Afghanistan will reach a benchmark in 2014. By the end of that year, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a NATO-based coalition led by the U.S. since 2001, will withdraw from the country. Presidential elections will be held in Afghanistan in the second half of 2014.
There have been many predictions about a new period in Afghan history. As of now only one thing is clear – Afghanistan will be a place of constant change and will remain unpredictable. There is a widespread belief that Western politicians are concerned with the period before the end of 2014, not after the withdrawal. It is important for the majority of U.S. allies that they leave the conflict area quickly, in order to minimize losses before the pullout and to provide no incentives to reverse the withdrawal, thereby refusing moral and political responsibility for what might happen in the future. The U.S. is leaving its military bases in Afghanistan under bilateral agreements with the official government in Kabul rather than under a UN Security Council mandate.
For Russia, how the situation develops is of crucial significance. Afghanistan may turn into a base and a source for spreading the terrorist threat to Central Asia and Russia. The Afghan and Pakistani fronts have been diverting Islamists’ resources for the past decade; they have been tied up in the region and have suffered many losses. After 2015, these two groups will likely have an opportunity to take a look around and lend support to local “brothers.” In the new conditions, Russia and Central Asian countries will require additional diplomatic efforts to arrange relations with the Afghan authorities. Law enforcement agencies will also require measures to resist the terrorist threat.
ISAF IS FAILING TO MEET RUSSIA’S EXPECTATIONS
For decades, Russia has been an observer rather than actor in Afghan affairs. The position of Moscow and Central Asian countries in 2001, which basically boiled down to supporting foreign military intervention, was determined by three main factors:
First, Russia and Central Asian states had expected the international coalition to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda. In the late 1990s, the Taliban and allied terrorist groups posed a constant military threat to the countries bordering Afghanistan. Russia, too, had to respond to this threat, since it had to meet allied commitments to Central Asian countries. However, Russia had no effective means to do this. Terrorists felt safe in Afghanistan’s territory because they were out of reach of their pursuers. Therefore, the fight against the terrorists had to be waged in Central Asia. In this instance, both Russia and Central Asian countries were interested in a foreign coalition that would defeat the terrorists in their own territory, thus eliminating the source of the terrorist threat.
Second, Russia and Central Asia expected gratitude from the U.S. and NATO. Afghanistan is deep in the continent, and a military campaign in its territory requires cooperation with neighboring states. Initially, Pakistan was the key logistics partner for the ISAF, but the assistance of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which have a common border with Afghanistan, was deemed important and useful, too. Assistance from Russia and Kazakhstan was no less significant. As complications developed with Pakistani transit (it fully stopped in 2010), the significance of the Central Asian and Russian routes increased. These routes ensure access to Afghanistan for the coalition’s forces, and ultimately, it is these countries that gave the U.S. the opportunity to take revenge for the September 2001 terrorist attack. Consequently, all of these countries had moral reasons to expect an expression of gratitude.
Experts and policymakers have never taken seriously the claim that the U.S. and NATO are waging a war in Afghanistan for Russia’s sake. The Russian authorities did actively use this claim at one time to justify assistance to the international coalition when this policy came under attack from various domestic critics. Of course, a military defeat of the terrorists in Afghanistan was advantageous to Moscow. Yet this was a U.S. war. Russia could have opted to stay away from the Afghan issue altogether and not offer any significant assistance to Washington. However, Russia gave its political support to the international coalition and contributed a weighty logistic support. Of course, the Kremlin did not regard this aid as gratuitous.
Third, Russia and Central Asian countries had hoped that the foreign troops would withdraw from the region after defeating the terrorists in Afghanistan. Moscow regards as excessive a permanent or long-term military presence of other countries in Afghanistan and in Central Asia. Russia is not interested in this for geopolitical reasons. Also, Russia has good reasons to believe that the military presence seriously hampers the establishment of a lasting peace in Afghanistan based on a political decision; that is, a military presence would be a destabilizing factor. It is only justified at a certain stage in the Afghan settlement and within a limited timeframe.
These calculations were not groundless. They were based on U.S. official (public and non-public) commitments and further enforced by close personal relations between the Russian and U.S. Presidents.
Yet all these expectations and reckoning, which initially laid the groundwork for Russian and Central Asian support for Afghan intervention, have not been met.
In the first place, international terrorists have not been crushed: they have survived, they are capable of attack, they are continuing their subversive activities, and a majority of experts predict an upsurge in terrorist activity in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The specifics of the terrorist threat may be disputable, but there is little doubt that the threat is mounting. Both the Collective Security Treaty Organization and national law enforcement agencies are preparing to respond to this threat.
Rather than focusing on the complete military defeat of all groups in the international terrorist network in Afghanistan, Western politicians have insistently promoted the idea of talks with a “moderate Taliban” group. Yet the regional states do not need Washington or Brussels for dialogue with the Taliban. If necessary, they can negotiate their own dialogue and it will probably be more effective. From the very beginning, the ISAF hoped that such dialogue would not be needed. However, such dialogue is inevitable now. This proves that the coalition’s efforts have been fruitless and that it has failed to fulfill its original objective.
In the second place, the U.S. and NATO not only ignore the idea that they are politically indebted to Central Asia and Russia for their assistance, but they actually turn the issue inside out: they claim that the regional states owe much to the coalition for protecting them from the terrorist threat. Under certain circumstances, this claim would be nothing short of blackmail.
In the third place, the U.S. intends to keep a long-term military presence in Afghanistan at well-equipped and fortified bases, whose tasks and combat capability are not transparent to regional countries. Also, Washington is considering building an additional U.S. military infrastructure in Central Asia.
So what is the outcome?
What was expected: the U.S. and NATO were supposed to defeat the Taliban and withdraw from the region, “owing” Russia and Central Asia for their assistance in securing access to Afghanistan
What was gained: the Taliban were not defeated; the U.S. will keep its military presence in Afghanistan indefinitely (in actual fact, they have permanent, well-equipped and full-fledged security services there). The Western partners believe they are protecting these countries from the Taliban. To make matters worse, the flow of “hard drugs’’ from Afghanistan has increased exponentially.
REGIONAL NEUTRALITY AND ASSISTANCE FOR INTERNAL DEVELOPMENT
Based on what is stated above, it follows that Russia has to play a more active role in Afghan affairs and resolve its problems independently. In actual fact, however, Russia has had no opportunities to do this and any such prospect would hardly be expedient anyway. This is probably the reason behind Moscow’s decision to adjust its original expectations, which the international coalition failed to meet in Afghanistan, and continue to help the ISAF. Yet keeping this policy is only possible until 2015.
As for the subsequent period, Russia is laying the groundwork for an independent policy. It is building friendly relations with Afghanistan as a state and is refraining from actions that may set any part of Afghan society against Russia. At present, various groups among the Afghan population are showing interest in Russia. Moscow is providing a variety of assistance to Afghanistan on a bilateral basis, not within the framework of international efforts.
The Afghan situation has highlighted the problem that Russia also encounters in its policies in other regions – the need to adjust a course not to what is desirable, but to the available opportunities and tools. This means that such a course is unlikely to be consistent and that problems will not be easy to solve.
Once the ISAF pulls out of Afghanistan, bilateral relations will become more important. Friendly ties should be maintained not only with Kabul, but also with the local authorities to secure access to various strata of Afghan society. Russia has to devise social and economic cooperation programs. It is clear that Russia will not be able to allocate tens of billions of dollars, as promised by the U.S., the EU, and Japan (although these funds are scattered and are often directed towards projects that are of little practical use). However, the Afghan government and society can appreciate Russian efforts, even with a much smaller financial input, if Moscow implements practical social, economic, and humanitarian projects.
It is necessary to step up regional dialogue on the Afghan problem with Central Asia, China, Pakistan, India, and Iran. All of these countries have their own interests in Afghanistan, have an independent policy, and have their own array of instruments. In 2009, Moscow hosted a special conference on Afghanistan under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It seemed that this agency would become the basis for regional dialogue on Afghanistan. Beginning in 2010, however, Istanbul conferences took up this function with support from Western countries. The SCO still regards the Afghan issue as topical. It will be also expedient to maintain bilateral dialogue on Afghanistan with the SCO member-states.
Moscow should proceed from the understanding that it is hardly possible to work out a common program of actions and that dialogue should be founded on a different platform. Afghanistan is part of the region both politically and economically. Neighboring countries (or foreign players acting through neighboring countries) can have a significant influence on the Afghan situation. The ISAF’s withdrawal (even if the U.S. keeps its bases) will create a power vacuum. Consequently, the struggle may increase between various Afghan forces. Some segments of society might resort to force in an attempt to strengthen their influence in certain provinces.
In effect, there is a threat of an escalating civil war, but preventing this scenario should not be an end in itself. After the withdrawal of the international coalition, the internal balance of forces will inevitably be adjusted. Yet it is crucial that the Afghans do not feel that their neighbors and large regional players are encouraging them towards an endless civil war. A natural improvement of the situation in Afghanistan will be followed by an internal political settlement, although not a final or lasting one. It is quite possible that a settlement will have to be adjusted repeatedly, including with the use of force. But if a neighbor becomes involved in Afghanistan’s internal affairs directly or through friendly forces inside the country, the fragile balance will be upset and other countries from the region and beyond may be dragged into the conflict as partners of this or that neighbor. This scenario implies a tough regional competition in Afghanistan.
Stability in Afghanistan will be achieved if its immediate neighbors and other interested players show restraint; particularly, they should hold back from encouraging any party towards conflict or direct intervention in the Afghan civil war. At the same time, they should make it clear that, while understanding and accepting the possibility for adjusting the balance of forces, they do not support its radical dismantling.
The CSTO has joined international efforts to resist a possible terrorist threat from Afghanistan; it is working out plans and is holding exercises. But the CSTO can only operate in the territory of its member-states; i.e. confront the threat in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan (Uzbekistan has suspended its membership in the CSTO). As a military and political alliance, the CSTO is preparing to hold special military operations. Clashes with terrorist groups that have hundreds of militants (as the 1999 and 2000 experience suggests) are possible in southern Kyrgyzstan, which Afghan militants can enter from Tajikistan. Tajikistan, too, may become an arena of clashes. Militants may regroup into large units. The CSTO has to play an independent, albeit limited, role, which under certain conditions may prove crucial.
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Russia cannot be fully satisfied with the way the Afghan situation has developed in the past decade. Although Moscow has no reasons to be proactive in Afghan affairs, it will probably need to step up its efforts. Ultimately, the Afghans should be given the opportunity to build up a steady balance of forces at home, and then use these forces as a basis for political compromise. The role of external players, large regional countries, and immediate neighbors should not be obtrusive mediation. The Afghans will have to agree among themselves. The main requirement for all political forces in the country must be as follows: Afghanistan as a threat is not good for the country, which needs to be an integral political and economic part of the region. Therefore, all groups in Afghan society should focus solely on Afghanistan’s internal settlement.