2014 will be looked at as an important year for the history of US-Afghan and Russian-Afghan relations. In February, Russia commemorated the 25th anniversary of the final departure of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. For the Afghani, 2014 marks the end of the Karzai era. A new president will be elected on April 5th. The fate of the country remains anything but certain. The upcoming elections are perceived by most to be of critical importance to the future of the Afghan state. For the United States, 2014 marks the end of the official military operation in Afghanistan that began in 2001.
Russia’s reaction to the US and NATO military presence in the region over the past decade has been rather ambivalent. On one hand, Moscow welcomed the post-9/11 “Global War on Terrorism” and the intervention of American forces in Afghanistan. Russia sought to lend legitimacy to its own “war on terrorism” in the North Caucuses, where it had for many years been waging a brutal counter-insurgency battle against Chechen Islamists and extremist groups. On the other hand, Moscow has grown even more concerned that the ever-expanding Western security presence in Afghanistan is ultimately an attempt to keep Russia “in check” in Central Asia. In September of 2012, the Obama administration announced the withdrawal of the 47,000 strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. However, negotiations surrounding the bilateral security agreement (BSA), the agreement that will govern U.S.-Afghan relations following the drawdown of U.S. troops, have recently stalled. The BSA would permit the U.S. to keep a small residual force of about 8,000 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to support and train local forces and conduct limited counterterrorism activities. There is still hope for a favorable resolution of the issue as a result of Afghanistan’s April 5th presidential elections.
However, Russian officials have expressed deep concerns about Washington’s decision. Russian Defense authorities recently said that the ISAF “has been too hasty about making the final decision to pull out in 2014.” Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, pointed out that the ISAF’s mission had not yet been fully accomplished. He also voiced his concerns about potential spill-over of violence and infiltration of terrorists over Russia’s southern border. In fact, both Russian experts and Russian officials paint a pessimistic future for Afghanistan and its surrounding region following the ISAF’s departure. Among the top concerns for Russia: reemergence of local extremist groups and their attempts to regain power over Afghanistan; well-trained terrorists from the Afghanistan conflict moving across Russia’s southern border; the local army and police being unable to carry out counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations without foreign assistance; the political structure of the state becoming more fragmented and thus even more fragile; and finally, a rise in drug production and trafficking following the anticipated decrease in foreign aid. Russian officials believe that presence of the numerous, well-trained and well-equipped NATO forces has been a key factor deterring a full-scale bloody conflict in the country. If Afghanistan had a stable political environment, it could potentially serve as a bulwark to protect Russia’s southern borders from drug trafficking and Islamic extremism. Therefore, Russia’s interest in restoring stability in the region stretches well beyond the end of the NATO military operations.
Russia’s and America’s views of the withdrawal and policy recommendations
American experts on Afghanistan both in and out of government have a diverse range of outlooks on the situation. The U.S. commanders in the field and Pentagon are largely opposed to a hasty departure of the troops fearing the resurgence of the Taliban and Afghanistan’s rapid descent into chaos. Government officials, to the contrary, argue that the American combat mission has been successfully completed in a sense that it contributed to the formation of a credible and self-sustained Afghan army and decreased chances for al-Qaeda to “reestablish a foothold in the country where the Sept. 11 attacks were plotted.”
American think-tanks experts mostly agree with the planned withdrawal of forces, but at the same time, they appeal to U.S. politicians to provide an enduring military presence in Afghanistan after 2014 to better coordinate civil aid during the transition period and to prevent the terrorist groups from regaining control over the region. Some predict the resurrection of foreign terrorist groups (such as those of Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, or Iraq) putting “down roots again in Afghanistan if the country were to fall to the Taliban after NATO’s departure,” as Michael E.O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution writes.
Anthony Cordesman of the Center of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) suggests that the most important issue in the debate over Afghanistan has been overlooked. Instead of debating the issues with Afghan president, the American government should first weight the value of keeping its forces in Afghanistan. He essentially questions the necessity to maintaining an American presence in a region whose strategic importance to the United States has diminished. Mr. Cordesman concludes by suggesting, “Why not leave the task of dealing with unrest and extremism in Central Asia to Russia and China? Why can’t the United States do the best job of winning the new Great Game by ceasing to play it?”
Pauline Baker of the American Interest predicts a “terminal meltdown” of the Afghan state, “with the insurgency spiraling upward” and increased political fragmentation following the withdrawal of international forces. Despite certain achievements by the ISAF, she sees no viable rationale behind the idea of continuation of the previous military policy in the region. Until the policy is reviewed, the further presence of American troops in Afghanistan would mean further waste of both human and financial resources. To put a finer point on it, she states “Thus far, the war has cost the United States at least $500 billion over the past ten years (some say as much as $1 trillion), with spending close to $100 billion in 2013 alone.”
As soon as the American forces leave the country, international aid will be cut significantly as well. “Without continued international military and economic support, Afghanistan risks falling back into civil war, with the attendant rise in extremist groups, outflow of refugees and disruptions in commerce that would threaten the region as a whole,” stated Ambassador James Dobbins, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, during his testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
According to the World Bank, currently 95% of the Afghan GDP is funded by foreign taxpayers of donor’s nations. Where will their post-2014 budget come from? The answer appears self-evident – from Afghanistan’s prior sources of cash: poppies, opium production, and the narcotics trade. Recently, the presence of foreign troops and controls introduced by the Karzai government suppressed but never eliminated such sources of cash. Thus, another fatal risk – narco-trafficking – is rising. At an event on the Middle East recently hosted by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering expressed regret about the ISAF withdrawal from Afghanistan. In addition to the departure of well-equipped and trained foreign forces, the withdrawal implies the loss of “extensive funding for the Afghan national security forces.” “One of the things that I think is the most important,” said the Ambassador, “is to see if we can push India and Pakistan to begin to talk about their interests in and their future roles in Afghanistan.” Summing up his observations of the broader Middle East, Mr. Pickering said that “our effort has to be to help build balances in the region rather than to pick winners and losers.”
Russian foreign policy and Afghanistan experts outline numerous scenarios for the post-2014 Afghanistan. Omar Nessar, Director of the Center for Contemporary Afghan Studies (CISA), points out that “The Taliban interprets the drawdown of the Western forces as its own victory. So now they certainly are not going to accept any concessions. They believe that the timing is playing into their hands, and as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan approaches, their positions are being only strengthened.” Mr.Nessar in his correspondence with IMR said that even in the situation when a small military contingent is present (such as of 8,000 troops) it still will not be enough to detain possible terrorist assaults. Thus, resumes Mr.Nessar, the task of counter-terrorism will be placed on the local police, whose combatant ability is insufficient. He also warns of the outcome of the April election. “Absence of security in the southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan, low voter turnout in the election – all that contributes to the victory of a non-Pashtun candidate at the presidential election-2014, which will inevitably cause unrest among the Pashtuns. On the other hand, the current situation of insecurity in the region increases chances of the Taliban and other opposition groups to win the election,” predicts Mr.Nessar.
Nikolai Pakhomov of Afghanistan.ru believes that “the total departure of the ISAF from Afghanistan does not correspond with Russia’s strategic interests.” He emphasizes that the problems with drugs production and drugs trafficking, terrorism that existed before and that were under some sort of control during the presence of the Western forces, have not gone away completely and that they are still enduring, which poses a serious threat to Russia. “ So,” warns Mr.Pakhomov, “if Moscow does not assist its neighbor-countries in the security building measures she is going to be the next to fall victim to the belligerent and stiffened Islamic fundamentalism.”
Some experts envision Russia splitting along the Volga and the Ural Mountains as a result of potential conflicts to the south of the Russian border. “Additional impact will have the escalating conflicts in North Caucasus and the Volga region,” says Vladimir Souvorov, head of the Department of Governance and National Security at Russia’s Military Academy.“In the future, these threats will aim to split our country along the lines of Afghanistan-Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan – on one hand, and “driving a wedge” from North Caucasus along Volga – on the other hand. This will eventually separate the Ural and Siberia from the European part of Russia and disintegrate the country’s territory overall.”
In light of the shifting landscape in the Central Asia, Russia might consider the introduction of visa regime with the Asian republics, suggests Artyom Vit of Voennoye Obozrenie. The customs control regime on the border with Kazakhstan might also be restored in the coming years. In this respect, the drug trade may become an obstacle for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to join the Customs Union.
Another scenario drafted by experts could be summoned as a fatalistic prediction that as soon as the American/NATO troops leave the country the Islamist extremists will rise against Hamid Karzai. The president then might turn to Russia for protection, which will inevitably drag Russia into another war in Afghanistan.
Following the Soviet Union’s withdrawal in 1989, Afghanistan is the last thing Russia wishes to be involved with again. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says that it is now up to the Afghans to decide what type of state they want, how to increase security and build stability in the country – they should do it on their own, whereas other states are in no position to dictate them what to do. “So peaceful, prosperous, friendly, neutral, but it will not come by itself. The efforts of all of us – the friends of Afghanistan – is required to make this happen and will be strongly supporting the government of Afghanistan and the people of Afghanistan on the road to this bright future.” In other words, Russian foreign policy authorities in their policy recommendations for the post-2014 Afghanistan refer to the diplomatic principle of “respect of other people’s right for self-identification and no foreign interference with their right to shape their own future.”
Russian experts believe that America’s imminent departure makes a strong case for Russia’s leadership on anti-drugs measures in Central Asia. They suggest that Russia should focus on its southern border’s security, increase the control and prevention of drugs production and drugs trafficking. Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie Moscow Center recommends Russia should do a careful assessment of the current Afghan realities, seriously consider the importance of the Pashtun factor, and soberly assess the actual capabilities of the Taliban. “It needs to cooperate with Afghanistan’s neighbors but stay away from their competition. It absolutely needs to avoid any military involvement of its own in Afghanistan, and engage economically only when this makes sense in economic terms,” deems the Carnegie expert. Omar Nessar of the Center for Contemporary Afghan Studies (CISA) hopes that the uneasy situation will induce the Central Asian leaders to start seeking “new forms of collaboration in their attempts to fight the terrorist groups as well as new mechanisms to maintain regional security without relying on the NATO and the U.S. support”.
American experts as well as their Russian counterparts advise that the remaining combat regiments should now train, advise and assist Afghan local forces to make sure that Afghanistan is able to further maintain its security on its own, without heavy foreign support in the future. The remaining international contingent should also be tasked to conduct strikes against terrorists. The problem of fragility of the Afghan state should be specifically addressed. Pauline Baker writes, “The April election is critical to the transition, but we should ensure that we are helping to establish the constitutional and electoral foundations for all future balloting, not just the next one.” She suggests that the international community should assist Afghanistan in building good governance through such means as promotion of tough anti-corruption laws, cultivating civilian control over the military to avoid the situation where the latter seized the power. The international peacemakers should also promote an all-inclusive peace negotiation process where the Afghan politicians would sit at one negotiating table with Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Haqqani network and the Northern Alliance, among others and discuss the peaceful resolution to the conflict.
April elections and three options
Lying on the crossroads of three strategically important geographic regions – Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East – Afghanistan has always been that “player” one would inevitably have to deal with if they wanted to pursue their interests in the region. Not an easy task. Russia treated the region as a sphere of interest in the 19th century, when, together with Britain, she was actively engaged in the so-called “Great Game”, and in the late 1970s when the Soviet troops invaded the country and were tied down for a decade. The United States has historically been involved in the region owing to its role in energy production and transportation, but following 9/11 and the “War on Terrorism” Afghanistan has been a major focal point for America’s national security policy. However, the geostrategic situation has drastically changed over the past 25 years. Whereas Russia learned a bitter lesson from the 1979-1989 invasion, Obama is entirely reconsidering America’s foreign policy priorities – America is no longer the world’s policeman and the greater Middle East is no longer the top foreign policy priority for the country. “We would like to get out of there, thank you very much,” as Ian Bremmer stated in his recent talk at the Carnegie Council.
While the Middle East region is geographically remote and strategically less important for the United States, it still remains a tangible threat to Russian security, primarily due to the fact that it borders the region. Not surprising then that Russian authorities criticize Washington’s decision to exit as being “too hasty” and point out that the task of eliminating terrorism and building stability in the country has not been accomplished. Given the escalating threat from a NATO-free Afghanistan and deteriorating relations with the West (mainly a result of the Ukrainian crisis), Russia has to seriously assess its security concerns – first and foremost, terrorism and narco-trafficking – and weigh potential losses and gains from preserving cooperative relations with the United States. When the international forces are withdrawn, given the persistent instability, failure to eradicate terrorism or drug trafficking, weak and corrupt military and police, the likelihood of the Taliban guerillas regaining power is quite high. In the given context, the outcome of the April presidential election remains critical. It basically bears three options: 1. The new leader signs the Bilateral Security Agreement with the US for continuing presence of its troop 2. The new leader is powerful and determined enough to build more efficient and accountable governance in Afghanistan. 3. Turn back to the profound misgovernance and corruption, which only strengthens the Taliban and increases chances of another civil war.