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Cold War echoes: Russians in Afghanistan

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During the past month, top American brass, including NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the theatre commander for Afghanistan, have hinted that Russia may be providing material support to the Taliban. Such an action would seem to contradict Russia’s long-held policy toward Afghanistan and Central Asia, where Moscow has tried to minimise the influence of Islamist groups. If the claims are true, then Afghanistan is set to become yet another arena of NATO-Russia competition.

According to The Telegraph, a senior officer in the Pakistani Army went one step further, suggesting that if NATO dropped the ball on Afghan security then Moscow would intervene to secure its interests in Central Asia, much like its involvement in the Syrian Civil War. This could jeopardise Western interests and undermine NATO’s ongoing mission.

THE LONG WAR

With only 13,300 NATO troops remaining in-country, the last two fighting seasons have been particularly tough for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), which are still plagued with corruption and face capability shortfalls in airpower and logistics. The Afghan National Army’s special operations contingent has proven capable but cannot sustain their current operational tempo; US forces estimate that they are responsible for upwards of 70 per cent of offensive operations.

2015 saw Taliban fighters storm Kunduz, several large attacks on Kabul, intense fighting in Helmand province, and the expansion of the Islamic State in Nangarhar province. In 2016, the Taliban attacked several cities, including Lashkar Gah, Kunduz, Tarin Kot, and Farah City. With the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorating and NATO-Russia relations at their worst since the Cold War, Russia appears to be hedging its bets on the future of Afghanistan.

MOSCOW’S AFGHANISTAN POLICY

Photo: VOA/Wikimedia Commons

Photo: VOA/Wikimedia Commons

Russia’s goals in Afghanistan are somewhat contradictory, and its policy reflects this. On one hand, Moscow is deeply concerned that an unstable Afghanistan may further destabilise Central Asia, especially Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The Kremlin considers these former Soviet states within its sphere of influence, and recognises that instability in the region will have direct consequences for Russia.

Moscow specifically worries about the spread of militant Islam and the flow of narcotics. During its rule, the Taliban supported militants throughout the Caucasus, as well as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, by providing sanctuary and financing. Russia is also the main destination for Afghan heroin, and the country faces a national epidemic. Counter-narcotics has been a point of contention between Russia and the West on Afghan policy, and the more conspiratorially minded in Moscow view NATO’s reluctance to curb poppy production as an attempt to undermine the Russian state.

On the other hand, Moscow eyes NATO – and particularly American – involvement in Afghanistan with suspicion. Russian policymakers have made clear their concerns about the expansion of NATO’s military power in Central Asia, and viewed the announcement that the US would maintain bases in Afghanistan beyond the initial drawdown with unease. The Kremlin fear a long-term US presence in the region would undermine Russia’s influence and leverage with the former Soviet states. In response, Russia pressured Kyrgyzstan in 2014 to request that US troops vacate Manus Air Base, and a year later, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs revoked the use of its land and airspace to move military forces and equipment to Afghanistan.

RUSSIAN POLICY OUTCOMES

Photo: Sgt Rob Knight RLC/MOD/Flickr

Photo: Sgt Rob Knight RLC/MOD/Flickr

In the short-term, Moscow can pursue several policy objectives in Afghanistan.

First, Russia may attempt to use its links with the Taliban to negotiate with the group’s more moderate elements for a political settlement in Afghanistan, focussing its efforts in the diplomatic realm. This already appears to be taking place. Russian officials have long maintained contacts with the Taliban, and on April 14 hosted a fourth round of discussions on the Afghan peace process (though negotiations do not yet include the militant group). These talks  included representatives from Afghanistan, India, Iran, China, and Pakistan and the five Central Asian states. Moscow, Beijing and Islamabad have all made clear their desire for a negotiated and inclusive peace deal that would necessarily co-opt some elements of the Taliban.

By positioning itself as a leading intermediary in the Afghan peace process, Moscow is also able to undermine US efforts and portray the West in a negative light, as well as secure its own role in determining the future of Afghanistan. Such an approach fits with Russia’s broader strategy of providing an alternative to the US-led liberal order.

Second, Russia may decide to provide material support to the Taliban, betting that the group have limited goals outside of Afghanistan and will both curb poppy production (the group banned cultivation during the latter period of its rule) and serve as an effective fighting force against the Islamic State. Such an outcome is also an opportunity to directly undermine the Afghan government and NATO mission. Afghanistan would become yet another theatre where Russia is able to divide NATO and counter US influence at a relatively low short-term cost.

The Kremlin may view this option with askance. The Taliban’s support for other Islamist groups and growing ability to recruit outside its traditional ethnic Pashtun base, thus expanding the group’s presence in Afghanistan’s northern provinces, pose a threat to Russian interests in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Third, Russia could stage a limited intervention in northern Afghanistan to secure its southern flank, capitalising on its military presence in Tajikistan and past links with ethnic Tajiks, Turkmen, and Uzbeks in Afghanistan. Throughout the period of Taliban rule, Russia provided support to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and Moscow still maintains some clout with its former patrons, namely Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum. Such a scenario is unlikely to garner much support from the Central Asian states, which are already wary of heightened Russian influence. Further, the legacy of Soviet intervention in Afghanistan still hangs over Russian policymakers, who have repeatedly stated that their country will not become directly involved.

It remains to be seen whether Moscow’s calculations will change if poppy production continues to decline; 2016 saw a 48 per cent decrease from the previous year, though Taliban operations in the poppy-rich Helmand province make future trends difficult to predict. Continued ANSF operations against the Islamic State may also weigh on its decisions. Ultimately, Moscow views NATO as more of a threat than a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan. Russia doesn’t want a long-term NATO presence along its southern flank, and will seek to balance its desire for Central Asian stability with its aspiration to minimise NATO’s influence across the globe.

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Edward Boettcher

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