Afghanistan’s Close Call

23 september 2014

What are the Benefits for Russia after NATO Troops Pull Out of Afghanistan

Mikhail Konarovsky is a leading research fellow at the Center for East Asian and Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies at Moscow State University of International Relations (MGIMO). He was Russian Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Afghanistan in 2002–2004. He holds a Ph.D. in History.

Resume: It is essential that Russia avoid unilateral involvement in Afghan affairs, which otherwise would have adverse consequences for Russia’s national interests both regionally and internationally. And this is the scenario the U.S. is likely to try to push forward given current tense U.S.-Russia relations.

When the Taliban regime fell in 2001 the international community was optimistic that the Afghan crisis was nearing its end. Although events developed unexpectedly, historical experience suggests that what is happening now is a logical consequence of the Afghan experience. After more than a decade of a foreign military presence and huge external financial injections, the new government in Kabul has failed to secure solid military, political, and economic positions. In fact, the federal authorities have not managed to undermine the influence of their armed opponents. Having failed to achieve its goal, NATO launched a gradual troop withdrawal in 2011 that should be completed by the end of 2014.

The recent disaster in Iraq – where the apparent stability built during the U.S. occupation has crumbled like a house of cards – serves as a vivid example of what could happen in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (IRA) once international forces leave. In a broader sense, this highlights the U.S. responsibility for the conflicts it instigates.

As the date of the U.S. withdrawal nears, discussions have intensified over possible scenarios for Afghanistan’s post-NATO development and the impact on neighboring countries, primarily in Central Asia. National conciliation and getting the Afghanistan issue out of the current deadlock are necessary preconditions for stability and security in this explosive region, where unresolved and persisting problems hinder relations between countries; for instance, water shortages, simmering mutual territorial claims, and the complicated ethnic and geographic situation. Indeed, the situation in Afghanistan will likely have a stronger impact on the entire region after 2014, compared with the years of an active foreign presence.

After the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and as the influence of Tajik-Uzbek factions in the country’s north wavered, Kabul was poised to expand into Central Asia. Recently, there has been a noticeable spurt in the activities of Central Asian military-political groups affiliated with the Taliban in northern Afghanistan, and their activity is likely to increase after 2014. So, the fact that a post-NATO Afghanistan will have a negative impact on the situation in the region should not be underestimated.

Any further destabilization would inevitably impact Russia (through Central Asia). Importantly, the more radical the regime in Afghanistan becomes, the more dangerous the influence. A permanent increase in illegal migration from Central Asia – above all from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan – can serve as an additional breeding ground for the growth in internal tensions in Russia, which is already experiencing increased attempts to recruit mercenaries and establish illegal extremist training centers. These factors invalidate all speculation that Russia has intentionally fanned fears in order to secure stronger influence in the region.

China’s recent policy in the region indicates that Beijing is also increasingly alarmed about the unpredictable situation in Afghanistan after 2014 and its possible destructive effect on Islamic enclaves in northeastern China. Anti-government protests are gaining momentum in the Xinjiang autonomous region, thus proving that such fears are not unfounded. Not only Russia and China are worried about terrorism, extremism, and drug trafficking stemming from Afghanistan, but Central Asian countries are also concerned. Since all these countries (except Turkmenistan) are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), challenges coming from the south will inevitably increase SCO involvement in the region and prompt it to coordinate a common course. Much will hinge on the commitment of Russia, which will assume the rotating SCO presidency in the autumn.

SCO member-states and observers expressed their increasing concern about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan during political consultations in January 2014 in Moscow. They promised to support stability and security efforts in the IRA, noted the need to provide international assistance for the Afghan security forces as the mission of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) comes to an end, and pointed to the coordinating role of the UN and broad international cooperation for ensuring stable peace and security. For the first time since the international conference on Afghanistan that Russia convened under the SCO aegis in 2009, the participants reiterated that the SCO was a valuable platform for a broad dialogue and coordination of a range of regional security issues. This can be understood as the readiness of SCO member-states to assume a much more practical role in coordinating regional efforts to settle the situation in Afghanistan after 2014. 

AN ACCEPTABLE FUTURE

Nobody wants to risk predicting how things will develop in Afghanistan after 2014. The most optimistic option is that the present regime will stay in power and ensure overall stability. This, experts say, is possible due to the currently favorable global political environment that is strikingly different from what it was before the Soviet departure in 1988–1989. Additionally, measures have been taken over the last few years to strengthen the government and form the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), comprised of the army, central and local police, air force, and public law-enforcement units.

At the same time, the idea that these forces are keen to maintain order as they struggle to survive is questionable. There are not many staunch supporters of the incumbent government among the servicemen, especially soldiers. The Taliban success in the mid-1990s was not so much due to public support as to the fact that people were tired of war and instability, and disappointed in the Mujahideen government’s failure to ensure peace and economic development. Therefore, when Kabul finds itself one-on-one with its opponents after 2014, the ANSF may face a sharp decline in its combat capability. Even now, despite all the incentive measures taken, desertion is a serious problem that is sharply debilitating the ANSF’s capability to ensure security on its own.

The numerous Taliban armed incursions and terror attacks leave no doubt about the upcoming new stage of crisis. In light of the fact that the threat from Afghanistan could remain as it is now, or even increase, the U.S. considers it risky to reduce the coalition presence as planned for 2014 or cut the current size of Afghan forces to 228,000 from 352,000 in 2015-2017. The U.S. will likely maintain financing at the current level. At the same time, the ISAF command has decided not to build up the strength of its security forces in the future and will keep them at 195,000 troops, while focusing on improving the quality of their training and equipment.

The core process of national reconciliation has stalled as the confronting sides have remained persistent in their extreme demands. The Taliban is not keen to negotiate as it expects to take control of most of the country’s territory anyway once the U.S. and NATO leave. The opponents of reconciliation do not shun terror. Suffice it to recall the high-profile intimidation attack in the center of Kabul in January 2014 that killed 21 foreigners. The fact that the government could prevent terror attacks during the recent presidential and provincial elections is a good sign, but is an exception as security was ensured through unprecedented measures that the government cannot sustain for long. Similar to the Mujahideen confrontation with the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in the 1980s, the moral and political odds are largely in the rebels’ favor. There are strong external factors of support for the Mujahideen movement: the unwavering potential of Islamic extremism and terrorism worldwide; the Arab Spring; the lingering military-political crisis in Syria; the escalating Islamization in Pakistan and the Pakistani Taliban’s increasing weight in the balance of forces in Islamabad; and the recent events in Iraq. The “archaization” of Central Asia is also creating a wider and more favorable subregional environment for Karzai’s opponents.

Despite its lack of unity, the Taliban is unlikely to seek earnest negotiations with Kabul, especially considering the conditions stipulated by outgoing president Karzai – cessation of combat operations, recognition of the current constitution and political regime. On the other hand, the Taliban demands – releasing imprisoned members, an interim government and a new, Shariah constitution – are not acceptable for the incumbent regime. The confrontation will continue and much will depend on the new presidential team that will clearly have to work out a formula for negotiations with the armed opposition.

Interethnic strife will remain one of the most serious domestic challenges to Afghanistan. Self-awareness and political activity among ethnic minorities, primarily Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazara, have been on the rise in recent decades, fostered when the PDPA was in power. Some analysts have gone as far as to propose a confederation along the line of ethnic enclaves, where the country’s north, center, and extreme southwest is to be represented by ethnic minorities, and the rest of the territory by the Pashtun. Such a scenario, however, would be extremely difficult to implement, because of both the absence of clear ethnic borderlines and for political reasons – it could unleash a new civil war and stir up disintegration in a wider geopolitical space. Also, the sensitive question remains of who will be Afghanistan’s next president – the ethnic Pashtun Ashraf Ghani, or the Tajik from Panjshir Abdullah Abdullah.

In the long term, the future of foreign aid to Afghanistan and its sources will remain a significant issue. The amount of help will largely determine the feasibility of both the best possible and moderate (which is the most likely) scenario. As experts fairly observe, Afghanistan badly needs a highly positive agenda that could be efficiently achieved through multilateral programs – a decent mission for the Istanbul Process (IP). This roadmap Afghanistan and Turkey launched in 2011 is aimed at combining the efforts of the Afghan government and its neighbors for comprehensive cooperation in security and the IRA’s economic development with recognition of its role as a major link in the region. In June 2012, the foreign ministers of IP member-states outlined seven priority fields in need of multilateral measures, while in 2013 senior officials specified in concrete terms  joint actions and expressed support for regional cooperation with the IRA, especially ahead of the pullout of foreign troops.

However, no large-scale joint practical actions are in sight and the process has stalled. Afghanistan’s influential neighbors Pakistan, India, and Iran prefer to develop bilateral economic ties. The same is true of the SCO, which includes Afghanistan’s closest neighbors of China, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, and far-flung countries like Russia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Key Western players have embarked on providing all-out assistance to the IP, including material aid, while remaining in the background. Such a policy is further evidence that neither the U.S. nor its allies are seeking any longer to take the lead in the Afghan crisis. Rather they are ready to shift the entire burden of responsibility for social and economic development onto regional countries. U.S. President Barack Obama’s address at West Point is quite indicative of this stance. While the U.S. intends to keep around 10,000 troops on the ground to train the Afghan army and help fight terrorism until 2016, Obama’s speech definitely hinted at plans to reduce material aid to Afghanistan.

U.S. PURSUITS

Despite the tense dispute between Russia and the U.S. over the Ukrainian crisis and suspended cooperation within the framework of the NATO-Russia Council, official statements from the U.S. administration show that officials are keen to interact with Russia on a number of issues, specifically on Iran and Syria. This is even more relevant now in the wake of recent events in Iraq, which have pushed the U.S. towards rapprochement with Iran. As the U.S. seeks new forms of cooperation with Central Asian countries (members of the SCO and CSTO),  the Americans are obviously eager to cooperate on the Afghan issue with both Russia and China. However, while in China’s case the U.S. contemplates civilian and even military aspects of cooperation at both practical and expert levels, it has made no new proposals to Russia in addition to the projects already nearing completion (Russian helicopter supplies and the Northern Distribution Network). As for cooperation with Central Asia similar to what took place early on in the Afghan campaign, the U.S. sees it not only through the prism of logistics support for a NATO pullout, but also as an opportunity to keep an eye on a region that is critical for Russian and Chinese interests.

On the other side, Central Asian ruling elites plan to use the situation to their advantage, in particular in their dialogue with Russia and China. This line is particularly conspicuous in the case of Uzbekistan. Tashkent’s pursuits are strongly encouraged by Washington fully aware of Uzbekistan’s special role in Central Asia as well as the Northern Distribution Network used to transport NATO supplies to Afghanistan. Uzbekistan wants to acquire a privileged position in Afghanistan’s north using the ethnic factor and take control of key transportation routes. Uzbekistan’s withdrawal from the CSTO in 2012 is also in U.S. interests as the Asian country’s contacts with NATO expanded afterwards.

Another Central Asian country in the U.S. spotlight is Kazakhstan, a dynamically developing country on its way to becoming the leading power in the region. In fact, Kazakhstan is gaining a more important role on the global stage. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the most vulnerable of Afghanistan’s neighbors prone to aggression, have also demonstrated their interest in military cooperation with the U.S. However, some political scientists in the West have expressed doubt that the U.S. has any considerable strategic or commercial interest in Central Asia. The U.S.’s only motivation for involvement in this region is to counteract direct threats to itself and the West. Yet the word “threat” can be interpreted in various ways depending on what political or other interests emerge at each particular point. Remarkable in this context is the Obama administration’s vagueness as to how it sees the upcoming “transition” period in Afghanistan. 

AN UNDESIRABLE FUTURE

Sadly, the negative scenarios for Afghanistan are more realistic: the government maintaining only partial control over the territory; de facto geographic and political fragmentation; protracted social confrontation; and the Taliban regaining full control of the country. It seems reasonable to face up to the most complicated developments since a new regime in Kabul is set to be Islamic and traditionalist. Yet any speculation about the extent of the regime’s conservatism and enmity towards everything non-Islamic is pure guesswork. Therefore, international solidarity and cooperation are needed for addressing principal issues concerning the development of the situation in Afghanistan and Kabul’s formulating a new concept of its relations with the outside world. Clearly, the new presidential election alone will not ease tensions in the country.

The post-Karzai government will not escape highly challenging and complex tasks, above all the vital necessity to provide a level of security and stability sufficient to ensure a nation-wide consensus. It is very important that the arrival of a new government does not create a hotbed of interethnic and other tensions among the elites.

While initially preventing the expansion of the Taliban was mainly the concern of Afghanistan’s northern neighbors, now this is an increasingly worrisome issue for Islamabad as well – the Taliban nurtured for the IRA occasionally threaten Pakistan’s stability. The proposed idea of Afghanistan’s political “neutrality” guaranteed by its neighbors and world powers is consonant with Russia’s proposal (supported by the SCO) that Afghanistan resume neutral status as stipulated in the 1964 constitution. Any future government, however notorious, will only benefit from such a status.

In order to draw lessons from the past, it is important to finally clarify the real intentions of the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan and ease concerns persisting in Russia, China, and other countries. Recent U.S. political maneuvers around the country leave many questions unanswered. If the U.S. really intends to withdraw its troops from the IRA after 2016, Afghanistan’s neighbors will rightly ask what legacy NATO will leave behind for Afghanistan and the entire region. Apparently, other countries do not have to pay for U.S. strategic mistakes made in Afghanistan. Just a few months ago a stronger cooperation in the NATO-Russia Council and Afghan contacts with the CSTO could be an important token of international solidarity in the face of potential threats from Afghan territories. Today things are different, yet the need is still there. Meaningful ties between these organizations could promote efficient interaction in both monitoring the situation in Afghanistan and joint programs with Russia, of which there has been talk in the U.S. In a broader context, this would help deescalate the strain on relations between the West and Russia.

In any scenario, Russia should stick to its independent line in order to further cement the CSTO southern flank and step up its tangible presence in Central Asia. The same course is necessary in bilateral military ties with Uzbekistan, although the country’s non-participation in the CSTO perceptibly weakens the organization’s position in the region. This year will not close the chapter on the Afghan settlement; on the contrary, it will forerun new challenges for both Afghanistan’s close neighbors and Russia. Whatever the future of Afghanistan and Central Asia, Russia should act with caution and in consensus with other countries involved, primarily SCO member-states and observers. It is essential that Russia avoid unilateral involvement in Afghan affairs, which otherwise would have adverse consequences for Russia’s national interests both regionally and internationally. And this is the scenario the U.S. is likely to try to push forward given current tense U.S.-Russia relations.

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