Commentary: As US withdraws, Russia confronts an awkward dilemma in Afghanistan
For Russia, Afghanistan has posed a conundrum, requiring it to work with many regional players to keep the Taliban in check, says NTU’s Christopher Cheang.
SINGAPORE: The US’ impending withdrawal from Afghanistan and rapid territorial gains by the Taliban leave Russia in a dilemma.
On the one hand, Western military and political power will be gone from a country geographically and culturally close to some of Russia’s Central Asian allies like Tajikistan. That might be in line with Russia’s interest since it has never been fully comfortable with the overwhelming US presence there.
On the other hand, the power vacuum might threaten the security of Central Asian allies and by extension, Russia’s, in the near future.
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RUSSIA’S ATTITUDES TOWARDS AFGHANISTAN
Secretary of the powerful Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev’s recent speech at a security conference in Moscow in June best reflects Russia’s perception of the situation there.
Describing it as in a state of “degradation,” he added that the situation was “progressing with the withdrawal of the US and NATO military contingents”, but this would in turn, “contribute to the increase in the terrorist activity of ISIS and Al Qaeda”.
Patrushev claimed that the production of drugs, “a powerful resource base for terrorists” had increased more than 40 times during the Western military presence there.
Manifesting Russia’s concern about reports that the US might be seeking to place military resources in Central Asia to monitor the Taliban and any terrorist groups, Patrushev expressed Russian objections, stressing that Russia considered it “unacceptable to use the Afghan problem as a cover for solving geopolitical tasks, including strengthening the military presence of non-regional players in Central Asia”.
In other words, Russia sees Afghanistan after the Western withdrawal in terms of longstanding security threats posed by terrorism and the drug trade. It also does not look kindly upon any Western military presence in Central Asia after their withdrawal from Afghanistan.
READ: Commentary: US withdrawal from Afghanistan is hollow victory for Pakistan
LIMITATIONS OF RUSSIA’S INFLUENCE ON AFGHANISTAN’S FUTURE
While it has serious differences with the NATO military power there, Russia grudgingly recognises that the Western military presence had somewhat stabilised Afghanistan.
With that presence practically gone come September, Afghanistan might become again a source of instability for Russia’s regional allies, should civil war rage between the Taliban and Afghan government, accompanied by a drug flow increase, a refugee influx or an increase of terrorist activities directed against Central Asia, Russia’s soft underbelly.
While Russia considers the Taliban a terrorist organisation, it has nevertheless engaged with it in the last few years. Russia has been pragmatic enough to recognise that the Taliban was and remains the most powerful force outside the Afghan government, and that assessment has been vindicated by recent developments.
Yet Russia remains more concerned about terrorist groups gaining a foothold in Afghanistan.
That was made apparent by Foreign Minister Lavrov in answer to a question on Jul 8 in Vladivostok when he stressed that “the situation is further aggravated by the fact that, in addition to the Taliban, universally recognised as part of Afghan society, and as a result of stalling political processes and the ensuing resumption of hostilities, niches are being formed for the ISIS militants, not Taliban.
"Moreover, ISIS is deliberately and purposefully establishing itself in the northern provinces of Afghanistan on the border with our allies,” he said.
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In turn, the Taliban has assured Russia of its good intentions. Taliban representatives visited Moscow in July and gave assurances that the Taliban would “not allow anyone to use the soil of Afghanistan against Russia, the neighbouring countries and other countries".
WORKING THROUGH MULTILATERAL CHANNELS
Nevertheless, after the bitter Soviet experience there from 1979 to1989, Russia is not keen on any direct military intervention in Afghanistan but has pledged to act against any military threat to its Central Asian allies (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan), being linked to them in the CSTO. Russia also maintains military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
With the current tense state of relations with Ukraine, and its support of President Assad of Syria, Russia will not be keen on diverting tried-and-tested military resources for direct action against the Taliban or extremist terrorist forces in Afghanistan, unless they openly violate the territorial integrity of or engage in terrorist activity against their Central Asian allies.
Since Russia cannot master the situation in Afghanistan on its own, it has been working with China, India, Pakistan and Iran. They too have security and other interests, in seeing a stable Afghanistan.
This approach can be gleaned from the July meeting of the SCO Foreign Ministers in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. (Russia and China are the leading members of the SCO. The others are Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, India and Pakistan.)
The Foreign Ministers issued a joint statement stressing that they “intend to facilitate the development of Afghanistan as a country free from terrorism, war and drugs.” Expressing their concern about the ongoing violence, they pledged to enhance their joint efforts against terrorism.
They also called for “political dialogue and an inclusive peace process conducted and led by the Afghans themselves,” welcoming the inter-Afghan peace talks in Doha and other platforms.
THE CHINA FACTOR
China is a key player in the stabilisation of Afghanistan. It sees Afghanistan as a part of its Belt and Road Initiative and already has some projects there.
Indeed, the Taliban too has expressed China’s important role there; its spokesman Suhail Shaheen was quoted as saying on Jul 7 that “China is a friendly country that we welcome for reconstruction and developing Afghanistan".
He also added that the Taliban would no longer allow Uighur separatist fighters or Al-Qaeda or any other terrorist group to operate from Afghanistan.
Russia must also work with Pakistan, which has reported links with the Taliban, Iran which shares a border with Afghanistan and a tense relationship with the Taliban when it was in power in Kabul, as well as India which has concerns about terrorism and Pakistan’s influence in Afghan affairs, on Afghanistan.
READ: Commentary: India cosying up to Pakistan is latest move in a regional chess game with China
Judging by Afghanistan’s long history of conflict, the influential roles played by its neighbours and in the last 20 years, by the US and NATO, in its political destiny, Afghanistan has become a real challenge for Russia.
Russia now faces the unenviable task of ensuring that its security and that of its Central Asian allies will not be compromised by the probable return of the Taliban to power; despite the Taliban’s assurances, Russia’s underlying fear is that ISIS and Al Qaeda might gain a foothold in that country.
Unlike the US, geographical proximity, longstanding historical, political, economic and security ties with Central Asia will not allow Russia to simply ignore the realities an unstable Afghanistan poses to their common security.
Finally, as a great power, Russia would not let its image and prestige suffer by allowing Afghanistan to fester into a security threat.
Christopher Cheang is a Senior Fellow in RSIS, NTU.