After the overthrow of Z.A. Bhutto followed by seismic events, the dream of stable bilateral relations with the Soviet Union went sour. The cataclysmic events following the Saur Revolution in Afghanistan compelled the Soviet Union to commit the blunder of militarily intervening in this wild country in December 1979. This misadventure proved the waterloo of the vast and arrogant Soviet Empire. The Soviets had forgotten the humiliation the mighty British Indian Empire had suffered at the hands of the Afghan guerrillas spearheaded by the Amir Dost Muhammad and later his ruthless son Akbar Khan in the Anglo-Indian wars over a century ago. The USA-led Western countries and conservative Muslim kingdoms found a crusader in the person of General Zia-ul-Haq to bleed the Soviet Army. The American and the Arab leaders loosened their purse strings and started dispatching sacks of dollars and Riyals to their crusader to organize a ragtag militia of Mujahidin from Afghanistan and mercenaries from Muslim countries. The blood of Afghans continued to spill for over one and a half decade as result of this war and the subsequent events.
General Zia visited Moscow three times to attend the funerals of Leonid Brezhnev and his successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko. Relations between the two countries remained mired in bitterness and hostility. In his last visit, he had a stormy encounter with the new Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev was a cool headed man from the new generation of the Soviet leaders. He had an ambitious agenda of reforming the Soviet Empire and, therefore, wanted to get out of the Afghanistan quagmire without wasting much time. The remarks of Mr. Gorbachev to Zia ul Haq have been summarized by Mr. Shuja Nawaz in his ‘Crossed Swords’ as thus, “We pointed out to the President of Pakistan that somebody would like this bleeding wound to remain open for long years to come, and that you are a military man yourself and understand very well that we know in the most precise way what is going on in Pakistan right now, where and what kinds of camps are functioning that train the enemy, who is arming the bandits, and who is supplying them with money and all other necessities. Overall we put quite serious pressure on Zia ul Haq and he left the room clearly unhappy”.
Pakistani leadership took all these threats in their stride and continued receiving billions in economic and military aid from the USA and Saudi Arabia for their services to keep aglow the war against Soviets. Finally, after the signing of the Geneva Accords in 1988 as a result of an audacious decision by Prime Minister, Muhammad Khan Junejo, the Soviet Army withdrew from Afghanistan leaving behind the Najibullah administration to battle with the Afghan militias and the feuding Afghan political leaders. He was finally overwhelmed and eliminated. The Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991.
In the post-Zia period, Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif made efforts to revive bilateral relations with the Russian Federation. He paid a significant visit to Moscow in 1998 after a hiatus of 29 years. The visit did not bring any warmth in relations with the Russian Federation. The Russian leaders were monitoring the overtures of our Islamists to the Chechen rebels. They had lodged a strong protest when the Chechen rebel leader visited Pakistan at the invitation of the Amir of Jamaat Islami in the early 1990s. I recall the visit of the Russian Vice President to Pakistan in 1993. After one-day stay in Islamabad, he was sent to Lahore. He was lodged in the State Guest House. All the day long, he was sitting alone and chatting with me. He had come to have information about the Russian prisoners of war. Mr. Sharif’s visit to Moscow, therefore, did not result in any meaningful economic cooperation between the two countries. Mian Nawaz Sharif was overthrown in October 1999.
General Pervaiz Musharraf, after installing a civilian administration under Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, visited Moscow in 2002 and 2007. He had one-on-one meetings with the new Russian leader, Vladimir Putin. His visit was reciprocated by the Russian leader sending his Prime Minister, Mikhail Fradkov, to Islamabad in 2007. This high level visit to Pakistan was undertaken by a Russian Prime Minister after a long interlude of some 38 years. He held wide ranging talks with President General Pervaiz Musharraf and the Prime Minister, Shaukat Aziz. This helped us to put our relations with the Kremlin on an even keel. As a follow up, the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin pledged to pay his return visit to Pakistan in 2012. However, the visit was deferred later on.
Our leaders have been meeting their Russian counterparts on the sidelines of international and regional summits. We have been effectively using the summits of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization for contacts with the Russian and the Central Asian leaderships. In the post Soviet Union period, India reoriented her foreign policy to the USA. This provided an opening to Pakistan to strengthen her relations with the Russian Federation. However, we have had a lot of skeletons rattling in our cupboard. The rising religious extremism and the sectarian polarization in the country; the concentration of Afghan Taliban and their foreign allies including Uzbeks, Chechens, Uigurs and Arabs in South and North Waziristan; the growing unrest in the Russian Muslim states; the emergence of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and our frontline role in the NATO war in Afghanistan were some of the factors hampering our efforts to bring about a warmth in our relations with Moscow.
The joint military exercise held between the two countries in October 2016 is a welcome development in our bilateral relations with Russia. The two countries signed a Defence Cooperation Agreement also in November that year which provides for cooperation in promoting international security, intensifying counterterrorism, controlling arms spread and collaborating in various military fields and sharing experiences. A Russian military delegation paid a rare visit to North Waziristan in March 2017. This prompted a few Russian analysts to say that some sort of a strategic alliance was emerging between Moscow, Beijing and Islamabad to balance the power of the USA in the emerging multi-polar international order. Though this idea looked farfetched, the possibility of such alliances would always be there in international affairs. The alliance could be predicated on the convergence of political, economic and strategic interests of states of the region.
The rich hydrocarbon resources in Central Asia and the economic great game being played out in the Eurasian region and the growing competition over economic corridors or the oil and gas pipelines, the Chinese ambitious One-Belt and One-Road project are some of the factors which could shape such an alliance from South to Central Asia to Caucasus to Moscow and Europe. The other factors which may possibly contribute to the evolution of such alliance could be the growing Russian concern over the presence of militants from Chechnya, Dagestan and Uzbekistan in Afghanistan. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan which earlier was allied with the Afghan Taliban has shifted its allegiance to the Islamic State (IS). This new alliance could destabilize Uzbekistan which is one of the closest allies of Moscow in the region. The growing convergence of interests between India and the USA in the South East Asia could be yet another factor impacting the Russian strategic calculations.
Moscow is already engaged in developing her North-South International Road and Transport Corridor between the Strait of Hurmuz and her Caspian Port of Astra Khan. The project comprises some 20 countries. A senior Russian official had earlier stated officially that Pakistan and his country were in consultations with each other to find a durable solution to the Afghanistan problem. Later, China joined these consultations. These consultations were followed by trilateral meetings between Russia, China and Pakistan to discuss the Afghanistan conundrum. However, Afghan regime was not invited to these talks. Russia believes in a regional approach to the resolution of Afghanistan problem.
The second session of these talks took place in Moscow on 14thApril 2017, 2018 and this year. Russia invited all the regional states of South, South West and Central Asia to the session in April 2017. The USA chose to stay away from this large conference on Afghanistan. Some 12 countries including Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, China and the Central Asian Republic attended the conference. This approach was expected to lead the regional states to a broader understanding and pave the way for durable peace in Afghanistan. The USA leaders looked at the Russian efforts to develop a regional approach to the Afghan problem with suspicion. However, these trilateral meetings later were joined by the USA also. Many meetings of this quadrilateral group have since been held to bolster the peace talks between the USA and Taliban.
In any case, we needed to develop our relations with Moscow in view of the growing misunderstandings between Islamabad and Washington being fueled by hostile India and Afghanistan. When the Washington’s policy of browbeating Pakistan into fighting its war in Afghanistan and saving it from a disgraceful exit were made clear by President Donald Trump, we needed to proactively engage Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Ankara. At the same time, we also needed to diplomatically engage Washington to explore the possibility of finding converging points in the national interests of both the countries on the fluid and tricky question of peace in Afghanistan as any confrontational policy towards the sole superpower would not be in our national interests. That is why we helped facilitate peace talks between the USA and Taliban. The talks lingered on for nine months and a draft agreement worked out between the two parties and was to be signed when the unpredictable Donald Trump pulled the curtain on the parleys.
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