By Stephen Sarty
With First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum’s visit to Moscow in search of military support, and Russian confirmation that it was seriously considering such a request, the stakes just got raised in the battle for Afghanistan.
On the surface, both the request and willingness on Russia’s part to assist make perfect sense: Afghanistan is a nation void of any real industry and relies almost exclusively on international aid to continue the fight against the Taliban. The impending withdrawal of US and NATO forces would almost certainly ensure wide-spread destabilization inside Afghanistan and the Taliban could, once again, regain control of the state. Russia, meanwhile, has no interest in seeing the Pakistan-backed Taliban reestablish control of Afghanistan and incentivize radical groups within Central Asia, which would then threaten Russia’s broader interests in the region. So a more stable Afghanistan is vital to Russian security. But could this deal be that simple or are there far more complex forces at work in the background?
The current proposed agreement would have Russia sending small arms, artillery, and Mi-35 choppers to Kabul. What Russia does NOT propose to send at this time would be Russian soldiers. Loath to be pulled back into the quagmire that cost them over 15,000 troops during their decade of fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Russian officials have so far ruled out that as an option. This then begs the question: how does Russia expect, if US and NATO troops do proceed with a pull-out, that an infusion of weapons and ammunition could provide the means by which the current Afghan leadership might secure the country? Considering that the United States alone has pumped billions of dollars into Afghanistan since the start of its own campaign, it seems highly unlikely that this influx of Russian arms could fill the void left by the withdrawal of Western troops. So what then are the real goals and objectives?
One possible plan could be that Russia simply expects that the shipments of arms and munitions into the country effectively forces the US and NATO to remain in place. Given the highly-charged nature of American politics, especially during a presidential election cycle, any decision to remove US support could have devastating effects, especially if viewed by the American public as caving in the face of Russian advances. This scenario is currently being played out in Syria: already Republican leaders have characterized the Afghan leaders’ approach to Russia as a symbol of failed leadership by the White House. This likely represents the most desired solution for Russia: embarrassing the US while gaining greater influence. It is unlikely that Russia has any vital interest in the internal struggles of Afghanistan and would likely be willing to work with any regime as long as it doesn’t pose a threat to Russia in the region.
It is not inconceivable that Russia, Iran and other old allies have also struck a deal to reconstitute their earlier partnership and form a new “Northern Alliance” so as to thwart the Pakistan-supported insurgency in the Northern regions of Afghanistan. First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, who was a General in the Soviet-backed Afghan army during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, was also a key member of the original Northern Alliance during the latter part of the 1990s. Dostum is no stranger to Moscow-provided military aid as his own militia battalions received extensive financial and arms support from the Russians in his battles against the Mujahedin guerrillas. In such a scenario one could see aid received from Russia used by President Ghani and Vice President Dostum to secure Kabul and the Northern Provinces of the country and then aim to see US/NATO forces remain in place to conduct operations against the rising tide of DAESH fighters along with the Taliban fight.
For Iran, a stabilization of Afghanistan is vitally important given its close cultural and religious ties. Iran has been attempting to increase its trade and investment interests there for a long time and, like Russia, has an on-going national security interest in slowing the rampant drug-trafficking problem that only increased during the US-led occupation. As in Syria, it is easy to see a scenario that includes Iran working in conjunction with Russia and other local Afghan leaders to stabilize the region: Iran is coming under increasing threat from DAESH forces. The door is also slightly open for Iran working with the United States in some aspect as well. Because the two nations share the same end-state goal of stability and economic development in Afghanistan, there is room for the two nations to cooperate, although the recent announcement by Iran that it will not partner up with the US in Syria to fight DAESH could throw a monkey wrench into this potentiality in Afghanistan.
That Afghanistan would turn to Russia at this time is, however, indicative of a larger trend across the region: with Russia underwriting an expansion of Iranian influence, increasing its own presence in Syria, creating a new intelligence-sharing cell in Jordan, and receiving the recent request by the Iraqi PM for Russian assistance, it is only logical that Afghanistan would also reach out for increased support. For the Russians the decisions are almost no-brainers. Currently in Syria they are largely using the Iranian-backed Shiite and Hezbollah militias already in place. The same would be true, for the most part, inside Iraq. The upside for the Russians is huge: they are able to shine the spotlight on what has been an incredibly schizophrenic Middle East strategy by the United States and, at the same time, put themselves in place to become the dominant player in Middle Eastern geostrategic affairs. For President Putin this is an enticing double play. All of this is also not lost on the Iranians: the Tehran-Moscow alliance has effectively outflanked Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni-dominated countries of the GCC in terms of strategic outcome and influence.
Regardless of the scenarios that ultimately play out in Afghanistan, the message from the Russians is clear: they are resolved to impress upon the world that the news of their global demise has been greatly exaggerated. For Russia these moves also allow it to influence oil and gas pipeline routes so as to minimize competition with its own energy supplies into Europe and bring additional revenue through the sale of arms. Furthermore, the moves allow Russia to have a more direct impact on one of the biggest threats to its own Muslim-speaking regions: the spread of jihadism into sovereign Russia. At a recent Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit in Kazakhstan last week, Vladimir Putin said the situation in Afghanistan was “close to critical” and that terrorist groups were gaining more influence and not hiding their plans for further expansion toward Russia and the other CIS states. These moves go a long way toward addressing those concerns. Indeed, the whirlwind of Russian strategic positioning in 2015 has been surprisingly powerful.
Stephen Sarty is a graduate student in the International Security and Intelligence Studies program at Bellevue University in Omaha, NE, USA. He is a former U.S. Marine and has lived and worked in the Middle East for the last 23 years.