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Afghan great game moves centre stage

August 30, 2018 14:10 IST

'Washington must retain control over any peace process until the Taliban gets worn out,' says Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar.

Smoke rises from the site of an attack in Kabul, August 21, 2018. Photograph: Mohammad Ismail/Reuters

IMAGE: Smoke rises from the site of an attack in Kabul, August 21, 2018. Photograph: Mohammad Ismail/Reuters

Through the past week, the US-led Afghan war against the Taliban transformed as a struggle over engaging with the Taliban in peace talks.

The US successfully stalled the Russian format on Afghanistan slated for September 4 in Moscow by instructing President Ashraf Ghani to drop out of the event.

The US was infuriated that the red line was breached when the Taliban accepted the Russian invitation to the meet in Moscow.

The US intends to keep the monopoly over engaging the Taliban. Essentially, Washington must retain control over any peace process until the Taliban gets worn out and no longer insists on the pre-condition on vacation of US/NATO occupation.

Russia empathises with the idea of Afghanistan regaining its sovereignty and independence. On the contrary, the US' broader global strategies require it to maintain military bases in Afghanistan.

Washington is apprehensive that the Russian format (which comprises SCO member countries plus Iran) will inevitably lead to a regional consensus supportive of Afghan sovereignty.

 

This put Ghani in a spot.

He cannot afford to antagonise Moscow, but has no option but to follow the American instructions.

According to the Russian foreign ministry readout of a phone conversation between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ghani on Monday, August 27, the latter pleaded that he needed more time to 'develop Afghanistan's consolidated position on this issue'. They agreed to 'jointly work out a new date' for the Russian format.

The US won, but then Russia hasn't entirely lost.

The point is Ghani didn't challenge the raison d'etre of the Moscow format as such. He sought postponement of the Moscow format.

Meanwhile, on Monday, some strange news drifted in from the remote Afghan-Tajik border region in Takhar on the foothills of the Pamir Mountains: An unidentified aircraft conducted an air strike on the Afghan side of the border.

The local authorities in Takhar have confirmed the bombing. However, the Afghan defence ministry in Kabul keeps silent.

The Radio Liberty and Free Europe, a mouthpiece of US intelligence, reported: The origin of the aircraft was unclear. Tajik officials denied its warplanes or helicopters were involved, as did Russia, which has a sizable military contingent in Tajikistan.

At this point, the mystery deepens.

The Afghan air space is entirely under the control of the US and NATO, which indeed has sophisticated capabilities to identify any intruder. Evidently, the NATO is shying away from identifying the aircraft. Why?

Do not be surprised if an attempt has been made by the US to destabilise the sensitive Afghan-Tajik border region in Takhar province, which has been relatively peaceful under Taliban control.

The US has alleged that Russia has had direct dealings with the Taliban across the Tajik border. As regards Monday's bombing incident, a Taliban spokesman merely said the aircraft bombed a hideout of smugglers.

Moscow is categorical that neither Russian nor Tajik planes were involved. A spokesman for the US forces in Afghanistan has also denied any US air strikes in the area.

To be sure, the two parties who know precisely what happened would be the US, which controls the Afghan air space, and Russia's Gissar air base on the outskirts of Dushanbe, which controls the Tajik air space.

Maybe, it was not an aircraft but an UFO from another planet that was involved?

The great game moves centre stage, for sure.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar