20 years under Putin: a timeline

2014 is an important year for Afghanistan, as it marks the end of the Karzai era, with a new president slated to be elected on April 5. For the United States, 2014 marks the end of a military operation that began in Afghanistan in 2001. Afghanistan also remains an important issue for Russia, which recently commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Soviet forces’ withdrawal from that country. As Harriman Institute visiting scholar Daria Mattis points out, the upcoming elections are of critical importance to the future of the Afghan state.



The Afghan Factor

Lying at the crossroads of three strategically important geographic regions—Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East—Afghanistan has always been an unavoidable player in any country’s attempt to pursue its interests in the region. Russia viewed the region as a sphere of interest in the nineteenth century, when, together with Britain, it was actively engaged in the so-called Great Game. It was under the same conviction in the late 1970s that Soviet troops invaded the country and were tied down there for a decade. The United States, too, has been historically involved in the region owing to its role in energy production and transportation. Following 9/11 and the start of the “War on Terror,” Afghanistan also became a major focal point of America’s national security policy.

However, the geostrategic situation of Afghanistan has drastically changed over the past 25 years. Russia learned a bitter lesson from the 1979–1989 invasion, and today, the United States is reconsidering its own foreign policy priorities in the region: America is no longer viewed as the “world’s policeman,” and the greater Middle East is no longer the country’s top foreign policy priority. As political scientist Ian Bremmer stated in a recent talk at the Carnegie Council, “We would like to get out of there, thank you very much.”

In September 2012, the Obama administration announced that the 47,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. However, negotiations surrounding the bilateral security agreement (BSA) that will govern U.S.-Afghan relations following the drawdown of U.S. troops have recently stalled. This BSA would permit the United States to keep a small residual force of about 8,000 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to support and train local forces and conduct limited counterterrorism activities. There is still hope for a favorable resolution to these negotiations as a result of Afghanistan’s April 5 presidential elections.

Russia’s reaction to the U.S. and NATO military presence in the region over the past decade has been rather ambivalent. On one hand, Moscow welcomed the post-9/11 global War on Terror and the intervention of American forces in Afghanistan as a way to increase the legitimacy of its own “war on terrorism” in the North Caucasus, where it had for many years been waging a brutal counterinsurgency battle against Chechen Islamists and extremist groups. On the other hand, Moscow has grown increasingly concerned that the ever-expanding Western security presence in Afghanistan is ultimately an attempt to keep Russia “in check” in Central Asia.

After the United States announced its withdrawal plan, Russian officials expressed deep concerns about such a “hasty decision”. Russian officials believe that the presence of the numerous well-trained and well-equipped NATO forces in the country has been a key factor in deterring a full-scale bloody conflict. If Afghanistan had a stable political environment, it could potentially serve as a bulwark to protect Russia’s southern borders from drug trafficking and Islamic extremism.


The Debate in Washington

American experts on Afghanistan both in and out of the government have different outlooks on the situation. U.S. commanders in the field and officials at the Pentagon are largely opposed to a hasty departure of troops, fearing a resurgence of the Taliban and a rapid descent of the country into chaos. Government officials, on the contrary, argue that the American combat mission has been successfully completed in the sense that it contributed to the formation of a credible and self-sustained Afghan army and decreased al-Qaeda’s chances of “reestablish[ing] a foothold in the country where the Sept. 11 attacks were plotted”.

Experts at American think tanks mostly approve of the planned withdrawal of forces but at the same time appeal to U.S. politicians to ensure an enduring military presence in Afghanistan after 2014 to better coordinate civil aid during the transition period and to prevent terrorist groups from regaining control over the region. Some, such as John R. Allen and Michael E. O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute, predict that foreign terrorist groups from countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq would put “down roots again . . . if the country were to fall to the Taliban after NATO’s departure”.

95% of Afghanistan’s GDP is currently funded by foreign taxpayers in donor nations. The question is where the country’s post-2014 budget will come from. The answer is evident: it will come from Afghanistan’s prior sources of cash—poppies, opium production, and the narcotics trade.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) suggests that instead of debating the issues with the Afghan president, the American government should first weigh the value of keeping its forces in Afghanistan. Questioning the necessity of maintaining an American presence in a region whose strategic importance to the United States has diminished, Cordesman suggests, “Why not leave the task of dealing with unrest and extremism in Central Asia to Russia and China? Why can’t the United States do the best job of winning the new Great Game by ceasing to play it?”

Pauline Baker of the American Interest points out that until U.S. policy is reviewed, the further presence of American troops in Afghanistan will mean continued waste of both human and financial resources. “Thus far, the war has cost the United States at least $500 billion over the past ten years (some say as much as $1 trillion), with spending close to $100 billion in 2013 alone,” she concludes.

According to the World Bank, 95% of Afghanistan’s GDP is currently funded by foreign taxpayers in donor nations. The question is where the country’s post-2014 budget will come from. The answer is evident: it will come from Afghanistan’s prior sources of cash—poppies, opium production, and the narcotics trade. Recently, the presence of foreign troops and controls introduced by the Karzai government have suppressed, but failed to eliminate, such sources of funds. Thus, another fatal risk—narco-trafficking—is rising.

At an event on the Middle East recently hosted by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, former U.S. ambassador Thomas R. Pickering expressed regret about the ISAF withdrawal from Afghanistan. In addition to the departure of well-equipped and well-trained foreign forces, the withdrawal will mean the loss of funding for the Afghan national security forces. “One of the things that I think is the most important,” said the former ambassador, “is to see if we can push India and Pakistan to begin to talk about their interests in and their future roles in Afghanistan.” Summing up his observations of the broader Middle East, Pickering said that “our effort has to be to help build balances in the region rather than to pick winners and losers.”


The Russian Forecast

Experts on Russian foreign policy and Afghanistan outline numerous scenarios for the post-2014 Afghanistan. Omar Nessar, director of the Center for Contemporary Afghan Studies (CISA), points out that “the Taliban interprets the drawdown of the Western forces as its own victory. So now they certainly are not going to accept any concessions. They believe that the timing is playing into their hands, and as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan approaches, their positions are only being strengthened”.



In correspondence with IMR, Nessar further noted that even if a small military contingent (such as 8,000 troops) remains in Afghanistan, it still will not be enough to deter possible terrorist assaults. Thus, the burden of counterterrorism will be placed on the local police, whose combat ability is insufficient.

Nikolai Pakhomov of Afghanistan.ru believes that “the total departure of the ISAF from Afghanistan does not correspond with Russia’s strategic interests.” He emphasizes that the nation’s problems with drug production and trafficking, which existed before the appearance of Western forces, have not gone away completely and thus pose a serious threat to Russia. “If Moscow does not assist its neighbor countries in their security-building measures, it is going to be the next to fall victim to the belligerent and stiffened Islamic fundamentalism,” warns Pakhomov.

Another scenario outlined by experts predicts, fatalistically, that as soon as American and NATO troops leave the country, the Islamist extremists will rise against Hamid Karzai. The president might then turn to Russia for protection, which would inevitably drag Russia into another war in Afghanistan. Since the Soviet Union’s withdrawal in 1989, Afghanistan has been the last country with which Russia wishes to be involved again. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says that it is now up to the Afghans to decide what type of state they want and how to increase security and build stability.

Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center recommends that Russia carefully assess the current Afghan realities and the actual capabilities of the Taliban: “[Russia] needs to cooperate with Afghanistan’s neighbors but stay away from their competition. It absolutely needs to avoid any military involvement of its own in Afghanistan, and engage economically only when this makes sense in economic terms”. Nessar hopes that the uneasy situation will induce the Central Asian leaders to start seeking “new forms of collaboration in their attempts to fight the terrorist groups as well as new mechanisms to maintain regional security without relying on the NATO and the U.S. support.”


The Three Possible Outcomes

Both American and Russian experts recommend that the remaining combat regiments now train, advise, and assist local Afghan forces to make sure that Afghanistan will be able to maintain its security on its own, without heavy foreign support, in the future. The remaining international contingent should also be tasked with conducting strikes against terrorists. The fragility of the Afghan state should be specifically addressed. As Pauline Baker writes, “The April election is critical to the transition, but we should ensure that we are helping to establish the constitutional and electoral foundations for all future balloting, not just the next one”.

While this region of the Middle East is geographically remote and strategically less important than others for the United States, it still remains a tangible threat to Russian security, primarily because the two nations border each other. It is thus not surprising that Russian authorities have criticized Washington’s decision to exit Afghanistan as “too hasty” and have pointed out that the tasks of eliminating terrorism and building stability in the country have not yet been accomplished.

Given the escalating threat from a NATO-free Afghanistan and deteriorating relations with the West (mainly as a result of the Ukrainian crisis), Russia must seriously assess its security concerns—first and foremost, terrorism and narco-trafficking—and weigh the potential losses and gains of preserving cooperative relations with the United States. Given Afghanistan’s persistent instability, its failure to eradicate terrorism and drug trafficking, and its weak and corrupt military and police, the likelihood of the Taliban guerillas regaining power after the withdrawal of international forces is quite high.

In the given context, the outcome of the April presidential election is critical. There are three possible outcomes of this election: (1) The new leader will signs the BSA with the United States and ensure the continuing presence of its troops. (2) The new leader will be powerful and determined enough to build more efficient and accountable governance in Afghanistan. (3) The country will fall back into profound misgovernance and corruption, strengthening the Taliban and increasing the chances of another civil war.

We will soon find out which outcome it will be.