for Pakistan too, the important question is: Will ISIS’s presence tempt Moscow to conduct a military operation in Afghanistan similar to its involvement in the Syrian civil war since September 2015?
Is Putin planning to usurp the US in Afghanistan?
Russia’s changed policy regarding the Afghan Taliban reflects a broader strategy linked to its dispute with the US and its Nato allies — a dispute that has intensified since the 2014 Crimea crisis spurred the US and Europe to impose economic sanctions against Moscow. In a sense, Russia seems to be preparing to exchange roles with the US in Afghanistan just as it has done in Syria.
More broadly, Russian policy seems to be based on the idea of gradually expanding its geopolitical influence in hopes of gaining enough leverage to force the US and Nato to make concessions on economic sanctions.
By becoming a major player in Afghanistan, Russia appears to be positioning itself to help the US get out of the war. This strategy aligns with Vladimir Putin’s approach in Syria, where Russia has made itself a vital ally of the Assad regime to root out ISIS.
While the US continues to support Syrian “rebels” attempting to overthrow Assad, Russia seems to be gearing up to do the same in Afghanistan where it can potentially destabilize the Afghan government by supporting the Taliban. Were this to happen, the US might suffer a severe setback in Afghanistan and the “never-ending” war might end disastrously.