News about Russia’s alleged intention to contribute forces to the Western coalition in Afghanistan has made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic in the past few days. The story might just be an elaborate hoax, similar to speculation that appeared in the Polish media a year and a half ago. But more likely it is a projection of what psychoanalysts call the collective unconscious. The situation in Afghanistan is so bleak now that it inevitably calls to mind memories of the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan, while also making the NATO-led coalition want to shift the burden.
Schadenfreude – the German word for taking joy in the misery of others – isn’t a feeling worth cultivating, so we should try to figure out how Russia and the United States can work together in Afghanistan, with other Western allies playing supporting roles.
Russia’s direct military involvement does not seem to be a realistic option. Indeed, it would be hard to come up with a compelling motive that could make Moscow enter the unwinnable war against the Taliban, especially now that the Western coalition’s defeat seems inevitable. Some argue that by fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, NATO is actually “doing Russia’s job,” so it would be only fair for her to contribute.
But this argument does not hold up as the U.S. and its allies began fighting in Afghanistan of their own free will and the campaign they have been waging ever since is not a proxy war. Admittedly, an early withdrawal of the Western forces from Afghanistan would make the situation in the troubled Central Asian country even more volatile, thereby creating new security risks for Russia.
Potential Russia-NATO cooperation on Afghanistan is an important security issue, which requires careful consideration. But the focus should be on arrangements in Afghanistan following NATO’s eventual pullout rather than on options for Moscow’s military contribution to the alliance’s ongoing campaign.
It looks like Washington has no clear-cut plan for Afghanistan. The replacement this past summer of General Stanley McChrystal as the commander of the International Security Assistance Force and the national security leaks made public in Bob Woodward’s recent book “Obama’s Wars” showed that the U.S. political establishment and top military brass are split on Afghanistan, with no consensus on the campaign’s strategies and goals. In all likelihood, the main priority for the Obama administration in the months ahead will be to work out a face-saving exit strategy. Defeat in Afghanistan could seriously undermine U.S. prestige around the globe, while also casting doubts on NATO’s relevance as a military political alliance capable of leading effective international campaigns.
A NATO defeat in Afghanistan would not make Russia better off either, as it could trigger an upsurge in Islamic radicalism and extremism across the Middle East. It is unlikely that the Taliban, who fight mainly for their own territories and for Pashtun dominance in Afghanistan, will rush to expand their influence northward. But various religious and ethnic groups with interests in the region may use the Taliban movement as a cover to penetrate into ex-Soviet Central Asian countries. During the era of Taliban rule in Afghanistan in 1996-2001, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were under constant pressure from local extremists with ties to Afghanistan. At that time, Moscow had few options for offering assistance to its allies.
Today, Russia’s primary task should be to reinvigorate the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). This alliance is the only organization capable of ensuring stability across Central Asia. But it currently only exists largely on paper and has yet to prove its use in practice. When the outbreak of violence in Kyrgyzstan this summer called for concrete action from the CSTO, it became clear that the organization had no judicial, political and military foundation to act. Russia’s CSTO allies are reluctant to create a precedent for Russian intervention that could be used against them in the future. And the non-Asian member states, such as Belarus and Armenia, refuse to commit themselves to maintaining security in the region. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has repeatedly said he sees no point in his country’s involvement.
It is only through a real, empowered CSTO that Russia can aspire to leadership in Central Asia and a dialogue with Washington on regional issues. Moscow feels slighted by the lack of enthusiasm on the part of NATO and the United States for the new security organization. For the West to recognize the potential for cooperation with the CSTO, Russia must first prove that it is also an effective partner. If convinced, NATO would surely be eager to team up on Afghanistan, where the current situation gives little cause for optimism.
Another related issue that should be raised in any dialogue on cooperation is future U.S. military presence in Central Asia after its withdrawal from Afghanistan. There is no doubt that the Americans would want to leave a residual force behind, given the region’s strategic importance and the uncertainty of Afghanistan’s future. Five years ago, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization demanded that Washington set a deadline for closing its military bases deployed in former Soviet states to support the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan. But the context has changed since then. Washington no longer seems as driven to export democracy around the world. The Middle East has become more, not less, explosive, owing in no small measure to wrongheaded U.S. policies. Beijing, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly assertive, a trend that cannot help but cause alarm among the Americans, as well as some of China’s neighbors.
With this in mind, it would make sense for Moscow to start up dialogue with Washington on the possible forms of post-Afghanistan military presence in Central Asia. Russia should steer the United States toward a posture in the region that would not threaten Russia’s own interests. This is an issue to be settled straight away, without waiting for the United States and NATO to make impulsive decisions in a last-minute settlement. The recent unrest in Kyrgyzstan showed that a “zero-sum” mentality can only be overcome when it is clear that no one stands to win. The conflict over military bases in Kyrgyzstan was made redundant when the country started falling apart. The parallel military presence in the region of two great powers would have a stabilizing effect and provide more leeway in case of an emergency.
Rhetoric on the importance of joint efforts against international terrorism does not work any more: the argument has been overused and the sincerity behind it was dubious all along. But Afghanistan has now become a hotbed of instability, which releases sparks all over the region. Any long-term solution will require a coordinated effort from all the countries concerned, including Russia, China, India, Iran, smaller neighboring nations, and the United States.