The text was originally published at Russia Direct
After the withdrawal of most NATO troops from the country in 2014, the security problems in today’s Afghanistan will acquire new urgency, and their solution will require a search for a new format of cooperation for all countries concerned, including the U.S. and Russia.
Of course, twelve years of war in Afghanistan were not in vain. The Taliban has been weakened significantly, and the army and police forces under official Kabul control are much more numerous than those of the armed opposition.
It is most likely that, after 2014, the situation in Afghanistan will develop according to the “Iraqi Scenario,” repeating the series of events after the U.S. troops withdrew from that country. This means the continuation of terrorist activity against a background of a relatively stable central government that protects the state system without the help of foreign troops.
However, unlike Baghdad, Kabul does not have its own source of funds to maintain power structures, so it will soon need financial support of foreign allies and a foreign supply of arms, ammunition and fuel for military vehicles. In addition, there is no doubt that, like Iraq, Afghanistan will remain an attractive destination for various extremists in the coming years.
As a result, other countries will have to ensure that no terrorist violence spills over beyond the Afghan border. The cooperation between Russia and the United States is crucial to solve these problems.
What stakes do the U.S. and Russia have in Afghanistan?
Both countries have a number of common interests with regard to the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan. The United States was the victim of terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 committed by Al Qaeda, which is an ally of the Afghan Taliban. Russia also opposes terrorist groups allied to the Taliban in the Caucasus, including the so-called “Caucasus Emirate.”
The Taliban government recognized the separatist regime of radical Islamists in Chechnya in the late 1990s and established an “Embassy of Chechnya” in Kabul. Then in 2000, when the Russian government was carrying out an anti-terrorist operation in the region, the Taliban sent their troops to help the Caucasus extremists, thus in effect declaring war on Russia.
Since then, terrorist groups have been periodically sent to the CIS countries from Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. In particular, in 2013, a group of militants from Central Asia was arrested in Moscow. These fought on the side of the Taliban, and came to Russia with the aim of committing terrorist acts. In addition, this year, authorities in Tajikistan neutralized a similar group in Dushanbe.
How did Russia help NATO in Afghanistan?
The form of radical Islamic terrorism in Afghanistan has been and still remains one of the threats to the security of Russia and its neighbors, which explains the principled position of Moscow to support NATO operations in the region.
In 2001, Russia voted in the UN Security Council for a resolution on bringing international troops into the country and signed a number of joint declarations with the U.S. on the Afghan problem. In addition, early in the war, Russia extensively shared its intelligence information and materials on the history of the war of 1979-1989 with the U.S. to facilitate planning operations in the country.
In 2008, the Russian government concluded an agreement with NATO on the transit of goods to Afghanistan for the needs of the alliance’s forces in Afghanistan. In 2011, an agreement was signed involving the supply of Russian helicopters for the Afghan army that was funded by the United States.
In 2012, a special cargo terminal was created in Ulyanovsk for the transit of cargoes for American forces in Afghanistan. This decision of Putin provoked fierce criticism from the Russian opposition, but still it was implemented.
What Moscow and Washington disagree about in Afghanistan
While the strategic approaches of Russia and the United States are similar, there are tactical differences in terms of the way they are attempting to solve the Afghan problem.
Moscow repeatedly criticized NATO forces in Afghanistan for overuse of airstrikes that resulted in casualties among the civilian population. Moscow also criticized NATO for an insufficient fight against drug trafficking and its support of political negotiations with the terrorists, including the so-called “Qatari Process.”
Some of this criticism was even taken into account by the United States. In particular, in the late 2000s, the American command of NATO forces in Afghanistan agreed to change its strategy, having reduced the role of air strikes and relying on the wider use of “night raids” by Special Forces to capture and kill field commanders of the Taliban.
It should be noted that the new approach proved to be quite successful and largely allowed NATO forces to start the transfer of responsibilities to the national forces in Afghanistan in 2011-2012.
What comes next?
The United States intends to continue participating in the fate of Afghanistan, which means continuing to provide financial assistance to the government of the country. However, now this problem unfortunately depends on the signing of a strategic agreement with Kabul on the establishment of U.S. military bases in the country.
In the context of the complicated U.S.-Iran relations, the establishment of such facilities will not only be a barrier to terrorism, but also a factor of political instability and, perhaps, of an arms race in the region. In general, many people in the Middle East have expressed their fears that the U.S. is using the fight against terrorism in the region to solve completely different national political problems, within which they are preparing the role of a “land aircraft carrier” for Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, one way or another, Russia also intends to continue participating in the resolution of the Afghan crisis. Although sending troops to the region is out of question, the Russian side can perform a number of other important functions.
First of all, Russia is a key supplier of oil products to Afghanistan, which largely contributes to the success of the actions of the government’s military vehicles in the country.
Russia also provides other material support to the country, supplying it, among other things, with humanitarian aid, food and other goods. In addition, there have been special training courses for Afghan anti-narcotics police for many years in Moscow, and after 2014, this program could be expanded.
Finally, Russian companies and professionals are ready to participate in the important task involving the reconstruction of the Afghan economy. This would help deprive terrorists of their social base and rid Afghanistan of its permanent dependence on external financial assistance.
Russian companies could participate in the construction and rehabilitation of industrial and energy facilities, many of which were first built by Soviet specialists as contractors in the period from the 1960s to the 1980s. Moscow repeated such proposals in connection with the projects implemented by USAID, but the American side often evaded such cooperation, preferring to give contracts to firms from other countries.
Will the situation change after 2014? At this point, the situation will only change if Russia and the U.S. learn to trust each other more. From this perspective, their joint efforts could help the region fill the vacuum created by the departure of NATO forces.
Since Russia’s key possibilities for development lie within the country, its main foreign policy goal is to block external negative influences and avoid being drawn into confrontation with opponents. Today Russia becomes a strategic balancer which should be interested in remaining independent in pursuing its own policy and assessing international events.
One way Russia has confronted this challenge is by creating bureaucratic organizations for each major religion that are monitored by state organizations. In Russia, the Muslim Spiritual Board is responsible for managing Islamic groups, including worship communities and educational institutions.
The United States and its Arab allies launched a series of airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, reportedly killing dozens of fighters. However, it is important to note that the U.S. took this action without a resolution from the UN Security Council – a step advocated by Moscow.
On the eve of the NATO summit, to be held in Brussels in July, the Polish Ministry of Defense issued an interesting report, titled “Proposal for a U.S. Permanent Presence in Poland”. Apart from European and NATO diplomats who are going to meet in Brussels, Warsaw expects to influence the opinions of US Congressmen and Pentagon analysts. Considering that the Congressmen will vote soon for the US military budget, the Poles want their arguments to be well heard.