Editor's Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor's upcoming 2018 Fourth-Quarter Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis on key developments in the coming quarter.
As the great powers deepen their presence in South Asia, all eyes are on Afghanistan. A year has passed since U.S. President Donald Trump unveiled his Afghan war strategy in August 2017, seeking to break the stalemate in America's longest-running conflict. But the Taliban's sustained assault on the city of Ghazni demonstrates that the addition of a few thousand U.S. troops under operations Resolute Support and Freedom's Sentinel has failed to decisively swing the pendulum in Kabul's favor. What's more, Afghanistan's Interior Ministry blamed Pakistan for planning the Ghazni attack, denting prospects of an improvement in relations after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani telephoned Imran Khan to congratulate him on becoming Pakistan's new prime minister.
This relapse was to be expected. The fate of the Afghan conflict is shaped to a significant degree by Pakistan. And its grand strategy of maintaining internal unity by thwarting external aggression dictates that Islamabad's military-dominated foreign policy will always seek a sympathetic government in Kabul — particularly one that recognizes the disputed border and that chooses to keep India at arm's length to assuage any concerns of strategic encirclement. Pakistan's current strategy to achieve this goal is to support the Taliban. This support, however, is deepening the antagonism between Islamabad and Washington under Trump, the latest U.S. president pressuring Pakistan to abandon its support for militant proxies. But forced to choose between satisfying its strategic imperatives or appeasing the United States, Pakistan will always choose the former.
As the U.S. war in Afghanistan moves toward its 17th anniversary in October, Russia and China are deepening their involvement in the negotiations. For the United States, which has struggled to extricate itself from its longest-running conflict, this development can create challenges, especially with Pakistan, whose growing relationship with Moscow will enable Islamabad to deflect further U.S. pressure over its involvement in the war.
Pivoting to Russia
Still, Islamabad has options, and the logical response to its deteriorating relationship with one great power is to forge stronger relations with another. Enter Russia. While Pakistan's relationship with China has a deep history, born in 1963 out of a mutual enmity to India, its relationship with Russia was openly hostile, devolving into a proxy conflict during the Soviet-Afghan war. After the Red Army's 40th division crossed into Afghanistan in December 1979, the CIA and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence coordinated the shipment of arms to the Afghan resistance movement known as the mujahideen. What followed was a harrowing nine-year conflict that saw Islamabad and Moscow on opposite sides in what amounted to the final proxy battle of the Cold War.
Today, however, these roles are shifting. The United States is distancing itself from Pakistan while building a Sinocentric defense partnership with India, Russia's key partner during the Cold War in South Asia. Moscow is responding to Pakistan's overtures by building a stronger partnership with Islamabad. Russia's interests stem in large part from concerns about Afghanistan. The advent of the Islamic State's Khorasan chapter in 2015 stoked Moscow's fears of the transnational extremist group using Afghanistan to launch attacks into Russia's Central Asian periphery. For Pakistan, the threat from the Islamic State's Khorasan affiliate hits even closer to home: On July 6, the group claimed a bombing that killed 149 people in Balochistan, the second deadliest act of terrorism in the country's history.
Unsurprisingly, Moscow's and Islamabad's concerns about the Islamic State are driving them closer while the two countries are experiencing tense relations with Washington. For Russia, its deepening relations with Pakistan overlap with its growing attempt to involve itself as a mediator in Afghanistan. Beginning in December 2016, Moscow hosted the first of several conferences aimed at jump-starting talks between Kabul and the Taliban. Although the Taliban did not attend any of these gatherings, they have accepted Moscow's invitation to take part in an upcoming conference; that acceptance is a sign of the movement's desire to elevate its diplomatic profile by positioning itself as a serious political actor. Initially scheduled for Sept. 4, Moscow has postponed the conference on behalf of Ghani, who wants more time to prepare for what he insists should be Afghan-led negotiations. If Russia succeeds in bringing both Kabul and the Taliban to the same table, the accomplishment would heighten President Vladimir Putin's leverage over negotiations to end a NATO-backed conflict that Washington has failed to resolve.
China Eases In
Finally, China is deepening its role in Afghanistan. Beijing's involvement in Afghanistan after the start of the war was limited to resource extraction, including a $3 billion agreement to develop the Mes Aynak copper mine. But the prospects of persistent Afghan instability after the NATO drawdown in 2014 awakened China — which borders Afghanistan — into playing a more active role. Bigger promises of foreign aid followed, while Beijing used its diplomatic heft to push for talks between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to try to do the same between the Taliban and Kabul. China has also invited Afghanistan to join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. This involvement now is rumored to even include a proposed military base in the Wakhan Corridor. Although Beijing has denied it is planning a military base in Afghanistan, China's expanding diplomatic and economic profile means it will be forced to establish a localized security presence in various theaters. And Afghanistan is a logical starting point, given Beijing's two core concerns regarding the country — namely, Afghanistan's ability to disrupt neighboring Belt and Road Initiative projects and the ability of Uighur militants to use Afghan territory to plot attacks in neighboring Xinjiang province.
Ultimately, the growing involvement of Russia and China with Pakistan will limit Washington's ability to bend Islamabad toward its own strategy in Afghanistan. Although the shared threat posed by the Islamic State's Khorasan affiliate provides a rare unifying purpose for the disparate external actors involved in Afghanistan, the geopolitical tensions inherent in great power competition mean that coordination on resolving the conflict will be intermittent, at best, as the war goes on through 2018.