As the U.S. prepares to wind down its presence in Afghanistan and discontinue security cooperation with Russia, military officials in Moscow ponder the future of the troubled region.
Participants in the Moscow International Security Conference. Photo: RIA Novosti
On May 27, President Obama announced that he wanted to keep almost 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan next year, down from the current 32,000, and reduce that number to 5,000 troops in 2016, before removing them altogether at the end of that year. Obama said that the troops would focus on only "two narrow missions"—training the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and conducting counterterrorist operations.
The decision has received criticism in Washington from those who want either a more rapid end to the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan or a longer and larger commitment. The Afghan Taliban naturally attacked the decision, demanding an immediate U.S. military withdrawal. But Russian officials probably welcome the plan since it keeps the U.S. military suppressing regional terrorists for another couple years while avoiding a long-term U.S. combat presence in the Central Asian region, which Moscow considers as falling within its zone of influence.
At the May 23- 24 Moscow International Security Conference, Russian speakers criticized the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan but also reluctantly wanted the Western military campaign against the Taliban to continue beyond 2014.
The Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said that NATO had completely failed to complete its stated mission of stabilizing Afghanistan. In his view, the Taliban and other extremists still maintained a presence in most of the country. They could conduct terrorist bombings, guerilla campaigns, and other missions despite the best efforts of NATO and the ANSF.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Russian government was concerned that the deteriorating security situation in northern Afghanistan was increasing the flow of drugs, terrorists, and other problems to Moscow’s Central Asia allies.
Igor Sergun, director of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian General Staff, also saw Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and other extremist groups active in Afghanistan.
Using a model that used more than 300 variables, a Russian military intelligence team estimated the prospects of the current political and security situation continuing after a NATO withdrawal at only 39 percent; the Taliban recovering control of much of the country at 27 percent; and the possibility of Afghanistan breaking up into ethnic enclaves backed by foreign powers at 31percent.
Although the basis of these calculations was never explained, and seem misplaced given the importance of so many chance factors in shaping the outcome, Sergun’s team is probably correct that the possibility of a negotiated solution to the Afghan conflict is small since Taliban leaders are in no mood to compromise. They interpret NATO’s military withdrawal as a sign that they are winning the war.
Sergun also made the uniquely odd argument, again without substantiating his conclusions, that NATO would find it physically impossible to remove all its forces and equipment from Afghanistan within the next six months, and might require almost another decade to complete the withdrawal.
The Chief of the Russian General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, and the Russian Defense Minister, Sergey Shoigu, said their institutions were preparing measures to counter the expected worsening of the regional security situation following the NATO drawdown in Afghanistan.
Gerasimov stated that Russia would work to increase the capabilities of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and their member governments, including by providing weapons and training. In addition, Russia was building up its military forces in the countries around Afghanistan.
International security expert Alexei Arbatov said that these organizations, together with the BRICS, should organize a conference with Afghan officials to assess the implications of the NATO military withdrawal, even if NATO governments refused to participate.
At the same time, Russian officials seemed open to cooperating with the West on Afghanistan. Aleksandr Grushko, the Russian envoy to NATO, lamented the alliance’s decision, taken after the Crimean crisis, to cancel its Helicopter Maintenance Trust Fund Project for Afghanistan with Russia.
He noted that even the Pentagon agreed that Russian helicopters were best for the ANSF due to their features and to Afghan pilots being trained how to use them. Another critical loss, in his view, was the suspension of the NATO-Russia program to train Afghan, Pakistani, and Central Asian counter-narcotics personnel. However, many Western policy makers and analysts are wary of collaborating with Russia in Afghanistan given the current crisis in Ukraine.
Lavrov lamented NATO’s decision to end security cooperation with Moscow, arguing that the crises in Ukraine, Syria, Iran, Palestine, as well as Afghanistan “can only be solved through collective effort” such as with the Iran nuclear negotiations and the almost completed Syrian chemical weapons elimination effort.
“Of course, we can take the path of scaling back our interaction, but this will hardly contribute to the fight against terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, overcoming consequences of natural and man-made disasters and the creation of barriers for extremism.” Lavrov implicitly called on the next Afghan president to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States needed to keep U.S. troops in the country.
More generally, Lavrov again accused the West of adopting a double standard towards international crises, supporting the government or the opposition, depending on which outcome best advanced Western interests.
He called on the international community to adopt a set of “common principles of crisis settlement, which would not allow double standards,” offering a list developed within the CSTO: the primacy of the UN and international law regarding international security, recognizing the legitimate interests of all conflict parties; encouraging inclusive dialogues that take into account the interests of all political, ethnic, and religious groups; respecting the right of people to determine their fate independently, without external interference; and upholding a democratic world order based on equal partnerships between different cultures and civilizations.
But many Western policy makers and analysts believe Russia violated precisely these principles in the case of Ukraine, making them wary of collaborating regarding Afghanistan.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.