Moscow’s Afghan Endgame

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Moscow’s Afghan Endgame

Worried about the NATO withdrawal, Russia has adopted several new policies for Central Asia.

Moscow’s Afghan Endgame
Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office, Kremlin

Few will have been watching the troubled Afghan presidential elections with greater attention than Russia. Although Moscow has not shown a strong preference for either candidate, and has managed to develop a good working relationship with outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Russian policymakers have been seeing nightmares in Kabul for years. Now the Iraq breakdown, coming after the years of civil strife in Syria, has deepened Russian anxieties about social and economic chaos along its vulnerable southern front at a time when relations with NATO remain strained over Ukraine.

Despite its public complaints, Russians have viewed the Obama administration’s initial surge into Afghanistan and its subsequent military drawdown with unease. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin acquiesced to the U.S. and then NATO interventions in Afghanistan, he did so reluctantly, with a fearful eye on potential threats to Russia’s regional influence. An initial Russian fear was that the United States planned to established permanent bases in Afghanistan and neighboring countries to dilute Moscow’s primacy in a region of vital Russian interest. Moscow likely encouraged Uzbekistan to order the Pentagon to stop using its territory in 2005. Putin later claimed that the United States had provoked Tashkent by acting as “a bull in a China shop.” For years, Russian representatives encouraged the Kyrgyz government to end the Pentagon’s lease at its other major base in Central Asia, at Manas International Airport near the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek.

More recently, Russian leaders have expressed growing anxiety that NATO was withdrawing prematurely from the region, dumping a massive regional security vacuum into Moscow’s unwelcoming arms. Russia still exercises military primacy in Central Asia but is threatened already by religious militants in the North Caucasus and other Russian regions with large Muslim populations. Russian officials expressed dissatisfaction with NATO’s decision to remove most if not all its forces from Afghanistan while the Taliban insurgency remains severe, believing the withdrawal would contribute to terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and instability throughout Central Asia. Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov has said that ISAF “has been too hasty about making the final decision to pull out.”

In response to the sharp drawdown in the Western military presence in Afghanistan and neighboring countries in recent years, and the expectation that most if not all NATO forces will leave Afghanistan by the end of this year, Moscow has adopted several policies as its Afghan endgame.

First, Russia has been increasing its economic and military ties with Afghanistan, such as by helping reconstruct or re-launch some projects that were started during the Soviet military occupation. As the withdrawal has proceeded over the past two years, Russians have resumed large-scale investments in Afghanistan by modernizing factories, rebuilding cultural centers, and restoring other vestiges of the Soviet occupation era. With their memories of that painful period increasingly overshadowed by more recent tragedies, Afghans have generally welcomed the assistance.

Meanwhile, the Russians have stressed their support for Afghanistan’s sovereignty and joined Karzai and other Afghan officials in denouncing NATO whenever the alliance was seen as violating it. For example, although persistently skeptical of the inter-Afghan peace talks, Russian diplomats backed an Afghan-led peace process with the Taliban, in which Western governments would play a subordinate supporting role. Russians’ growing influence in Kabul has already brought dividends; Karzai’s government was one of the few to support Moscow’s Crimean annexation.

Second, the Russian armed forces have been expanding their bases in Central Asia and been providing Central Asian militaries with subsidized training and equipment. In September 2013, Russia negotiated a 15-year extension of the lease to its base at Kant in Kyrgyzstan to 2032. The Russian military has announced plans to approximately double the number of planes based there,  which in early 2014 had at least two Mi-8 transport helicopters and eight Su-25 ground-attack planes. The Russian military also retains a seismic station in southern Kyrgyzstan and a communications post and a torpedo testing range in northern part of the country.

Russia is also providing Kyrgyzstan with a billion-dollar military aid package and is modernizing the equipment at its military bases in Tajikistan and providing that country’s armed forces with substantial aid to fortify its border with Afghanistan. Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu explained that “In the atmosphere when the withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan is planned for 2014, we must do everything to assure maximum security of our allies, our partners in the Collective Security Treaty Organization.” Russia sells weapons to Kazakhstan, which has more wealth than Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan, at subsidized prices. Many Central Asian leaders have joined Russian officials in expressing alarm that the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan and Pakistan could increase the threat from Islamist militants to their own countries. With the exception of Uzbekistan, whose leaders do not welcome a Russian military presence in their region and have sought to balance defense ties with Russia with military exchanges with China and the West, most recently by opening a NATO liaison office in Tashkent, these Central Asian leaders have generally welcomed an increased Russian military presence in their region.

Third, Russia has also taken the lead in constructing a regional military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and has worked with China to develop a regional economic and security structure in the form of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Since 2003, the intelligence, law enforcement, and defense agencies of the member governments have jointly conducted annual “Kanal” (“Channel”) operations to intercept drug shipments from Afghanistan through the region’s porous borders to markets in the former Soviet Union and Western Europe. In recent years, observers from Iran, Ukraine, the United States, and several European countries have attended these exercises. The CSTO has also established a working group on Afghanistan and has initiated several programs to strengthen the Afghan government’s law enforcement and counter-narcotics agencies. CSTO officials, strongly supported by the Russian government, have tried to establish formal cooperative programs with NATO to manage regional security issues, especially narcoterrorism.

Thus far, NATO officials have been reluctant to agree to formalize relations with the CSTO as an institution. The NATO staff and member governments generally perceive the CSTO as a Moscow-dominated institution and worry about reinforcing Russian preeminence in Central Asia by strengthening the CSTO through formal dialogue. They believe that Russian policymakers are trying to establish formal ties between the two organizations to enhance the CSTO’s international legitimacy by equating it with a more powerful regional security organization. As a result, NATO officials have continued to deal with the member governments directly rather than through the CSTO.

Moscow backed the SCO’s decision to grant Afghanistan “observer” status at its June 2012 summit in Beijing. In May 2013, Putin called on the SCO to assume a greater role in defending its members from the extremist violence emanating from Afghanistan. At their summit meeting in Bishkek later that year, the SCO leaders reaffirmed their commitment to stabilize Afghanistan. Karzai said that continued support from SCO member states for his country would be vital as NATO downsizes its military presence in Afghanistan. In terms of concrete action, however, the SCO governments merely decided to convene another international conference on Afghanistan, in Bishkek in October 2013. Thus far, the SCO’s activities regarding Afghanistan have been limited essentially to issuing joint declarations and sharing information about drug trafficking and Afghan terrorists. Not only are its collective security institutions weak, but the members are divided in how they aim to manage Afghanistan, which presents a problem given the organization’s consensus decision-making principle.

Fourth, Russia is working with the other great powers to manage Afghan-related events. This policy has yielded mixed results. Relations with the United States and NATO remain strained over Ukraine and other issues. Although NATO leaders have tried to compartmentalize Afghan-related issues, the U.S. regional commanders have indicated that the Pentagon will rely less on Russian logistical help in the future and, due to cost considerations, aim to remove most U.S. equipment from Afghanistan via Pakistan rather than through Russian territory. Despite the Pentagon’s wishes, the U.S. Congress has demanded that the U.S. government stop buying Russian helicopters for the Afghan air force after the current contracts expire.

China has resisted efforts by Russia, the West, and the Afghan government to encourage Beijing to provide greater assistance to the Kabul government. China has only recently begun training a few hundred Afghan police officers inside China, and has declined U.S. and Afghan requests to allow ISAF members to send supplies to their military contingents in Afghanistan through its territory. Beijing’s stance is partly due to a desire to not antagonize Muslim militants, but it may also reflect Beijing’s calculations that China might be able to work out a deal with the Taliban, in which the insurgents would avoid attacking Chinese workers or assets in Afghanistan, or support anti-Beijing terrorists in Xinjiang or elsewhere, in return for revenue from these projects as well as Beijing’s tacit acceptance of any Taliban-led regime in Kabul. Like Western governments, Russia has been encouraging China to provide economic and other help to Afghanistan, but the growing Chinese investment in the country that occurred a few years ago has since subsided as Beijing, like everyone else, has balanced exploiting Afghanistan’s great economic potential with the country’s persistent security dangers.

India has proven a more receptive partner to Moscow’s overtures. The two countries recently reached a new arms transfer arrangement that will see India buying weapons from Russia that Moscow will send to the Afghan military. The announced plan is to start with small arms and ammunition, but there have been indications that the parties may soon consider shipping heavier weapons, such as infantry vehicles and helicopters. Russia and India also agreed to share the costs of restoring Afghanistan’s Soviet-built arms industry. The new deal provides benefits to both countries. India can purchase new weapons for Afghanistan rather than draw on its own limited supplies, arrange for Russia to transport the arms directly to Afghanistan, and follow a practice already established by NATO, which has paid Russia to provide helicopters and training to Afghanistan government forces. Meanwhile, Moscow can substitute Indian support for weapons deliveries now that NATO is reducing its purchases due to the Crimea annexation. Russia also benefits from renewing its regional security ties with New Delhi at a time when other countries are shunning Moscow over Ukraine.

Yet, the recent Russian decision to resume selling weapons to Pakistan could antagonize New Delhi, which still buys most of its arms from Russia. Russia’s decision to provide Pakistan with Mi-25 helicopter gunships designed to kill insurgents is another manifestation of Moscow’s policy of strengthening the capacity of Afghanistan’s neighbors to fight local militants that could also threaten Russian interests.

More broadly, in all these engagement efforts, Moscow has proved unable to overcome divisions among these foreign governments regarding how best to deal with Afghanistan, even among its closest allies. For example, while Russia is trying to beef up its CSTO alliance, Uzbekistan has quit that organization and is promoting a distinct 6+3 plan based on an expanded U.N. role. Meanwhile, China is hedging its bets by preparing to deal with the Taliban through the mediation of its close ally Pakistan. Even though each Central Asian state shares a deep history of political, economic, social, and cultural ties with Kabul (including a multitude of co-ethnics within the nations’ borders), each Central Asian government handles its relationship with Afghanistan primarily bilaterally, and often by pursuing  diverging policies. India and Pakistan both treat Afghanistan as an arena in which to compete for regional influence against the other. Iran, which partnered with Russia and India in the 1990s to strengthen the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, has also stood aloof from more recent Russian and other joint foreign initiatives in dealing with Afghanistan.

Finally, Russian officials are prudently hedging against a failure of these strategies by developing options to support the re-creation of ethnically based mini-states in northern Afghanistan designed, as in the 1990s, to serve as a buffer between the Taliban, whose strength is in the Pashtun regions of southern Afghanistan, and neighboring Central Asian countries. For example, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has suggested creating “territorial formations” within Afghanistan to bolster CSTO border security. In May 2014, Igor Sergun, director of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian General Staff, has said that the Russian military estimates the possibility of Afghanistan breaking up into ethnic enclaves backed by foreign powers at 31 percent.

Russian officials have responded skeptically to President Barack Obama’s decision, announced last month, to request that almost 10,000 U.S. soldiers remain in Afghanistan in 2015 and 5,000 the following year, with perhaps half as many NATO troops accompanying them. Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, has complained that the new withdrawal timetable was schedule- rather than conditions-based, with U.S. forces ending their Afghan mission in 2015 regardless of the situation on the ground. Yet Russian officials have called on Afghan politicians to renew their Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States so that American troops can remain in Afghanistan after this year. At the May 23- 24 Moscow International Security Conference, the Russian speakers criticized the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan but also reluctantly wanted the Western military campaign against the Taliban to continue beyond 2014. Perhaps the Kremlin is waiting to see whether the next Afghan president will sign the BSA, and whether the Obama administration will actually carry through on its troop proposal or, as with Syria and Iran, dilute it in the face of Afghan or congressional resistance.