The Afghan Problem in the Regional Context
№3 2009 July/September
Ivan А. Safranchuk

Senior Research Fellow, Institute of International Research, MGIMO University;

Member of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.


SPIN RSCI: 9754-1094
ORCID: 0000-0003-2214-6628
ResearcherID: O-3257-2017
Scopus AuthorID: 57193867458


e-mail: [email protected]
Institute of International Research, MGIMO University
Office 319, 76 Vernadsky Prospect, Moscow, Russia

After 2001, when the Taliban suffered a military defeat, lost
its grip on power and retreated to defensive positions, the
international coalition failed to achieve any noticeable success in
Afghanistan. On the contrary, the Taliban has been consolidating
its positions militarily and politically all the recent years.

The development of the situation can hardly be predicted due to
the influence of a variety of different-directed factors, such as
the interests of forces acting in the country, the conduct of
neighboring states, and the policy of outside players. The United
States and its main allies are likely to change their policy and
switch from efforts to suppress the Taliban by force to a tactic of
reconciliation with some of the Talibs. The Barack Obama
administration has several scenarios, but each requires cooperation
with Afghanistan’s neighbors.

Meanwhile, the neighboring countries can no longer rely solely
on the United States. They are seeking a more active independent
policy in addressing Afghan problems, which would meet their
interests and ensure their security under any developments.


Moscow’s position on the Afghan issue has been mixed in the
recent years.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said in its 2007 foreign policy
survey: “If the Afghan campaign ends in failure and the U.S. and
NATO leave, the Central Asian countries and Russia will be left
face to face with the consequences of the aggravated Afghan
problem, primarily the drug and terrorist threat, with an upsurge
of fundamentalist sentiments and the destabilization of the

This statement suggests that Russia had doubts about the success
of the military operation in Afghanistan back in 2007. The year
2008 did not add any reasons for optimism. Rather, the doubts
returned full force.

But let us assume that there is a possibility for a decisive
victory of the Western coalition and stabilization in Afghanistan.
This would remove the main obstacle to the implementation of
infrastructure and transport projects that would help integrate
Central and South Asia within the framework of so-called “Greater
Central Asia.” The term has been rarely used recently, but the idea
lives on. These plans aim to link Central and South Asia by a
common energy and transport infrastructure, which would give former
Soviet Central Asian republics access to the Indian Ocean. But
without a stable Afghanistan (and now we should also add “without a
stable Pakistan”) that would be impossible. Yet, something is being
done even now – border-crossing points are being modernized, and
new roads are being built.

Therefore, Russia by no means is interested in a defeat of the
international forces in Afghanistan, as it would create new
security problems. But Moscow does not see prospects for a military
victory. And if these prospects appeared, they would give a green
light to “Greater Central Asia” infrastructure projects that would
be economically disadvantageous for Russia.

In these conditions, the Russian Federation has been sitting on
the fence. But the worsening of the situation in Afghanistan
requires a more coherent approach. In 2007-2008, all Central Asian
states grew increasingly concerned about the strengthening of the
Taliban. They criticized U.S. and NATO actions but, on the other
hand, they showed a growing readiness to help them. At the same
time, they grew increasingly dissatisfied with Moscow’s policy. In
2008, the author repeatedly heard critical remarks in Central Asia
about the Russian policy towards Afghanistan.

There emerged a situation when the United States and NATO could
exploit “the Afghan fears” of Central Asian capitals and meet with
more and more understanding there. Traditionally, Washington sought
a broader access to the military infrastructure in the region and
more active political contacts, which would consolidate the
positions of Western countries in general. In other words, by
helping the U.S. and NATO to resolve the Afghan problem, the
countries of Central Asia recognized their leading role in
Afghanistan. In effect, this would imply the extension of U.S.
security services to the Central Asian region.

There was one more circumstance that appeared in 2007-2008. The
international forces began to experience more and more difficulties
with the deliveries of cargoes to Afghanistan. Their main flows
always ran through Pakistan. However, several years before,
deliveries via the Karachi-Quetta-Kandahar route had stopped, while
in 2007 there emerged serious problems with the
Karachi-Peshawar-Jalalabad route, as pro-Taliban groups in the
territory of Pakistan stepped up their attacks on cargo convoys,
destroying or stealing them.

The dependence on the Pakistani transit route can be reduced in
several ways. NATO might send more cargo by air directly to
Afghanistan, but this would be too expensive. The volume of
shipments through the Caucasus and Turkmenistan has increased. The
most sensible solution would be to increase transportation by rail
through Ukraine (or Belarus) or through Latvia’s port of Riga and
farther on to Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The only railway
line to Afghanistan runs from Uzbekistan.

Russia and NATO reached a principled accord on railway transit
at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, where the parties exchanged
letters on the possibility of such transit. However, it was
impossible to implement it at that time. NATO refused to negotiate
with the Collective Security Treaty Organization, so it had to
conduct separate talks with each member country. This is what NATO
Secretary General’s Special Representative for the Caucasus and
Central Asia, Robert Simmons, was doing during 2008. However, the
coalition succeeded in re-routing shipments of the most vulnerable
cargoes bypassing Pakistan, even without opening railway transit.
In 2008, fuel purchases increased in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and

Moscow found itself in a difficult situation. Assistance to the
United States and NATO in Afghanistan implied consent to the spread
of U.S. influence in Central Asia. But Russia, which has invested
billions of dollars in infrastructure projects in the region, does
not view it as an attractive prospect.

It is within the framework of this dilemma that one can consider
Moscow’s position on the U.S. base in Manas, Kyrgyzstan. On the one
hand, Russia is ready to help NATO with deliveries to Afghanistan.
But on the other, Moscow was involved in the shut-down of the base,
which was part of the coalition’s logistics.

It should be noted that the existence of the Manas base was an
even larger irritant to China. China has deployed nuclear missile
launchers in its western area, and the flight time from Manas to
these strategic targets would only be 30 to 40 minutes. Also, it
was from Kyrgyzstan that  intelligence was gathered on Chinese
nuclear tests in 1996. So, Beijing is very suspicious about U.S.
military presence near its borders. In 2005, China called for
shutting down a U.S. military base in Uzbekistan. In case of Manas,
China’s role, although not publicized, must have been great,

Russia is seeking to organize its interaction with NATO in such
a way on the Afghan and other issues as not to allow this
interaction to have a “false bottom.” The alliance needs access to
Afghanistan. Russia is ready to cooperate, but in that case there
is no critical need for the Manas base. Washington’s desire to keep
it by all means or find alternatives in neighboring countries is
interpreted as proof that Afghanistan is only a pretext for U.S.
military presence in Central Asia.

Having expressed its readiness to participate in railway
transit, Russia has shown that it by no means undermines the U.S.
and NATO’s military efforts in Afghanistan. Moreover, Moscow has
placed no formal conditions for the beginning of transit. Russia is
really interested in providing assistance to the international
forces, which meets the interests of its Central Asian allies, as
well. Yet, it cannot be ruled out that Moscow is beginning a
larger, long-term game, which may evolve in two directions.

First. If the volume of transit through Russia
becomes more or less significant, it will make NATO dependent on
Moscow for the first time. Russia does not need to set terms for
the transit: once it starts, NATO and the U.S. will proceed from
the need to keep it going. If Russia encounters an unconstructive
position of the partners on the issues it regards significant,
there is always a possibility to suspend the transit.

Second. Transit through Russia, Kazakhstan and
Uzbekistan makes these countries larger players. Moscow is stepping
up its policy based on the concept that Afghanistan needs not only
a military victory but also the solution of a complex of
socio-economic problems. It has to tackle drug trafficking in the
first place. The main role in the solution of these issues should
be assigned not to the U.S. or NATO but to the UN and other
international organizations.

Russia believes that countering the drug threat from Afghanistan
must become a priority in international efforts. During the
presence of the coalition forces in the country, the drug threat
not only has not decreased but has multiplied instead. In effect,
the international coalition is buying the loyalty of the Afghan
population, closing its eyes to drugs: “Grow poppy, trade in opium,
but don’t take up arms.” It is a vicious circle. Part of the drug
money goes to the Taliban, which has helped the Talibs to recover
after the 2001 defeat. Besides, it turns out that Russia, Iran,
Central Asian countries and EU states pay for the partial solution
of the security problem, because almost all of Afghan heroin is
consumed there.

A more stable Afghanistan in exchange for larger drug trade is a
very dubious transaction. Why should it be welcome in the countries
to which Afghan heroin is smuggled, with all the ensuing social and
criminal problems? In essence, the drug situation should serve as
the criterion of success of the international coalition’s actions
in Afghanistan.

Power methods alone (the destruction of opium crops, etc.) would
not eradicate the drug threat but would only bring about a
confrontation with the local population. Therefore, only a complex
strategy must be applied – a combination of force and efforts to
overcome the social and economic backwardness in the country.


All Afghanistan’s neighbors, except Turkmenistan, have the
status of members or observers at the Shanghai Cooperation
Organization. It is therefore quite natural to use this format for
discussing the Afghan problem and work out an independent SCO
position and policy, especially as things have not been going
smoothly in Afghanistan.

A SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group has been set up, and on March
27, 2009, Moscow hosted an international conference on Afghanistan
under the aegis of the SCO to discuss documents proposed by the
Group. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Borodavkin said in
closing remarks at the conference that “efforts by the
international community in stabilizing Afghanistan need rethinking.
In this regard, the SCO Conference has constituted an important
stage of the commencement of this work.”

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is not a structure open to
all. Therefore, the conference on Afghanistan, to which a broad
circle of participants was invited, including those previously
barred from SCO events, should be viewed as a positive trend. The
SCO has shown it is going to play an increasingly active role in
Afghan issues and promote an agenda of its own, while cooperating
with other interested countries.

Of course, some diplomatic verbal fencing still takes place. For
example, the Statement by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization
Member States and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan on combating
terrorism, illicit drug trafficking and organized crime said in its
introductory part: “Attaching great importance to the efforts made
by international and regional organizations including the United
Nations (UN), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the
Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Collective Security
Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Conference on Interaction and
Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) to combat the threats
of terrorism, illicit drug trafficking and organized crime…” There
is no mention of either NATO or the European Union here. Later,
however, the document corrected the omission, as the closing
paragraph stated: “We express our commitment to enhance cooperation
with all relevant States and international and regional
organizations, namely UN, EU, CIS, CSTO, OSCE, NATO and CICA on
matters of common interest …”

The final document, titled “The Declaration of the special
Conference on Afghanistan convened under the auspices of the
Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” begins thus: “The participants
in the Conference welcomed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization
(SCO) initiative to organize this forum, expressed their
satisfaction with results and noted that the outcome was in line
with the efforts of the international community, namely the United
Nations, North-Atlantic Treaty Organization, European Union,
Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Collective
Security Treaty Organization, Organization of Islamic Conference
and Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in
Asia, other international and regional organizations and individual
states to counteract threats of terrorism, drug trafficking and
organized crimes.”

The discussions on Afghanistan within the SCO framework
encompass three main areas, which are often referred to as
‘baskets’: fight against terrorism, drug trafficking, and
cross-border crime. The SCO has worked out a range of measures for
each area. They are listed in two documents circulated at the
Moscow conference – the Statement by the Shanghai Cooperation
Organization Member States and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
on combating terrorism, illicit drug trafficking and organized
crime, and the Plan of Action of the Shanghai Cooperation
Organization Member States and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
on combating terrorism, illicit drug trafficking and organized
crime. The SCO thereby demonstrates that it has a specific plan of
work, open to other states.

It is within the frameworks of these three “baskets” that the
SCO has proposed creating “security belts,” mentioned in the
Statement. It said, in particular: “We call for joining the efforts
of all States and organizations concerned aimed at creating the
‘anti-drug and financial security belts’ in the region.” Russian
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted in his speech at the Moscow
conference that “in this spirit – through joint work with Kabul,
not by creating any ‘sanitary cordons’ – the SCO and CSTO suggest
creating antinarcotics, antiterrorist and financial security

The grouping of Afghan issues into three ‘baskets’ is already
yielding fruit. Yet, there is one void that needs to be addressed.
The above documents clearly stated the necessity to achieve the
solution of Afghanistan’s socio-economic problems. Lavrov
emphasized: “We are convinced that to stabilize the situation a
comprehensive approach is needed which combines the military
suppression of terrorists, extremists and drug dealers with a
wide-scale program of economic and social rehabilitation.” However,
social and economic issues do not fit into any of the three
‘baskets’ and have to be mentioned separately, “on the

The Plan of Actions says at the end – and outside the main text
of the document – that “The SCO Member States will further develop
their bilateral trade and economic cooperation with Afghanistan,
engagement in international efforts to provide assistance in its
economic recovery, and will explore opportunities for implementing
joint projects aimed at social and economic rehabilitation of this
country. In this regard, the SCO Member States will consider the
proposal of the Republic of Tajikistan to sponsor an international
conference of Ministers of Economic Affairs in Dushanbe.”

The documents of the conference and the Russian minister’s
speech promote the Afghan authorities’ role in addressing problems
in their territory. “Russia is in solidarity with the people and
government of Afghanistan in their efforts to ensure security and
put an end to terrorist activities and attempts by extremists to
control individual areas of the country and create parallel power
structures there,” Lavrov said. Russian and SCO officials
consistently emphasize that Afghanistan is an independent country
with a capable government and that the international community’s
task is to “assist the Afghan government.”

Phraseology like this clearly expresses support for Afghan
President Hamid Karzai and sets frameworks for international
efforts, i.e. helping the legitimate president of Afghanistan. It
implies that actions that have not been agreed with him do not meet
the spirit of the international operation.

The final document of the Moscow forum underscored the
importance of “sustained international efforts” which should be
“comprehensive” and proceed “under the leadership of Afghanistan
and the central role of the UN.” The document also stressed the
need for closer coordination of operations with Afghan authorities
“in consultation with the Government of Afghanistan.”


The Afghan drug threat and the necessity to step up efforts to
combat it were the main subjects at the Moscow conference. Sergei
Lavrov directly linked the issue of security in Afghanistan to drug
trafficking: “Of special significance is the fight against the
traffic in drugs, from which the proceeds go to finance terrorist
activities.” “Afghan drug trafficking has become a major security
threat for the countries of Central Asia and the Russian
Federation. Efforts that are being made to combat this evil are so
far insufficient” he added.

The conference actually placed responsibility for failures in
combating drug trafficking on the coalition forces, rather than the
Afghan government. The final document “acknowledged the progress of
the Afghan government in reducing the cultivation of poppy, despite
limited resources at its disposal.” This wording implies that the
Afghan authorities are doing their best, whereas there may be
complaints about the coalition’s efforts.

The Russian foreign minister pointed to the need “to
substantially enhance the effectiveness of external support for the
efforts of the Afghan authorities to combat illegal drug production
and smuggling.” Lavrov expressed hope for “the practical
realization of the decisions to increase ISAF [International
Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan] antinarcotics operations,
adopted by the NATO countries’ defense ministers in Budapest in
October last year.”

The Statement by the SCO member states and the Islamic Republic
of Afghanistan on combating terrorism, illicit drug trafficking and
organized crime sent a clear message to international forces: “We
welcome the fact that ISAF in cooperation with the Government of
Afghanistan joined the fight against drug production and
proliferation in Afghanistan and support its wide-ranging
participation in multilateral efforts in this area. We consider it
important that the UN Security Council takes this into account when
discussing the ISAF mandate next time.”

The wording of the final document of the Moscow conference is
softer. Yet, it repeatedly mentions terrorism, the production and
trafficking of narcotics, and organized crime. That is, it points
to a link between security problems and narcotics, as well as to
the need for the ISAF to step up its efforts to combat narcotics
trafficking in cooperation with the Afghan authorities.


The monopoly of NATO and the United States on the solution to
the Afghan problem seems to be drawing to a close. In the past six
years, it has failed to bring the desired result. If the current
trends persist, a situation similar to that in the Middle East may
develop in Afghanistan and Central Asia: no chance for settlement,
while the hotbed of tensions generates a demand for U.S. security

NATO and the U.S. should continue to bear responsibility for
providing basic military security in Afghanistan. But the solution
to the complex of socio-economic problems should be found in a
broader international context, with the direct participation of
Afghanistan’s neighbors. Russia’s proactive policy is not aimed at
undermining U.S. positions. Moscow simply wants the Afghan problem
to be resolved comprehensively, in the interests of all.