The Afghanistan-Russia Rapproachement and its geopolitical implications
Dmitry Shlapentokh

The Afghanistan-Russia Rapproachement and its geopolitical implications

By Dmitry Shlapentokh
30 May 2007 issue of the CACI Analyst

In the last month or so, two striking events have taken place: the shooting down of a Russian helicopter in Chechnya, and the increasing signs of assertiveness of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the creation of a Taliban quasi-state in the tribal areas of Pakistan. While these events can be seen as disconnected, they actually identify the increasing force of radical Islamists; in this context, one should look at the recent improvement in military cooperation between Karzai’s government and Russia’s leaders. In a spring 2007 visit, the Afghan government expressed the desire to buy Russian weapons and see their personnel trained in Russia, implicitly seeing Russia’s direct involvement in the conflict in some way.

BACKGROUND: The major reason for Karzai to turn to Russia and other members of the Russia-led military bloc is the continuing deterioration of the military situation in Afghanistan. The U.S. attack against the Taliban was launched with the presumption that Afghanistan would naturally evolve into a basically democratic country. But the attempt to impose democracy from above was even more ill-conceived than the USSR attempt to impose socialism. Indeed, the Soviets entered Afghanistan prepared for a long stay, whereas the USA expected a quick and essentially painless transformation.

The war also challenged the “Rumsfeld doctrine” that technological predominance is the key to victory. Guerrilla fighting indicated the limited usefulness of modern technology. In fact, the broad use of aviation and sophisticated weapons led to collateral damage among civilians and helped the Taliban gain recruits. The war has demonstrated a growing U.S. need for traditional soldiers, which are in short supply for a variety of reasons, mostly the war in Iraq and the difficulty of recruiting for an army engaged in real war.

While the problem with the American engagement in the war seems to have been clear to Karzai early on, he became especially alarmed by the American desire in 2006 to pull out some American troops and replace them with troops from NATO partners, countries that were especially unwilling to send their soldiers into harm’s way. Karzai apparently started to think that a change in the White House could lead to the Americans abandoning him. He is, of course, well aware of the gruesome end that Najibullah, the Soviet-installed ruler of Afghanistan, met, as well as the fate of the last Iranian Shah, who was not able to settle in the United States after the Iranian Revolution. It is not surprising that Karzai tried to find other options, even if they meant antagonizing his Western sponsor.

IMPLICATIONS: Karzai has made several overtures toward the Taliban, offering them an olive branch and demonstrating to the rest of his Muslim subjects that he is a good Muslim, not a Western puppet. This could be seen in Karzai’s response when Afghan Muslims who converted to Christianity were condemned to death by an Afghan court. Despite the strong objections of the U.S. and its European allies, Karzai expressed no desire to intervene. When the attempt to court the Taliban did not bring tangible results, Karzai apparently started to look to broaden his options in the event of American/NATO departure. Russia and Iran emerged as potential backers, regardless of the fact that the flirtation with them would hardly please the US.

While for Karzai, a flirtation with Russia is caused by an understandable desire to save the region, and possibly himself personally, Russia and its allies in Central Asia have their own rationale in an American/NATO withdrawal. A recent memo from an influential Russian think tank outlined Russia’s perceptions of the prospects for U.S. foreign policy in the coming decade. According to the memo, after the debacle in Iraq, the U.S. is likely to shed its imperial drive throughout the world. U.S. foreign policy would be structurally similar to that in the void after the end of the USSR. Russian pundits have seen two implications. The first, positive for Russia, implies that the U.S. departure would lead to a strong Russia filling the vacuum. The other implied that America’s retreat would lead to chaos, especially in the Middle East and surrounding areas.

This vision of a post-Iraq Middle East also implied growing Islamic extremism, and, here Russian authorities have grounds to be quite apprehensive. To start with, Chechnya, and in fact the entire northern Caucasus, continues to worry them. It is true that the military operation in Chechnya is for the most part over and Russian authorities were able to “outsource” most of it to pro-Russian ethnic Chechen forces under Ramzan Kadyrov. But the conflict continues to smolder, as the recent shooting down of a Russian helicopter testifies. Russian authorities are also concerned with the spread of what they regard as jihadist Islamists in Russia, testified to by several trials of people they dub Islamic extremists. They are also concerned with instability in the “near abroad,” mostly Central Asia, where authoritarian regimes could be toppled through violent revolt, as the Kyrgyz upheaval and the ensuing events in Andijan in Uzbekistan, both during Spring 2005, clearly demonstrated. While those who led the uprising might not be Islamic extremists, extremists could take advantage of the situation if Karimov’s regime were to collapse.

The emergence of a Taliban-type regime in Russia’s backyard would hardly be what Russia needs. It would not only create general instability but could disrupt gas and oil supplies. Russia has served as middleman, providing the route for much Central Asian gas and oil to Europe and profiting handsomely. And, of course, a successful Islamist-inspired uprising would threaten not just Karimov’s regime but his personal survival.

While both Russian and Central Asian leaders continue to be concerned with the spread of Islamic extremism in Central Asia and the Caucasus, they clearly see a connection between these Islamists and those in Afghanistan. Indeed, Chechen Internet sites almost regularly publish glowing accounts of the Taliban and their successful fight against American and NATO forces. Uzbek extremists are also actively engaged in fighting in Afghanistan. The collapse of the Kazai government and the “Talibanization” of Afghanistan would be not just a huge blow for U.S. global prestige but an even more severe blow for the Central Asian states and Russia. And this is the reason they are anxious to help the Karzai regime.

CONCLUSIONS: The impending American withdrawal from Iraq and possibly that of Western, mostly American, forces from Afghanistan could start a broad—perhaps abrupt––American retreat from many parts of the world, including the Middle East and Central Asia. While for some of the elite of nearby powers, e.g., Russia, this could be welcome news, others look at the prospect with apprehension as an invitation for anarchy and Islamic extremism that could affect them badly. These views seem to be pushing Russia and Central Asian countries closer to each other. The logic seems to be that the major players of the region, notably China, Iran, and, of course, the U.S., should join hands to prevent the chaos from spreading. But the great power rivalries and deep-seated suspicions will most likely fester, preventing cooperation despite some possible steps toward each other, as recent Afghan-Russian mutual rapprochement indicates.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Dmitry Shlapentokh is Associate Professor of History, University of Indiana at South Bend.