Why Russia suddenly wants an ally in Pakistan By SALMAN RAFI SHEIKH

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Russia seeks Pakistan’s support for its Afghan peace initiative but US and Turkey may beat Moscow to the geopolitical punch
07.04.2021 In this handout photo released by the Russian Foreign Ministry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, left, and General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan Army, attend a meeting at the staff’s headquarters in Islamabad, Pakistan. Editorial use only, no archive, no commercial use. Vladimir Astapkovich / Russian Foreign Ministry (Photo by Vladimir Astapkovich / Russian Foreign Ministry / Sputnik via AFP)

When Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov landed this month in Pakistan, marking Moscow’s first high-level ministerial visit to Islamabad in nearly a decade, the diplomat’s presence was laden with geopolitical intrigue.

While Lavrov’s overt mission was to court Pakistan’s support for Russia’s new bid to promote a political settlement in war-torn Afghanistan, his unspoken agenda focused on indications the US will delay its avowed withdrawal from the war-torn nation.

Lavrov arrived in Islamabad with a bag of promises ranging from possible defense, energy and infrastructure development cooperation. While the offers were warmly received by Pakistan, the two sides are still far from developing any type of strategic partnership.

Whether Pakistan will support a Russia-sponsored political settlement in Afghanistan, one that no doubt will aim to leave little to no space for the US is still unclear. The US agreed with the rebel Taliban under the previous Trump administration to withdraw all of its remaining troops from Afghanistan on May 1.

In exchange, the Taliban agreed to eliminate any al Qaeda remnants it may be sheltering in the growing amount of territory it controls. Al Qaeda has in the past also operated out of Pakistan’s border regions.

With the deadline for America’s withdrawal fast approaching, the US has reached out to Turkey to play a key role in the peace process, a move that likely indicates the Biden administration will, at least temporarily, renege on Trump’s troop withdrawal vow.

The US is now actively seeking to leverage Turkey’s known influence on both Pakistan and Afghanistan — including Ankara’s ties to the Taliban — to clinch an agreement that allows the US to extend its military presence until a political settlement between President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the Taliban is agreed.

(L to R) US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar shake hands after signing a peace agreement during a ceremony in the Qatari capital Doha on February 29, 2020 – The United States signed a landmark deal with the Taliban, laying out a timetable for a full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan within 14 months as it seeks an exit from its longest-ever war. (Photo by Giuseppe CACACE / AFP)
Then-US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar shake hands after signing a peace agreement during a ceremony in Doha on February 29, 2020. Photo: AFP / Giuseppe Cacace

Both Russia and China are opposed to an open-ended US military presence in Afghanistan, a country where both have grand infrastructure development designs and security concerns.

Specifically, America’s military presence in Afghanistan is seen as a stumbling block for the completion of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) trade and integration schemes.

Chinese diplomatic officials have recently claimed in press briefings that the US is using its military and intelligence presence in Afghanistan to stir trouble in China’s far-western Xinjiang region, where as many as one million ethnic minority Uighurs have been interned in so-called “vocational” camps.

Stability in Xinjiang is crucial for the BRI’s success. Of the BRI’s main six corridors, three pass through Xinjiang, including the US$60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that once completed will provide China an outlet on to the Indian Ocean via a BRI-financed port at Gwadar.

With Turkey’s inclusion in the Afghanistan stakes, the possibility of greater trouble for China in Xinjiang and other Central Asian states has by some analysts’ estimation increased manifold.

Turkey has recently adopted a tough approach to China’s mistreatment of Uighur Muslims, with reports in pro-government Turkish media linking the future of Turkey’s ties with China to the fate of the Muslim minority population.

With Turkey already supporting jihadi elements in Syria, facilitating their relocation to Libya and even exporting some to the Nagorno-Karabakh war, Russia and China will be wary of Ankara’s involvement in Afghanistan.

They both no doubt fear Turkey’s possible deployment of these Islamist militias to Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region with a view to destabilize Russia’s historically volatile underbelly and disrupt progress on China’s BRI.

 

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