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Understanding Russia’s Role in Afghanistan


- February 15th, 2017
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The United States can make a strong and persuasive case to the Russians that they should cease their ongoing support for the Taliban.

Recently, I argued the United States should use India as leverage to pressure Pakistan into abandoning its support of the Taliban (and other jihadist groups) in Afghanistan. In so doing, I believe, the United States finally would be able to formulate a political solution that would allow a majority of American forces to return home with a victory under their belts. Naturally, however, there is a major potential complication to this plan: Russia. What else is new, comrades?

Yes, Russia is, yet again, inserting itself into a wholly American affair. Since 2008, the Russians have been ratcheting up their support of the Taliban. Consequently, a concert of powers now back the Taliban, even as American troops continue to fight and die the jihadist army that had controlled large swaths of Afghanistan prior to the U.S. invasion in 2001. Understand that while Pakistan is the largest (as well as the closest) foreign power supporting the Taliban, both China and Russia have interests in seeing the Taliban prosper in its ongoing war with the United States. Iran does, too.

With Russia supporting the Taliban, the United States will have a higher degree of difficulty coaxing the Pakistanis to assist us in defeating the Taliban. Russia has been a vital component to the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. Since 2001, Russia has provided the United States with diplomatic assistance in opening and maintaining the vital supply lines running into and out of Afghanistan.

After all, Afghanistan is in Russia’s neighborhood. With the exception of Pakistan, most of the surrounding Central Asian states are beholden to Russia in some way. Still, it remains shocking that the Russians are assisting the Taliban in any way. Remember, that the Taliban are the heirs to the Mujahadeen who roundly defeated Soviet forces during the Soviet-Afghan War.

While Russian support for the Taliban is an unwanted complication, it is not an insurmountable obstacle. The Trump Administration should use Russia to its advantage in seeking to extricate the United States from this costly and lengthy war.

The first thing America must do is to recognize what Russia wants. For starters, ISIS presents a grave danger to Russia’s national security. President Putin has little faith in the Afghan government’s ability to counter the rise of ISIS in the country. Putin is also concerned that the United States is so busy trying to extricate itself from Afghanistan that it is not taking the ISIS threat seriously. Therefore, the Russians are using any means to prevent the small ISIS presence in Afghanistan from growing beyond where it is today.

After all, Russia has a large and growing Muslim population. Afghanistan is right on Russia’s southern border. With Russia so closely aligned with Assad in Syria, the last thing that Vladimir Putin wants is to have ISIS operating right next door. The United States should signal to Russia that it will take seriously the threat that ISIS poses in Afghanistan and work to destroy them there, so long as the Russians assist the United States in its larger goal of defeating the Taliban.

It is also likely that Vladimir Putin wants to embarrass the United States in much the same way that he believes the United States embarrassed Russia during the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan. Even so, that is but an ancillary benefit for the Russians. What is more likely is that, from a geopolitical perspective, the Russians are looking to push American forces out of what it perceives as its sphere of influence. In this, there are complementary American and Russian interests.

I think it’s safe to say that a majority of Americans want a successful end to the War in Afghanistan. And, while I believe that a small contingent of U.S. counter-terrorism forces will have to remain in Afghanistan for decades to come, leaving a massive military force permanently engaged in combat operations against the Taliban is simply untenable. President Trump being a populist who has routinely questioned the strategy in both Iraq and Afghanistan, likely shares this interest in ending the War in Afghanistan soon. As you can see, then, the Russian and American leadership have mutual interests in this area of the world.

The Trump Administration must communicate to the Russians that it will not abide the perpetuation of the Taliban. Pakistan has been relentless in its support for Taliban, in large part because they view Afghanistan as offering them strategic depth in Pakistan’s ongoing conflict with India. This is why I believe that the United States getting closer to India would persuade the Pakistanis to abandon the Taliban. Ultimately, an Indo-American alliance would empower Pakistan’s mortal enemy of India and isolate Pakistan. Thus, the Pakistanis would have a vested interest in seeing America leave as quickly as possible. Yet, the presence of Russia means that Pakistan may try to get closer with Russia—in order to protect their Taliban allies, to check India’s growing power on the subcontinent, and to rebuff American influence in the region.

President Trump’s national security team will have to communicate to the Russians that if they want America mostly out of their part of the world, then, the Russians must not fall for the Pakistani trap. They must not allow their desire to humiliate the United States by empowering the Pakistani-Taliban alliance to get the better of Russian grand strategy.

Moreover, the Russians should realize that, if they are serious about destroying the Islamic State in Afghanistan, they should not align with the leading jihadist-supporting state (Pakistan) in the region. Further, the Russians should understand that the Taliban may not be as serious about fighting the small ISIS presence in the country as the Russians assume. Indeed, a Taliban spokesman recently reiterated that the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan have formed an informal alliance against the West. Thus, any support that Russia is rendering to Taliban may, in fact, be inadvertently helping ISIS.

Not long ago, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Army General John Nicholson, gave an impassioned testimony to Congress elaborating his belief that America was in an endless stalemate with the Taliban. Therefore, he called for another troop surge into Afghanistan, in order to break the stalemate. The Trump team should embrace this strategy—so long as it is serious about pushing Pakistan to abandon the Taliban by empowering India. As the troop surge commences (alongside an intensification of Indo-American relations), the U.S. must bluntly tell the Russians that American forces will not leave Afghanistan until we are assured that the Taliban are neutralized.

The increase in U.S. forces will signal to Russia that any attempt at supporting Pakistan against the United States will further distance Russia from its ultimate goal of getting America out of Russia’s sphere of interest. America must recognize that President Putin’s desire to prolong American suffering is strong. The temptation to bring an old U.S. partner like Pakistan closer to Russia’s orbit would be an enchanting opportunity for Putin as well (just look at what Putin is doing in Egypt). Yet, Putin’s big dream of firmly rehabilitating Russian influence in the former Soviet space will only be complicated by increased Russian presence in Afghanistan. Simply put, America will not leave until it knows the Taliban is dead-and-gone.

President Trump must enter Afghanistan with his eyes wide open: Pakistan is disinterested in resolving the War in Afghanistan. They will do whatever they have to in order to keep the Taliban open for business. Since India is the strategic linchpin in this scenario, the Pakistanis will be looking for new allies. Russia is an obvious choice for them. Therefore, the Trump Administration must move swiftly to seriously diminish the attractiveness of Pakistan to Russia.

Indeed, this wouldn’t be the first time that Pakistan attempted to play a rival great power off of the United States. During the historic Bin Laden raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2011, one of the two covert stealth helicopters that the Navy SEALs used crashed over Bin Laden’s compound. While the SEALs attempted to destroy the helicopter wreckage, a section of the tail survived. The Pakistanis collected this component and handed it off to the Chinese. In fact, since 2009, Sino-Pakistani relations have reached a crescendo as U.S.-Pakistani relations have soured. This is no accident. The Pakistani leadership is keenly aware that the United States is growing disenchanted with them and is looking for ways at prompting the Pakistanis to serve American interests. Such interests, the Pakistanis believe, are inimical to their national interests.

Playing Russia off of America in Afghanistan would be yet another extension of this Pakistani stratagem.

The only way to diminish Pakistan in Putin’s eyes is to rapidly increase the size of U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan and to give them expanded mission parameters. Putin will quickly back away from supporting Pakistan. He might even back Trump’s play in the region. If he doesn’t, then the Trump Administration will continue America’s policy of war against the jihadist networks operating in Afghanistan. We will empower the Indians, and the U.S. diplomatic strategy should then be able to look for ways at undermining Russian influence in the region.

One way or the other, the United States under President Trump will win the War in Afghanistan. It’s just a question of how much both the Taliban and Pakistan want it to hurt. What’s more, it’s also a question of how much Russia wants to risk in the interregnum between now and America’s ultimate victory in Afghanistan. America is never going to remove Russian influence from Central Asia. Geography prevents this from happening.

So, the real calculation for Putin would be how badly he wants supreme influence over this region in the near term. He can get it quite cheaply if he ignores Pakistani attempts at pulling Russia into its orbit (and maybe even helps the United States force Pakistan into abandoning the Taliban). Or he can get it with far more damage to Russian diplomatic capital and prestige if he forces the United States to remain engaged indefinitely in Afghanistan.

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