The Debate

Russia in Afghanistan: Past as Prologue?

The impact of a Russian return to Afghanistan depends on whether it opts to secure its periphery or pursue stability.

Russia in Afghanistan: Past as Prologue?
Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office, Kremlin

Recent developments in Afghanistan, particularly the temporary fall of Kunduz, have worried many in the region, Russia among them. More than ever, the growing presence of regional terror outfits, pushed from their decades-long sanctuaries in Pakistan into Northern Afghanistan, has been a wakeup call. The danger of extremists filtering into Central Asia and upsetting Russian President Vladmir Putin’s lingering Eurasian dream is real. A nervous Russia mainly reliant on its military capabilities, has expressed a willingness to take the fight to the terrorists. While Russia’s concerns are understandable, they do need to be placed within the context of its decades-long engagement in Afghanistan.

Afghans remember Russia (and the former Soviet Union) for two things. First, its huge contribution to the socioeconomic reforms and major infrastructure projects still visible all over Afghanistan. During the 1960s, Afghanistan undertook nationwide socioeconomic reforms, seeking technical and economic aid from the Soviet Union. Some of the major projects included the construction of the famous Salang Pass, the first collective housing in Afghanistan, the Kabul Polytechnic, the Housing Construction Unit, and many more. The developmental aid also included technical training and educational programs for personnel of public and educational institutions. Some of these projects ran until the late 1980s. Russia also provided massive cooperation in training and equipping Afghan security forces.

The second most vibrant memory of Russia’s engagement in Afghanistan is its ill-advised occupation of Afghanistan in 1979. The occupation took place shortly after the Saur revolution (1978) launched by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) with a coup d’état. This changed the nature of the relationship and added a heavy political dimension to the previous cordial people-to-people and state-to-state relations. The occupation, instantly acknowledged as a strategic error, was the result of regular “bear traps” laid by Pakistan with the blessing of its allies to draw the Soviet Union into Afghanistan. This strategic blunder, engineered by former KGB chief Yuri Andropov, proved life-giving to all but Afghanistan and the former Soviet Union and its communist ideology. One of the main benefactors of the move, Pakistan had by then succeeded in selling its anti-Afghan agenda to the West and Arab states as an anticommunist agenda.

Soviet troops and the allied Afghan regime used a heavy hand to quell the rebels, but in vain. By the mid 1980s, the level of violence had increased viciously. With no end in sight, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev decided to reverse course and instead support an intra-Afghan reconciliation, much to the dismay of the installed president Babrak Karmal. Subsequently, the Soviet Union set a plan for a more inclusive political discourse in Afghanistan, one that could eventually lead to an independent country. At the Reykjavik Summit of 1986, Gorbachev assured U.S. President Ronald Reagan that the Soviet Union would withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.

The Moscow-endorsed shift started with changes in the PDPA hierarchy, followed by further changes in the Afghan political arena. However, despite the Reykjavik assurance and the changes, the U.S. remained suspicious. The “petrodollar” alliance of the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia continued to provide financial, military, and logistical covert support to the mujahedeen, which ended catastrophically for the Afghan nation.

The worsening situation led to the Geneva accords, signed by the United States, Soviet Union, Afghanistan and Pakistan in April 1988. The subsequent withdrawal of the Soviet Union in February 1989 was celebrated as the defeat of Communism; the Soviet Union breakup had become unavoidable and unification of East and West Germany was imminent. That was enough for Americans to lose interest and let loose Pakistan and their proxy groups.

The changed geopolitics in the region forced Russia to secure its front yard, Central Asia, and prevent the battle shifting from Afghanistan to the former Soviet Muslim republics. Moscow started looking for friendly allies in the communist regime, mainly leftist dissidents, among the fragmented mujahedeen factions and other non-state actors who could serve them well on their southern borders and in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the aim from then onward was no longer helping an Afghan state, but finding reliable allies who could give the Russians enough leverage to secure their interests. To this end, Russia has remained a visible player in Afghans politics until this day.

Taking the above into consideration, the current Russian temptation raises the question: What does Russia expect from Afghanistan? More importantly, how can Russia contribute to stability in Afghanistan? Does Russia see its engagement in Afghanistan through the prism of intensified support to quasi-state actors to secure its periphery? Or does Russia see stability in Afghanistan as a key to stability in Central Asia? Moscow should clarify these questions with Kabul prior to any course of action.

Certainly, Russia has the capacity and leverage to bypass the Afghan government with cosmetic support, and rely upon its former allies quasi-state actors. But this approach will not provide a lasting counter to the growing threat of extremism; rather, it will lead to further chronic insecurity in the north of Afghanistan and beyond.

However, if Russia sees stability in Afghanistan as the key to stability in Central Asia, then there are some opportunities for a successful short and long-term engagement in Afghanistan. It would need a comprehensive strategy to support the Afghan government on several fronts. The good news here is that Russia has capacity and experience to materialize this strategy.

First and foremost, compared with the growing divergence between U.S. and former Soviet Union in the 1980s, both Washington and Moscow have converging interests in Afghanistan. This is a game changer. Besides, the previous Soviet involvement in the civilian, military, and industrial aspects of Afghanistan gives Russia a significant edge. On the military front, Russia can enhance security and stability in Afghanistan by providing military training, equipment, and assistance to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), which is the need of the hour and the top priority of the Afghan president. The Afghan officer’s corps and fighter pilots can be trained in or by Russia. In fact, the Afghan security forces were mainly trained and equipped by the Soviet Union, hence they are more familiar with the Russian military hardware. For instance, the Afghan Army still uses the Russian Mi-17 and Mi-35 for much-needed air support. In short, any Russian military training and equipment for the ANDSF is more than welcome to help overcome growing security challenges and conduct counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan.

In addition to the military assistance, Russia can help Afghanistan with large-scale infrastructure and industrial projects crucial for durable economic progress. Recent news about cooperation on housing construction is one such example. This can be extended to the production of raw and advanced construction materials, which could help Afghanistan to become self-reliant on basic construction goods.

Of course, there is also the question of what might be in this for Russia. While Russia is being squeezed on its European front, South Asia through Central Asia still represents economic opportunity. There is also an opening for an assertive political role for Russia in the region. In comparison to Syria, stability in Afghanistan would be a major contributor to stability in Central Asian republics and in Russia. In contrast, instability in Afghanistan could send shock waves of insecurity through to Central Asia and mainland Russia, with grave consequences. Prevention is better than the cure, and prevention is best done in Afghanistan.

The Russian approach to the Afghan imbroglio should be careful and thoughtful, and not one limited to a quick fix reliant on unrealistic deadlines or expectations, as showcased by the U.S. There is a need for a durable strategy. Russia has both the goods and the experience that it can bring to the table. And since it has no particular ideological ambition, the question of exporting it is less critical and thus a Russian role potentially more palatable.

Khyber Sarban served as an adviser in Afghanistan’s Independent Directorate of Local Governance.