Why did Russia’s intelligence czar Nikolay Patrushev come to Delhi last week to meet National Security Advisor Ajit Doval? Indeed, why was CIA head William Burns in the capital at about the same time, as was UK spy chief Richard Moore. The easy one-word answer is, Afghanistan, but look a bit closely and there’s a bit more than meets the eye.
All three men, plus Doval, are obviously looking at the “what now” question in Afghanistan. But what is fascinating this week is that the more things change, old relationships tend to reincarnate in interesting ways. There’s a caveat here, though: Old friends must actively rekindle their old passion, not just allow third-party events to influence it.
That’s why in the weeks to come, the Patrushev visit – as well as by Burns and Moore — to New Delhi will go down as the week in which India saw the light, not just on Afghanistan, but in the revamp of its own foreign policy.
Playing all sides
Let me explain. First, Patrushev sought the meeting with Ajit Doval. It is important to remember that Patrushev hails from St Petersburg, like his close friend Vladimir Putin. It’s a bit like saying, in today’s New Delhi, that so-and-so is from Gujarat – meaning, he/she is part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charmed inner circle.
Both Putin and Patrushev were part of the Soviet spy agency KGB, which became the FSB when the Soviet Union disintegrated – Putin preceded Patrushev as head of the FSB. It is increasingly clear that although Patrushev also met External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar during his Delhi trip last week, it was his meetings with Doval and PM Modi that will henceforth set the tone of the India-Russia relationship.
Second, to those who believe that the Russians are crowing about being on the right side of the Afghan gamble, it might be time to clarify the air. Let us remember that big powers don’t crow when they are able to successfully transform a weak hand into a strong suit – like Russia’s special envoy on Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov did by wooing Pakistan, and therefore, the Taliban – but use the ground reality to magnify their sense of power.
So if Russia is back in the Afghan game – and the Americans are out, at least temporarily – it will definitely add a feather in the cap of the Russian leadership that constantly seeks to reinvent its old superpower status. But the Russians also realise that the ouster of the Americans from Afghanistan, as Carnegie Moscow Center director Dmitri Trenin said in an interview with ThePrint, “that the problem now lands on our door, via Central Asia. We are not all happy that the Americans have lost.”
Could Patrushev and Nicholas Burns seek a modus vivendi in the coming days that is shaped by the events in Afghanistan?
Third, it is clear by now that the new Taliban government has the Pakistan ISI’s stamp all over it – meaning, Pakistan has won this round in the battle for Afghanistan, and India has lost. One of the reasons why the bottom has fallen out of New Delhi’s Afghan policy is because it aligned itself too closely to US thinking – which, for example, believed that only Ashraf Ghani must be supported in power, and other power centres ignored.
Can India take a leaf out of Russia’s obsession with a return to international influence and learn to play all sides – like it once did, during the bad old days of the Cold War?
India not just part of Quad
The lesson from Afghanistan is that big powers don’t rest on their laurels – and that they have long memories. So even if Kabulov delivered the Taliban – and Pakistan – to the Russians, the Putin-Patrushev duo is unlikely to forget that Pakistani fighters killed Soviet army officers on the Afghan battlefield from 1979-1989, and that that Afghan war was instrumental in the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Nor are the Russians likely to forget that the Taliban, in its first incarnation in power from 1996-2001 – when it was recognised only by Pakistan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia – actually recognised Chechnya, an integral part of Russia, as an independent republic.
Fourth, the Patrushev-Doval talks that figured around “what now”, would have spent considerable time discussing the weak political systems of most Central Asian countries, especially those bordering Afghanistan. Could these “stans” crumble under sustained extremist Islamist pressure? Could the narcotics-plus-Islamist terrorist combination make the worst-ever Russian nightmare come true?
Moreover, the Taliban, which certainly continue to have al-Qaeda links, are believed to have placed insurgents that originally belong to that country along Afghanistan’s border – for example, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) insurgents are along the Uzbek-Afghan border, while Islamist groups who fought a civil war inside Tajikistan well after the Soviet Union broke up and into the 1990s are camped along the Tajik-Afghan border.
Fifth, as things change, as they are bound to in the coming weeks and months, Central Asia will increasingly come into play. The Russians are already holding the border with Tajikistan with an armoured division. Tajikistan is the home of the Farkhor and Ayni air bases, which the Indian Air Force helped refurbish in the mid-1990s, when India was one leg of the Iran-Russia triangle that helped the Northern Alliance’s Ahmad Shah Massoud stand up to the Taliban. Don’t forget that Iran’s foreign minister is coming to Delhi later this month.
Shouldn’t it be in India’s interest to overhaul its relations with Russia, also so that ties with Central Asia are revamped?
The lesson from Afghanistan is that India has to return to its original mandate – that it is a part not just of the Quad that plays in the Indo-Pacific, but also has a natural destiny in its neighbourhood in Inner Asia.
Patrushev’s visit to Delhi has been an eye-opener. Can Doval follow through?
Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.