Russia and America’s overlapping legacies in Afghanistan

KHATLON REGION, TAJIKISTAN, AUGUST 10, 2021: A joint military exercise by Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on the Harb-Maidon military training ground, at 20 km from the border to Afghanistan. 2,500 servicemen (including 1,800 Russian servicemen) with around 500 pieces of military hardware are taking part in the military exercise, which runs from 5 to 10 August 2021. Nozim Kalandarov/TASS.

20th anniversary 9_11 graphic (1)Afghanistan was the place where al-Qaida terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, produced an instant and drastic impact, amplified by successful internationalization of the subsequent U.S. intervention. The country’s evolving drama of state-building and state breakdown, which has reached yet another culmination in the wake of U.S. military withdrawal, is highly complex. One element that can be usefully singled out is U.S.-Russia interactions over a land in which both have intervened. Moscow expected the Afghanistan dossier to be placed on the summit table at the meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin in June, but Biden cut the agenda short, so the issue was mentioned cursorily, if that. U.S. withdrawal and Taliban triumph generate an acute security challenge for Russia, and its edges are sharpened by the legacies of multiple misadventures.

In and out of Central Asia

The legacy of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan (1979-89) might appear to some to belong to the same distant past as the annexation of Samarkand and Merv to the Russian empire in the late 19th century, but Afghan society has never recovered from the desolation of that projection of Communist power. As Russian analysts point out, it is the children of mujahideen that stubbornly resisted the Soviet occupation who have captured Kandahar and Kabul. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev tried to argue with President Ronald Reagan that a compromise solution was the only way to check violent chaos, but there was no realistic alternative to full withdrawal of the Soviet “limited contingent” amounting to 100,000 troops, and chaos indeed ensued.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, while generally remarkably peaceful, triggered a full-blown civil war in neighboring Tajikistan, and the newly-reconstituted Russia was called by Kazakhstan and other newly-born Central Asian states to execute a peace-enforcement operation. Unlike most other Russian interventions, that one did produce (with support from Iran) a stable peace accord, even if it was utilized for establishing a despotic regime. Since then, Russia maintains a military base in Tajikistan, as well as in Kyrgyzstan, but it has lost interest in projecting power in this unprofitable direction, so that even a plea from the Kyrgyz government to help in quelling riots in the Osh region in June 2010 was indifferently turned down.

The risk assessments in Moscow related to the rise of Taliban were remarkably precise and informed Putin’s difficult decision in September 2001 to overrule objections from the top brass and to grant consent for the United States to build military bases in Uzbekistan (Karshi-Khanabad, closed in 2005) and Kyrgyzstan (Manas, closed in 2014) for supporting the swift military intervention into Afghanistan. The U.S. experience with operating these bases was rather checkered, but Russia showed more cooperative attitude by contributing to the Northern Distribution Network established in 2009 (and discontinued in 2015) for delivering supplies to U.S. and International Security Assistance Force troops.

It wasn’t pure good will that underpinned that element of short-lived “reset” in Russia-U.S. relations during the early Obama administration and Medvedev interregnum but rather the undeclared understanding in Moscow that the sustained U.S.-led operation actually answered Russia’s security interests by containing a potentially explosive conflict to the south of its borders. The termination of this costly U.S. deployment has instantly upped the threat of spill-over to the level where modest reinforcements sent to the Russian base in Tajikistan could only serve as a symbolic deterrent. Moscow has expressed firm opposition to any new U.S. military footprint in Central Asia, and its offer to allow the U.S. to use the Russian bases for intelligence and logistical operations was dubious at best. One implication from this stance is that Russia assumes greater responsibility, which it doesn’t want to carry and cannot share.

Multipolarity Russian style

In Russia as well as in Central Asia, the basic forecast that the government in Kabul would fall in a matter of a few months has come true shockingly fast with an irresistible Taliban offensive, but the gloomy expectations have not prompted an expansion of collective efforts beyond some limited military exercises. While declaring the goal of promoting Eurasian integration, Moscow has actually prioritized cultivation of bilateral ties with these post-Soviet neighbors, seeking to assert its dominance over them rather than to build trust and resolve conflicts between them. Characteristically, a sharp escalation of border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in May 2021 happened when the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization was holding a meeting of defense ministers in Dushanbe.

In retrospect, the best opportunity for building a stable peace in Afghanistan was in greater regional engagement, but Russia has never supported its cooperation with Central Asia, and neighbors such as Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan tend to believe more in protective barriers rather than in cross-border ties. Each has set its own channel of communication with the Taliban, and Moscow has also hosted several rounds of talks with the militants, but the assertion of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the leadership of the group (still officially defined in Russia as a terrorist organization) was “rational” was an exercise in wishful thinking. The best Russian diplomats can hope for is to dissuade the shrewd leadership of the Taliban from launching cross-border attacks northwards, but a wave of refugees is expected. Russia may try to request international aid on behalf of its troubled allies, but hasn’t sought to coordinate responses with Iran, preferring to keep its partnership with Tehran narrowly focused on Syria.

What is more surprising is the limited scope of cooperative initiatives focused on Afghanistan with Russia’s paramount strategic partner — China. Beijing remains reluctant to commit resources proportional to its major stakes in regional stability, and its attempts to make the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation into a key vehicle for that purpose are perceived in Moscow as far-fetched. While formally endorsing China’s fast-expanding economic penetration into Central Asia, Russia is concerned and upset about its own eroding dominance — and at the same time itself dodging the responsibility of performing the role of security guarantor.

Moscow’s worldview has shifted profoundly in the last 20 years, from the defensive stance shaped by the Chechen wars to a more revisionist posture exemplified by the annexation of Crimea. In the former one, cooperation with the United States, centered on countering terrorist threats, was feasible and even desirable; in the latter, confrontation with the West is the dominant feature, so every opportunity to exploit a setback for U.S. policies has to be grasped. The withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan is recognized (and decried) as a major setback, but the problem for Russia is that it yields no rewards — and the emerging security “black hole” doesn’t fit into and even contradicts the confrontational perspective. In the early 1990s, Russia was up to the task of enforcing peace in Central Asia, and in the early 2000s, it was ready to engage in cooperation with the United States in rebuilding Afghanistan; but presently, Moscow cannot square its hegemonic ambitions with depleted power resources. Blaming the United States for the unfolding disaster in Afghanistan will not help in countering new risks. But Moscow is loath to recognize the implication of that disaster — an imperative to curtail expansionism, from Syria to the Arctic, and get serious about Central Asia.