The Telegraph newspaper in London carried a sensational interview in its March 5 edition with “a senior Pakistani army source” who claimed the Afghan situation is a “total mess” and the West now faced “losing control.”
The military official warned that there might be a Syria-like intervention by Russia, using the justification of an Islamic threat to Central Asia, Moscow’s strategic backyard.
He disclosed that in recent weeks top brass in the northern Pakistani city of Rawalpindi held discussions with US Defense Secretary James Mattis and the US commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson.
“A stalemate is still a win for the Taliban,” Nicholson is said to have warned. “We have told General 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 [ISIS] is also developing there, and if they leave Syria and Iraq, the next place for them to gather in is Afghanistan.”
In the Pakistani assessment, only about 20,000 personnel from the 350,000-strong Afghan army are “capable of combat missions.” He added: “They 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.”
Indeed, the interview appears when the Afghan security situation is touching a crisis point, the Afghan government is crumbling and the Trump administration hasn’t revealed its strategy.
The Pakistani source implied that the stalemate in the Afghan conflict is an argument for accommodating the Taliban so the specter of the ISIS threat can be effectively countered.
Russian intervention would likely mean air support for allied forces fighting on the ground. No Kremlin leader will ever again put “boots on the ground” in Afghanistan.
In Syria, Russia has capable regional allies – Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards, and Hezbollah – who take the brunt of ground combat. But in Afghanistan, Russia has no regional ally willing and able to do the heavy lifting.
The Taliban remains blacklisted as a criminal organization under a Russian Supreme Court ruling in 2003, and it is a criminal offense for the government to cooperate with the group.
Whether the present communication channels between Moscow and the Taliban morph into common interests will depend largely on the future trajectory of Russian-American relations. Moscow’s preferred choice has been to work with the US (and Nato) to eliminate terrorist groups in Afghanistan.
If a new cold war develops, Moscow may challenge US policies, including in Afghanistan. The Syrian conflict may become the flash point.
Moscow remains cautiously optimistic that the Trump administration will cooperate with Russia on Syria, provided the White House gets political support in Washington to act independently.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent regional tour of the frontline states of Central Asia sought to convey that Russian military posturing in the region is in standby mode.
The big question remains: What is the Pakistani motivation in raising the prospect of the Russian bear prowling the Hindu Kush? The short answer is: Pakistani generals want to engage with Trump’s generals proactively when the US Afghan strategy is about to be finalized.
The salience of Nicholson’s recent testimony at the US Armed Services Committee has been that the Pentagon regards Russia warily. The general repeatedly claimed that Russia is “legitimizing” the Taliban with a view to undermining the US.
To be sure, the senior military source in Pakistan who spoke to the Telegraph played on these fears.
For Pakistan, it pays to stir up geopolitical rivalries in Afghanistan in order to revive its role as America’s key non-Nato ally during the George W Bush era — that is, until President Barack Obama spoiled the party.
Pakistan has come closer than ever to realizing its ambitions of putting the Taliban in power in Afghanistan. It senses that Nicholson’s frank admission that the Afghan conflict has reached a stalemate carries a sense of helplessness.
On the other hand, Pakistani generals also know that Trump — who recently said the US$6 trillion the US squandered in Middle Eastern wars could have rebuilt America twice — will never opt for an open-ended Afghan war.
Their game plan, therefore, is to keep the US military in Afghanistan until Kabul becomes low-hanging fruit for the Taliban to pluck. Of course, limited US presence in Afghanistan can be useful when Pakistan-Afghan relations are in crisis.
Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center in Washington 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 respected South Asia scholar forecast that in such a scenario, Kabul may call on New Delhi, and, indeed, invoke the defense pact with Washington as well.
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 visualized that the United States may have to step in as a “formal mediator” in the region.
Trump’s generals should be wary of being led down the garden path. The threat of ISIS, the Russian bear, et al, is just foreplay to get them going.