Russian experts gathered at the Moscow Carnegie Center to discuss the Russian strategy in the Afghan region after the withdrawal of the coalition forces.

The coalition troops are going to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Photo: Reuters.

Afghanistan is at the crossroads again: 25 years after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the country, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission is also coming to a close. By the end of 2014, Afghanistan will be left alone with its internal political tensions, military conflicts and radical groups.

Does this mean that Afghanistan will develop progressively following the recent presidential elections or is it going to fall into a vicious circle of chaos like it did before, after the withdrawal of the Soviet army 25 years ago?

The present situation in Afghanistan is far from being stable and its future is unclear. That is why it is so important for its neighbors and other international actors to think about the possible scenarios and ways to keep the potential risks low. This question is also of great significance for the future of Russian political involvement in the region. Given the region’s close proximity, it will be crucial for Russia to develop such a strategy that will help to maintain stability on its southern borders and avoid direct intervention in the domestic disputes of Afghanistan.

During the panel discussion at the Moscow Carnegie Center, Russian experts shared their opinions on the issue and speculated on possible future developments presenting their recent report on the Russian strategy for post-2014 Afghanistan.

Dmitri Trenin, the Director of Moscow Carnegie Center, headed the discussion. He summarized the main findings of the research, stating that even though the democratic process has started and the presidential elections took place, it does not mean that the question of who will come to power in Afghanistan is answered. He said that any future developments after the withdrawal of ISAF mission would not spill over the country’s borders. He also pointed out that, ‘’Even if the Taliban will come to power in Afghanistan Russia will not face any direct threat to its security in the south.’’

Answering the question of whether the presidential election in Afghanistan marked a change in the situation in the country, Alexey Malashenko, the co-chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Religion, Society, and Security Program, one of the authors of the report, said: ‘’It Is good that the election did happen. In a state like Afghanistan it is better than nothing. Notwithstanding all the problems, the society is ready to vote and this is a great trend.’’

However, he does not think that a new charismatic leader will appear on the Afghan political stage. He believes that only a coalition of political powers is possible in the future Afghanistan. Most likely, such a coalition will be unstable, but anyway, it is a good start for future stabilization.

On the other hand, the situation in Afghanistan will continue to escalate due to the constant threat of further local military conflicts and terrorist attacks, thinks Petr Topychkanov, an associate in the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nonproliferation Program. He said that it is hard to imagine how the future Afghan military forces will be able to counter the threat of terrorist and extremist groups due to the lack of experience, financial support and training. He pointed out that “even well-trained troops [like ISAF and Pakistan army] cannot counter them effectively, so we cannot really expect the future domestic military to do it without any help.’’

Oleg Kulakov, lecturer at the Military University of the Russian Defense Ministry, also one of the authors of the report, assessed the possible ways for Russia to carry out its foreign policy in regard to Afghanistan and the Central Asian region. He believes that Russia will gain more if it acts as a mediator rather than intervenes in the developments in Afghanistan.

He stressed that Russia should use its previous experience in the region and stay as neutral as possible avoiding the situation in which it would be dragged into the events by other Central Asian states, like before. ‘’The more neutral we’ll be, the better,’’ he said.

During the Q&A session the panelists were asked to express their views on the future of post-withdrawal Afghanistan. From Alexey Malashenko’s perspective, Afghanistan most likely will go through a whole circle of changes: the growth of political tensions, a full-scale crisis and disintegration, which, finally, will lead back to state-centralization.

Petr Topychkanov believes that in any scenario the situation, domestically, will be characterized by the growth of radical groups and their expansion while, externally, the region will become an arena for a struggle for influence between other regional powers like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and India. Dmitri Trenin, in turn, sees the coalition’s withdrawal as final, marking the moment when Afghanistan becomes an area of interest for China, India and Russia.

The panelists agreed on the conclusion that Russia should not treat the post-withdrawal situation in Afghanistan as a potential danger for its security in the south. An extremist takeover of Afghanistan—and the country’s subsequent turn into a hotbed of international terrorism—is not a certainty. Nevertheless, the coalition’s withdrawal from Afghanistan will force Russia to take more responsibility for regional security.

This does not necessarily imply that Russia should be involved or dragged into Afghan events. Experts believe that Russia should never intervene in the infighting in Afghanistan, especially militarily. Its purpose should be protecting Russian interests by using diplomatic and other nonviolent means in Afghanistan and in the region.

Finally, Russian experts find it important for Russian policymakers to carry out an ‘’active and comprehensive policy in Central Asia—the territory where the first Russian line of defense against security threats emanating from Afghanistan lies.’’ Having productive working relations with all significant Afghan elites and with all regional powers is a key prerequisite for the success of Russian policy in Afghanistan.

‘’This approach is consistent with a well-known Great Game principle that advises countries not to strive for victory but rather to avoid defeat—in Russia’s case, to stay out of any new contest over the “heart of Asia” and focus instead on Moscow’s interests,’’ the experts concluded.