ISLAMABAD; Oct 23, 2018: Pakistan and Russia began annual joint military exercises to strengthen cooperation in the war against terrorism and the growing threat from the Islamic State group in neighboring Afghanistan.
According to officials, the “Druzhba-III” (Friendship III) exercise began on Monday at the National Center for Counterterrorism in the northwestern mountain city of Pabbi. A Pakistani Special Forces headquarters is also located there.
The official representative of the Pakistan army, Major General Asif Ghafoor, said that this was the third exercise under the bilateral cooperation program between Pakistan and Russia. The Russian military leadership reported that 70 Russian military personnel and their Pakistani colleagues will conduct airborne joint tasks at an altitude of 1,400 meters during the two-week exercise (Oct 21 – Nov 4).
The first Pak-Russia exercise was held in Pakistan in 2016, while the second took place in Russia in 2017.
Pakistan and Russia signed defense cooperation agreement in 2014.
Over the years, Islamabad and Moscow have accelerated defense cooperation following Pakistan’s deteriorating ties with the U.S., mainly on Afghanistan.
In August, Moscow concluded an unprecedented contract with Islamabad, opening doors for the first time for Russian military training of Pakistani army officers.
The deal came amid Islamabad’s deteriorating relations with Washington, which has resulted in the halt of all military exchange programs with Pakistan and left a void that Moscow has stepped in to fill.
Russia, along with China, has appeared as an alternative to the U.S. in the face of Washington’s burgeoning defense partnership with New Delhi.
Moscow has also shown interest in the multi-billion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, which is the part of Beijing’s most ambitious foreign economic initiative — One Belt One Road.
The $62 billion project aims to connect northwest China to Pakistan’s southwestern Gwadar port through a network of roads, railways, and pipelines to transport cargo, oil, and gas.
The route will provide the shortest way to Chinese cargo destined for the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa.
Pakistan has reportedly agreed to give Russia access to the Gwadar port for trade in return for a planned Russian railway track between the port and the northwestern Chaman border though details about the port-for-railway deal have yet to emerge.
Pakistan, Russia anti-ISIS drills
Moscow and Islamabad launched joint drills in 2016, a year after the local branch of Islamic State, known as Khorasan Province or ISK-P, unleashed its regional terrorist operations from bases in “ungoverned” border districts of Afghanistan.
ISK-P has carried out some of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan in recent months.
Russia maintains the Middle Eastern-based terrorist group is trying to use volatile Afghan regions next to the border with Central Asian countries to threaten Russian regional security interests.
Pakistan blames ISK-P for plotting terrorist attacks in the country from its Afghan bases.
Both countries question how ISIS remnants moved from Syria to Afghanistan.
Security analysts view the joint exercises as an attempt by Moscow to “balance out” its multibillion dollar missile deal with New Delhi.
India has inked a deal of $5 billion to purchase an S-400 air defense missile system during Russian President Vladimir Putin visit to the country on Oct. 5.
“Moscow is pursuing a balanced approach in the region. It [Russia] is still New Delhi’s largest arms provider but simultaneously it wants to boost relations with Pakistan to protect its regional interests, mainly in Afghanistan,” Brigadier Mahmood Shah, an Islamabad-based security analyst, told Anadolu Agency.
The two sides, Mahmood opined, shared some common interests in the region, especially in the war-stricken Afghanistan, behind their increasing partnership.
“Russia is worried about a possible fall out of the ongoing insurgency in Afghanistan via the Central Asian States. That’s why it [Moscow] is equally interested in peace in Afghanistan, for which Pakistan is a common denominator,” he said.
For Pakistan, he agreed, Russia has emerged as another option in terms of defense cooperation following icy relations between Islamabad and Washington — two former allies in the so-called war on terror.