The issue of Afghanistan seen from Moscow

Posted in Russia , Asia , Africa , Afghanistan | 06-Oct-10 | Author: Mihaiu Mărgărit

Just like all great empires, Russia has been crossing periods of recess followed by periods of expansion generated by a powerful central leadership. It is unanimously admitted, including by the current analysts from the Kremlin - that the post-Soviet collective drama of Russia has determined the obvious decrease of the country's international status and the loss of influence in the territories won throughout its entire history. Once Vladimir Putin came to power at the Kremlin, the Russian recesses in the '90s, present in all fields, was then followed by an economic revival which started in 2000. Also, Russian identity has been reconfirmed and national pride was restored, best described in the Russian declarations and efforts to reassert their international ambitions. Nowadays, Russia reshaped its Foreign Policy Concept based on three major advantages operated at the same time: the energy, the military arsenal - especially the nuclear one, and the right to veto in the Security Council. Among the objectives of the new Russian Concept, we find the special interest for the Central Asian area. Consequently, Afghanistan is again an essential foreign policy concern for Russia. Professor Victor Korgun, from the Russian Academy of Sciences, is now demonstrating this particular concern, by reminding of the two countries' historical relations, which he considers a very significant element for the Soviet foreign policy. He underlines that Moscow granted huge economic and military support for Afghanistan in the past, and in the late 1970 the Russians got involved in a war which eventually contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. After the fall of the USSR, Afghanistan has become of peripheral interest for Russia. As we all know, the domestic developments within Afghanistan and the fight for power between the various Mujahideen formations turned into a real civil war and caused the emergence of Taliban military and political movements that got control over the country. After the Taliban regime was overthrown by the NATO operation "Enduring Freedom" in 2001, favorable conditions appeared for the reconstruction of Afghanistan and its transition to a peaceful democratic development. However, the obvious unsatisfactory development of the transition announced the international troops were going to stay in the area for a long period of time. Such perspective was in opposition to Moscow aspirations, which determined the Kremlin to identify new opportunities of involvement in this process in various forms, in order to assert its role of leading regional actor. First and foremost, Russian analysts underline the support provided by NATO in the anti-terrorist operations in Afghanistan, and insist over the Kremlin decision not to oppose the deployment of Alliance troops in the military bases in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Even though they do not refer to this aspect, I believe it has been seen as a concession and used as an advantage within the various subsequent international negotiations, especially with the USA, which kept making their presence known in the area more and more. A direct approach to Afghanistan was also attempted. After the Taliban regime was overthrown, Hamid Karzai, chief of ad-interim administration at the time, together with other leaders of the country, paid an official visit to Moscow, back in the spring of 2002. The media in Moscow was then saying that the two countries signed 17 agreements during that visit, referring to the construction and rehabilitation of economic infrastructure, energy projects, shipment of agriculture machinery and industrial equipment and various modern technologies. After that, nothing was said about those agreements anymore, which proved the two countries were unable to put them in practice. In his analyses on the issue of Afghanistan, Professor Korgun explains this particular failure by saying the Russian-Afghani relations depend on a complex series of factors, such as: the domestic situation of Afghanistan seen as unstable, the nature of Russian relations to the Western countries involved in the area, firstly with the USA and then the changing situation in the Central Asia region and in the rest of the world. Of course, the situation is still unstable in Afghanistan even now, according to the unanimous opinion of the journalists. But the Kremlin officials also say that illegal drugs, Islamic extremism and corruption - elements fundamentally characteristic to the current situation in Afghanistan - represent major threats against the stability of Russia and of its Central Asian strategic allies.

The illicit narcotics. Currently, Russia believes that the most dangerous threat coming from Afghanistan is the production, circulation and illicit traffic of drugs. According to official Russian statistics, a considerable percentage of Afghani narcotics reach Russia illegally. It is mentioned that, despite the reassurances offered by the Afghani authorities according to whom the drug production decreases constantly (in 2007 its volume was 8200 tons, in 2008 it was 7700, dropping by 6%), the quantity of Afghani opium substances illegally imported in Russia stays the same level. It is said that approximately 25% of the total quantity of drugs produced in Afghanistan, which amounts to almost 4 tons of opium per day (enough to produce 6 million doses of pure heroin) enter Russia from Afghanistan, through the latter's northern border. The heroin is trafficked in Russia along several routes - via Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. A substantial quantity from the heroin entering Russia is further carried to Western Europe, but most of it stays in Russia for consume. The official statistics from Moscow mentions there are 2.5 million Russians addicted to drugs, ranking Russia on the first place in the world now in terms of Afghani heroin consume. In latest years, drug addiction developed into a national crisis. The Russian media says almost 30,000 people, especially young, die of drug overdose every year. According to Russian specialists, the heroin from Afghanistan has become a real threat for the health of Russian population and a factor of serious aggravation of the democratic situation. From the reports of international forces' commanders in Afghanistan, disclosed and commented publicly, it is well-known that the issue of Afghani drugs is closely related to the issue of the Taliban and their allies. Drugs represent one of the most significant, if not their main source for financing. They invest in the drug production, offer protection for harvesting, provide seeds and give loans to the peasants who produce it and sell it. Sometimes using violence, they collect taxes from the drug producers on the territory under their control. Their estimated income is almost half a billion dollars per year, and 70 to 75 millions of it go to taxes.

Taliban fighters
Taliban fighters
Referring to all these data from Russia, Antonio Maria Costa, the Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, whom the Russian foreign minister Ivanov had previously attacked for not having supported the eradication of cultivations in June this year, complained in Moscow that Russians have "an extraordinary lack of information on opium". The UN official informed that opium cultures are down by 30% in 2008-2009 (confirming the down trend guaranteed by the Afghani authorities, but not the figures), and he forecasted that it would decrease again by another 30% in 2010. However, he admitted the opium production could increase again in 2011. Still, I believe that the drug production, traffic and consume are a real danger to the security of a society, regardless of the figures presented in the specialized statistics or in formal declarations of high officials, no matter who they are. And fighting drugs, wherever in the world, not only in Afghanistan, should not be insidiously inserted in accusing or explanatory disputes, but it must definitely trigger a joint strategic objective to turn into an international political consensus. Consequently, I strongly believe such an objective is highly justifiable within the Russian foreign policy priorities, given the fact Russia is neighbor to a state which, all along its existence, was exclusively based on opium crops.

The Islamic extremism. Yet another threat considered serious to Russia and its allies is the Islamic extremism. All the analysts in the democrat world see it as a practice, both ideological and political of the Taliban and of other radical Islamic groups connected to "Al-Qaeda". Despite the bigger number of troops in the International Support and Assistance Force (ISAF) and in the international coalition led by the USA, the Islamists have systematically fought against governmental forces of Karzai and against NATO and have enlarged their area of influence and control. The Taliban have close operational ties to extremist groups from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, first and foremost to all the Islamic Movement in Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb ut-Tahrir. Due to the efforts of these countries' army and police forces, most of the Islamist fighters have been banished from these states. However, most of them joined the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, which have established a convenient retreat in Pakistan. Although a lot of the IMU fighters stationed in Pakistan have been eliminated themselves by the local tribal militias assisted by the Pakistani army, there are many of their sections still operating, and then they re-enter Afghanistan and join the local Taliban. The close cooperation between the Central Asian Islamic extremists and the Afghani Islamic extremists is considered an open threat for Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as well as for Russia because according to Moscow views, the Central Asian region falls into the Russian area of responsibility and its political positions have to be a regional security warranty. Also, they believe the insurgents in Afghanistan threaten Russia also because of having integrated the Chechens connected to the remains of the separatist movement in their country. These are the main reasons for which Russia is deeply interested in defeating the Islamic extremism, and the terrorism in Afghanistan and in the region. The suicide attackers in Moscow and in other places in Russia have caused civilian victims and they are also presented as a salient example of such threat.

Corruption. Russia has also been concerned by the corruption in Afghanistan, as it is seen as a endemically spread to such a degree as to have placed Afghanistan second in the top of most corrupted states in the world, after Somalia. Corruption corrodes and destroys the reconstruction project in Afghanistan, which also determines president Obama's American Administration to consider the fight against corruption as the top priority in their new strategy for Afghanistan. In fact, similar to drugs, corruption can cross the borders and then turn into a transnational issue. Consequently, Moscow perceives the spread of the Afghani corruption, for it affects the power structures in the neighboring countries, including some of its most important allies and partners.

The role of Afghanistan in Russian foreign policy. As underlined above, Russia says they are facing several serious challenges and threats coming from the territory of Afghanistan. Consequently, the Russians declare they are directly interested in approaching those challenges together with the international community and, in context, they cannot ignore the destiny of the Afghani people, with who they share a history of good neighborhood relations. Considering its geopolitical situation and strategic opportunities, professor Korgun and the Russian analysts believe Russia is capable of influencing the situation in Afghanistan through several channels, as follows: Russian-Afghani bilateral relations, which have been repeatedly praised by the presidents of both countries, Russia and Afghanistan; the Russian cooperation with their allies and partners in Central Asia; memberships in regional organizations, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO); cooperation with the international organizations, such as the UN, OSCE and NATO. In fact, we see that the Russian Foreign Policy in 2008 placed the Russian-sponsored regional and sub-regional organizations in the forefront of Central Asian security, especially SCO and CSTO. Consequently, in March 2003, under SCO auspices, an international conference on the situation in Afghanistan took place in Moscow. This conference concluded that while the blockage still continues between the NATO forces and the Taliban, a solution to the Afghani problem does not seem likely without the involvement of Russia and its allies in Central Asia, thanks to their rich experience in dealing with this country. This conclusion was also supported in the West. In this respect, even the NATO General Secretary, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said during a meeting with premier Vladimir Putin, on 17 December 2009, that he saw Afghanistan as a focal point in the cooperation between Russia and NATO. The same analysts also believe that, on bilateral level, Russia can provide assistance for Afghanistan in the economic reconstruction projects, previously financed through technical and economic support granted by the former USSR (142 projects), geologic explorations and personnel training, including for police officers specialized in anti-drug combat. Although on a limited scale, Russians believe that technical military cooperation between the two countries is also developing.

Also, Russia is becoming more active in the multilateral cooperation between the Central Asian republics and Afghanistan, including in the field of energy. I am referring to the fact that Tajikistan is currently finalizing the construction of the biggest hydroelectric power plant in the region, called "Songtuda", with financial and technical support from Russia. The energy produced by Songtuda will be sent to Afghanistan and then farther to Pakistan. Also, the assistance granted to NATO is one of the most important components of the Russian policy for Afghanistan. An agreement on these arrangements was signed by Vladimir Putin when he was still president, at the Bucharest NATO Summit in April 2008. This position was later reconfirmed during Anders Fogh Rasmussen's meeting with the Russian leaders, on 17 December 2009 in Moscow, when Russia reiterated its availability to extend the cooperation. But since such cooperation would also involve the Central Asian republics whose territories are used for NATO cargo based on bilateral agreements, Russia believes they are too many and a complex and difficult process was caused. To simplify this process for the West, Russia proposes direct contacts to be established between NATO and CSTO.

In fact, this proposal reveals Russia's intention, ever since the establishment of this organization, to force a counterbalance to NATO. Without entering too deeply in the CSTO development details, I remind you that, according to a journalist at the regional publication Ejedevnji Jurnal, mentioned in a recent issue of The Moscow Times journal, "it has proven to be a dead body". The statement described the result of the Yerevan summit in late August this year, as evidence to the "confusion reigning inside the organization". The summit's main topic was finding a collective response to the crises such as the one in Kyrgyzstan, but the discussions had no results. Eventually, "we discussed about amending the CSTO status till the future summit scheduled in December this year in Moscow, so that the organization can have a more efficient response to crises", explained president Dmitri Medvedev. Clearly, the member states, not threatened by a domestic conflict, are not willing to take on a new responsibility, and this is why Russia cannot impose their wish to form a collective rapid reaction force (CRRF) in order to deal with conflicts in their initial stages.

Afghanistan - Kyber pass
Afghanistan - Kyber pass
As for the SCO also seen as a means to impact the situation in Afghanistan, Dr. Natasha Kuhrt believes the organization itself is confronted with several problems which limit its involvement in Afghanistan. The member states have excluded a direct military involvement in Afghanistan and, anyway, the SCO does not have its own armed troops. And then, its financial basis is weak, as the annual budget does not go over 4 million dollars. And due to its limited financial resources, the organization has no joint economic and social projects. Furthermore, there are also many domestic differences between the SCO member states, including political, military, economic, state borders, national and so on. Ultimately, analysts say that even if they are united against the collective threats coming from Afghanistan - terrorism, national separatism, Islamic extremism, drug traffic and general instability, the SCO is not a well-integrated organization, as its members have different objectives in and for Afghanistan. Therefore, there is the example of China, which is much more concerned by securing its economic interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia than by any other objective that the organization might have in common. At the same time, all SCO member states are aware of the US growing political and military influence in the region. This complex range of dynamics makes it difficult for the SCO member states to come up with a unified international approach to Afghanistan.

It is known that after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 2001, Russia decided to go shoulder to shoulder with the United States in fighting terrorism worldwide. In fact, it was logical for Russia to salute the US intent to fight Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, because ever since the early 90s the Russian politicians had hoped that the USA and Russia could stop the Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia together. However, Russian analysts are now saying that Russian and American objectives proved quite different. For Russians, the Taliban were a security threat that they fought against for a long time. Then, the development in Tajikistan was closely connected, as Russians got involved into a "peace-keeping operation". On the other hand, contrary to Russian expectations, they learned that the United States and Europe were only marginally interested in stopping the drug traffic, as only a small part of those drugs were consumed by Americans and Europeans, the most part being consumed in Russia. Even the ISAF strategy is accused to have turned a "blind eye" to the cultivation of opium poppy. Consequently, the United States prefer to develop bilateral relations with the Central Asian states in the field of energy and do not focus on the main objective agreed. In fact, ever since the beginning, Russian academics and political decision-makers have criticized Zbigniew Brzezinski's doctrine of "geopolitical pluralism". This doctrine has been aimed to make the Central Asian states as independent as possible from Moscow and it stipulates that Washington's policy in Central Asia should prioritize partnerships with China and Turkey over Moscow's head. Furthermore, geopolitical pluralism stated that China should also be seen as a means to counter the excessive Russian influence in the region. The Russian accusations were based on the belief that the Taliban were not actually eliminated and the US presence in Central Asia was not temporary. For this reason, the current vision of Russia on the military campaign in Afghanistan is also considered as way more ambivalent. The initial Russian support for the campaign in Afghanistan, the war of "necessity" opposed to the war "of choice" in Iraq, has been diminished, and Russia is now questioning the war legitimacy and the latter's expansion in the area of "AfPak" (Afghanistan - Pakistan). The agenda of Bush administration on democratization in Central Asia, which involved support for the "colored revolutions" in the former Soviet space, has eventually become a great bone of contention between the USA and Russia. Now, the Russian analysts say that Barack Obama's administration and their weird fixation to "reset" bilateral relations seem to have understated democracy and represents part of a generally low status for several normative and prescriptive aspects of the US policy towards Russia. Consequently, Russia has been more cautious about the whole idea of "resetting". Russians see it narrow and selective, and in fact not dealing with Russia's leading interests. And still, beside these suspicions and despite some reserves about the strategy adopted by ISAF, it appears that Russian hope stays connected to the success of NATO presence in Afghanistan, as Moscow keeps supporting their operations. However, in a certain context in Brussels, while reaffirming the Russian Foreign Policy Concept, the Russian ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, has warned that if NATO campaign fails in Afghanistan, Russia would have no other choice than to get involved more prominently in the Central Asian affairs. The consequences of such failure would primarily be additional "drug-terrorist threats" and a general boost of fundamentalist feelings that could cause the destabilization of the whole region. For this reason, the nature and character of NATO strategy to leave Afghanistan is extremely important for the Russian perspective.

Other regional actors. India, China and Iran are considered other key partners for Russian in the region. Both Russia and China have expressed disapproval to Washington's policy of isolating Iran, as they see it as an important economic partner. Also, at some point, Iran was considered an ally against the fundamentalism in Afghanistan, although reports according to which Iran is courted by the Taliban make it a less safe ally in this respect. If Russia condemns Iran for the nuclear proliferation, that would be an additional complication in the cooperation with the regime in Tehran on the issue of Afghanistan. It makes it much more difficult for Moscow to support Tehran so that its disputes with the West may continue over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

According to Dr. Natasha Kuhrt from London King's College in her analyses on Central Asia, India and China are Russia's so-called "strategic partners". In context, the energy projects of Russia-India-China cannot therefore be excluded. These partner countries of Russia have been criticizing the NATO campaign in Afghanistan, due to their concern over the long-term situation in the region after the NATO forces' withdrawal. Truly, India is concerned that any withdrawal of NATO could lead to an increased influence of Pakistan in Afghanistan and a simultaneous boost of fundamentalism, which could lead to destabilization. The relation India-NATO, beyond Afghanistan, remains still complicated because the USA is trying to keep contact with both Pakistan and India. The nuclear agreement between the USA and India was signed precisely in order to consolidate the special connection between the two countries, but India is still worried that the USA could ignore its concerns over the larger strategic agreement "AfPak". India, such as Russia, is criticizing NATO efforts of involving or even "bribing" the Taliban, while considering that such strategies may eventually imply the Taliban' return to power.

Russia's interest in China also comes from the attempts to revive Primakov's old idea of an axis Russia-India-China that could secure stability in Eurasia. However, that has remained a mere declaration up to now. Through the dialog between SCO and BRIC (Brazilian, Russia, India, China organization), Russia has tried to show alternatives to approaching the security challenges of a region larger than Central Asia. By BRIC, Russia is looking for ways to gain more influence on global level. But if we consider the important role of China within this organization and the well-known abhorrence of Beijing for military alliances, as well as the economic priority over political and military objectives, it means that the Russian desire to attract China through SCO cannot be achieved. This organization can hardly be seen as a mechanism to deal with any event in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the long-term objectives of Russia and China in the region cannot be the same.

In conclusion, a recommendation for Russia, expressed by Dr. Natasha Kuhrt: although Russia struggles to be a "protector of Central Asia, a sort of semi-colonial domesticator", the uncertainty of regional power relations and the complex mix of interests, convergences and divergences of various powers make it impossible for any state to dominate the region. The existent regional bodies favored by Russia are still unfit to deal with the numerous issues in Central Asia. For this reason, it is difficult to see how Russia could take over the task in Afghanistan, if or when ISAF leaves. However, Russia needs to be convinced that NATO will not accept a failure in Afghanistan.