Dealing with Afghanistan remains a puzzle for Russians. It was different in 2001, when Putin acquiesced to the US request and facilitated the deployment and transit of NATO troops and cargo to neighboring Afghanistan via Central Asia. Putin had to agree then because it was not the NATO forces but the Chechen separatists, trained in Afghanistan by Al-Qaida that threatened Russia’s territorial integrity. However, of late, Putin has pressed hard for eviction of the US base from Manas Airport. The US has left Manas in June this year.
In the changed context, Russia seem both happy as well as worried about the US withdrawal, for it is not sure about the future momentum of change in Afghanistan. Concerns about Central Asian security apart, now with the sectarian strife in West Asia especially in Iraq and Syria is flaring up, the Russian anxieties would heighten about possible spread of ISIS type assertion along its southern belt. The experts feel that Russia and Central Asian states have no clear idea as to how they would deal with the challenges if the chaos there flares up to engulf the region.1 Already the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb-ut-Tehrir (HuT) have been espousing the creation of Khalifat in Central Asia and all along Southern belt of Russia. There would be easily over 70-80 million Muslims with affiliation to Salafi sect inhabiting the entire region. Many would also think that the US might possibly use the Islamic fault lines to pinprick Moscow in addition to the pressure the West mounts on Russian from the East and Central European flank.
Nevertheless, in the fast changing scenario in West Asia, many in Central Asia tend to think now whether it was a good decision to throw the Americans out of Central Asia. Even the Russian leaders seem concerns about NATO’s hasty withdrawal leaving behind a colossal regional security issues that would threaten Russia’s interests. Recently, the Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov has said that ISAF “has been too hasty about making the final decision to pull out.” Privately, the Russians know that the US withdrawal will boost the Taliban insurgency and will contribute to spread of terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and instability throughout Eurasia. In fact, the influence of the Taliban has spread beyond the Hindukush range into Northern provinces of Afghanistan – something that never happened during the Soviet times. This is why Moscow has called on Afghan government to renew the Bilateral Security Agreement with the US for enabling the US troops to take care of the Afghan security beyond 2014. At the May 23- 24 Moscow International Security Conference, the Russian speakers sought to favour the NATO military campaign against the Taliban to continue beyond 2014.2
Within Afghanistan, the Russians have thus far showed no particular inclination or preference for either presidential candidate though traditionally Moscow supported the Punsheri Tajik groups. On the ground, a good degree of change of public opinion in favour of Russia said to have taken place during the Karzai regime. In addition, new generations of Afghans do not carry much negative image of Russia and the bad memories of the Soviet intervention.
However, for over two decades, the Russians have been watching the Afghan scene with lot of caution. The hands-off policy that Moscow maintained since the Soviet troops withdrawal in 1989 may have undermined Russian interests politically and economically. The Chechen separatists trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan did not help Russian interests. Rise of Islam over the years has also become a fact both in Russian and in Central Asia. To be sure, the Russians along with Central Asian regimes have successfully forestalled the Al-Qaida elements setting foothold in Central Asia. However, reports of Chechens and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) cadre maintaining links with Al-Qaida has been a source of tension for the Russians. Against this fast changing scenario, Russia it seems is gearing up to face the challenges on the Afghan front through political, diplomatic, economic and military means and some of these include the following:
- Built a fairly smooth bilateral relations with the Karzai government;
- Upheld Afghanistan’s sovereignty and joined Karzai in decrying NATO’s excessive use of force and killing Afghan civilians;
- Persistently backed an Afghan-led peace process with the Taliban;
- Increased economic contacts by re-launching and rebuilding the Soviet era factories meant for public (appreciated by the Afghans as compared to US investments that largely went into the pockets of few Afghans);
- Increased military ties with Afghanistan;
- Agreed to India’s outsourcing of weapons from Russia to send to the Afghan National Army;
- Surely maintaining contacts with ethnic groups especially Punsheri Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens and Hazaras and others to retain pockets of influence;
- Increased military contacts with Pakistan, including supplying of M-25 helicopter gunships to Islamabad meant to use against the Taliban insurgents in North Waziristan. Moscow also perhaps sees the benefits of cozying-up with Islamabad should the Taliban re-emerge to sway power in Kabul.
However, to achieve all these, Moscow will have to depend on regional nations and here Russia may encounter some problems. On both Tajik and Kyrgyz front, Russian preparations seem strong. Russian military has repositioned itself in a big way by expanding its bases in region and strengthening the Central Asian militaries with subsidized training and equipment. The lease period of Russian air base at Kant (Kyrgyzstan) is extended until 2032. More combat aircrafts are deployed at Kant. Russian pilots regularly simulate scenario of illegal armed groups equipped with modern weapons, communications, and tracking equipment intruding in Central Asia.3 Russian military has also strengthened position at other facilities it owns in Kyrgyzstan such as Russian Navy’s Marevo communications hub in Kara-Balta, the radio-seismological laboratory at Mayly-Suu, and the Ozero torpedo-testing site at Karakolon (Issyk-Kul Lake) All these facilities now form a part of the Unified Russian Military Command.
Similarly, in Tajikistan, the agreement for the presence of the Russian military base in Tajikistan that houses 201st Motorised Infantry Division is extended until 2042. The 201st base is a part of the CSTO’s Collective Rapid Reaction Force to guard the Afghan-Tajik borders. However, Uzbekistan, the key country and founder member of CSTO (May 15, 1992 in Tashkent) did many flip-flops in the organization and did not play ball with the Russians. It left the CSTO but rejoined in 2005 but again quit in 2012 on some pretext. Turkmenistan also has border with Afghanistan but so far, it has taken a neutral stance.
1 Views gathered from the author’s intense interaction with Central Asians in May and June 2014.
2 The author participated in the Moscow International Security Conference in May this year.
3 Russian air base in Kyrgyzstan conducts military exercises”, AKIpress news agency, 11 September 2012
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
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