Afghan endgame – enter Russia!

Source: The Nation

The Afghan endgame is on in real earnest. The first moves on the regional strategic chessboard and, perhaps, the next episode of the ‘Great Game’ have been initiated.
By arrogantly and unjustly bludgeoning Pakistan into abject submission, the US may have literally forced it out of this dysfunctional unilateral non-alliance and set the stage for a decisive paradigm shift in the geopolitics of the region. Critically, it may have made Pakistan susceptible to Russian overtures.

The South-Central Asian Region (SCAR) is thus currently in a state of flux. In its eagerness to egress the region, the US is rending asunder its non-alliance with Pakistan while Russia watches and waits anxiously to exploit the resulting mayhem.
The forceful geopolitical and strategic moves are afoot by both the US and Russia to manoeuvre into a geopolitically advantageous position in the region. The emerging environment of SCAR is thus pregnant with epoch-making possibilities.

The Russians, as expected, are now making the first of their many tentative, but tangible moves in the SCAR. As a first step, they are trying to find a common cause with Pakistan – and if that were to emerge, then the geopolitical and strategic environment of the SCAR will undergo a massive paradigm shift either leading to wide-ranging change, chaos, upheavals, unrest and even war – pinning the US to the region for a long time to come, or giving Russia that critical access or foothold in the region once again that it has been vying for since centuries! Either way the implications for the region would be colossal in magnitude.
The Russians have a lot to gain by engaging Pakistan fruitfully at this dynamic juncture in regional and global history. The two have been conducting quiet diplomacy in the recent past. President Vladimir Putin is visiting Pakistan come September 2012.
At the geopolitical level, the Russians could move to enlarge the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), making it more effective and assertive by including Pakistan, Iran, India and Afghanistan. Such a move would place the SCAR well within the SCO’s sphere of influence, stamp Russian and Chinese (SCO) authority on the region and present the US with a crushing dilemma – vacate and cede the SCAR to the SCO, and by default to Russia and China, or hold onto the region at all costs! Either way, the costs would be prohibitive! The US reactions could be violent and ruthless. India’s role would be critical. However, such a move, now, would be spot on in time and space.
Further, Russia could actually straddle the USA’s residual presence in Afghanistan by maintaining a very strong degree of control over the Northern Distribution Network (existing) and complementing it by influencing Pakistan over the southern routes from Karachi to Chaman and Torkham. Thus, all supplies to the future US bases in Afghanistan could, technically, be at the mercy of a possible Pakistan-Russia combine!
Were such a scenario to actualise and were the Russians to garner that sort of influence with Pakistan, they would acquire a tremendous geopolitical and strategic leverage over the US. In one fell swoop, they would turn the US flank in the region, gain access to the Indian Ocean or Arabian Sea or Gwadar (alternate route could be Karachi-KKH-Wakhan Peninsula-Tajikistan-Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan-Russia), get access to Iran and most critically, sit at the mouth of the Straits of Hormuz. Such a strategic manoeuvre would stymie the US efforts to keep the Russians and the Chinese out of the region and away from Iran. It would also add another very potent dimension to the pending US-Israeli war against Iran and the future of its nuclear programme.
At the strategic level too, there is a lot the two could do. With Pakistan’s help, Russia could get a handle on the terrorist or militant problem in the Central Asian Republics (CARs). The Independence Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) has shown its presence in Afghanistan and astride the Durand Line. Pakistan’s role could be critical in tackling this menace.
The Russians could find another market in Pakistan for their sophisticated military equipment, weapon systems and even transfer of technologies. They could provide Pakistan with MI-35 attack helicopters, MI-17 cargo helicopters, engines for the JF-17 programme, an ABM Defence System, submarines and so on. The PAF Chief has already visited Russia, while the COAS stands invited. Thus, a wholesome and productive defence relationship could evolve.
The Russians are making a multidimensional move to woo Pakistan, offering to help revive its ailing economy, in particular tackling its debilitating energy crisis!
They could provide vital technical and financial assistance in creating and improving infrastructure in Pakistan. They (Gazprom) have offered technical and financial assistance for the TAPI and the IP (possibly IPI or IPC) gas pipelines projects. They have also offered to rehabilitate a couple of power plants.
Further, they are likely to help expand the capacity of the Pakistan Steel Mills from one to three million tons a year. Pakistan, in turn, could also allow them access to the mineral deposits in Balochistan and the coal deposits of Thar. Critically, Pakistan lies on the crossroads of both the east-west and north-south trade corridors (including the New Silk Road Project – NSRP) in the SCAR, the Greater Middle East Region (GMER) and in the Eurasian dimensions. Pakistan cannot be bypassed or ignored. China and Russia both have a lot to gain from its unmatchable geographical location, while the US will still have to factor in Pakistan if it wants the NSRP to proceed to its logical destination, i.e. India.
This emerging Pak-Russia relationship has the potential of turning into a wholesome, multidimensional and mutually-beneficial enterprise. It must!
Pakistan has hedged its bets with the US for the last 65 years – and suffered. It is past high time that it increased its options.
Is it time for a change, a basic paradigm shift?
The current and future Russian moves into the SCAR may just decide the issue for Pakistan!

The writer is a retired brigadier and a former defence attaché to Australia and New Zealand. Email:

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