Afghanistan: The Next Big U.S.-Russia Proxy Battle
If recent developments are any indication, Russia is becoming increasingly focused on and active in Afghanistan. The Russian government has held several consultations with Tajikistan on expanding security cooperation on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border and has explored increasing the scope of its Central Asian military bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). It has also increased its diplomatic engagement with the Taliban and, according to Afghan and U.S. officials, may even be providing security assistance to the group. Long a consideration for Russia, Afghanistan is growing in importance to Moscow at both the tactical and strategic levels. And as it does, it is becoming an increasingly important theater for the U.S.-Russia competition.
Russia's interest in Afghanistan is not new. Moscow's imperial expansion into Central Asia in the 19th century coincided with British expansion in India, during a time of competition known as the Great Game. As tension between Britain and Russia mounted, Afghanistan became a buffer zone between the two in Central Asia. Eventually, once the Russian Empire transitioned into the Soviet Union, the once open borders between Afghanistan and Central Asia were closed, differentiating its culture and governing structure considerably from other Central Asian countries. But despite the closure of the border, Afghanistan's links with other Central Asian nations were not completely severed.
Eventually, in 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, becoming embroiled in a decadelong conflict to prop up a Russia-friendly communist government. The Afghanistan war was enormously costly for the Soviet Union, which withdrew in a stalemate in 1989, just two years before its collapse. With the end of the Soviet occupation and the concurrent reduction in U.S. attention and aid for the mujahideen forces fighting the occupation, Afghanistan, too, descended into bitter civil conflict.
It was from this quagmire that the Taliban, an Islamist group from the Pashtuns in southern Afghanistan, rose to prominence. The Taliban gave refuge to jihadist groups in Afghan territory, most prominently al Qaeda. They also gave refuge and support to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in exchange for IMU participation in Taliban offensives against the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras in northern Afghanistan. Thus, ironically, the Taliban became a common threat after the 9/11 attacks temporarily unifying the United States and Russia, which had maintained a strategic interest — and military forces — in Central Asia even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. When U.S. and NATO military operations were launched against the Taliban, it was with Russian support.
The U.S. invasion, also supported by the Northern Alliance, displaced the Taliban from all major cities and towns within a few months. Russia and Central Asian states hosted U.S. and NATO bases from which to launch Afghan operations and themselves worked to destroy militant cells of the IMU and other groups, such as Hizb al-Tahrir, in Afghanistan. But the U.S. invasion did not completely eliminate the Taliban or the elements of the IMU and of al Qaeda it supported. Rather, it drove them into remote parts of the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands or into Pakistan proper, forcing them to become an insurgent force. Thus, the United States became involved in its own long and costly war in Afghanistan, just as the Soviets did a decade prior. The United States eventually began drawing down its forces in Afghanistan beginning in 2014, giving the Taliban the space they needed to become an active and influential political force in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan continued to concern Russia. Narcotics flows from Afghanistan to Russia through Central Asia pose major security and health threats, and there are occasional militant attacks in Central Asia, many of which can be traced back to Afghanistan. The Taliban's resurgence has also led to the growth of Islamic State forces in the country in recent years. There are hundreds — possibly thousands — of Islamic State fighters in northern Afghanistan, near its border with other Central Asian states.
Recent Russian Intervention
In recent months, Russia has worked to secure the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, the porousness of which has facilitated the movement of narcotics and militants from Afghanistan into Central Asia and Russia. Russian military forces pulled their patrols off the border in 2005, but Moscow has recently shown an interest in restoring its security presence in the area, particularly since Taliban and Islamic State militants have increased their presence in northern Afghanistan.
To this end, Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Tajikistan and met with Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon at the end of February. After the meeting, Putin said the two leaders agreed to "step up joint efforts to defend the Tajik-Afghan border, using capacities of the Russian military base located in Tajikistan," referring to the 201st military base in the country. Just before that visit, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said that plans for setting up new Russian military bases in Tajikistan were not under consideration but added that they could be if the need arose. Fomin also did not rule out the use of the Russian military base in Tajikistan by other members of the Russia-led CSTO. That this wasn't ruled out is interesting in light of unconfirmed reports that the CSTO is considering deploying a rapid response force to the Central Asian countries bordering Afghanistan.
Russia has also been augmenting its involvement in Afghan politics. On April 14, Moscow hosted an Afghanistan peace conference, which was attended by officials from China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It was the third such conference hosted by Russia since December. Though Russia invited the United States to the conference, Washington chose not to attend.
The Great Game 2.0?
Moscow's sights are not set only on Afghanistan. It has been increasingly focused on the Middle East, most notably Syria, and in South Asia, partly because of its desire to gain an edge in negotiations with the United States. Russia's goals are much the same in Afghanistan. There are reports and rumors suggesting that Russia is increasing its financial and logistical support for the Taliban to gain leverage over the United States. An Afghan intelligence official said Russian agents were providing the Taliban with strategic advice, money and arms, including old anti-aircraft rockets. The Afghan official also said that Russian intelligence agents have held meetings with Taliban representatives in Tajikistan and in Moscow and that they occasionally enter Afghan territory in border provinces, including Kunduz. He added that Russians were serving as "creative minds and strategists for the Taliban" at a "kind of academy" in Iran. On April 17, the governor of Afghanistan's northern Kunduz province said Afghan forces had been deployed to the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border to block Russia's support for the Taliban in northern Afghanistan.
Though the claims of Afghan officials have proved dubious in the past, Western officials have also accused Russia of supporting the Taliban. Capt. William Salvin, a spokesman for the U.S.-led NATO coalition in Afghanistan, recently said, "We know that actions by Russia in Afghanistan are meant to undermine the work of the United States and NATO to support the Afghan government." Similarly, U.S. Cmdr. Joseph Votel said he believed it was fair to assume the Russians were supporting the Taliban to gain influence in the region. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, who is also NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, said in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that he had seen evidence of Russian association with and possibly even support for the Taliban.
For its part, Russia denies supplying the Taliban with weapons and insists its interactions with the group are limited to attempts to convince it to join negotiations. President Vladimir Putin's special envoy to Afghanistan has called the allegations of material support to the insurgents "absolute lies ... aimed at justifying the failure of the U.S. military and politicians." But Russia has a clear interest in cultivating ties with the Taliban: Boosting ties with the group could help Moscow guard against other militant groups, better control the drug trade and leverage itself against the United States in global negotiations — perhaps even in a mediator capacity. It could also help Russia limit U.S. encroachment into South Asia.
Russia's increased involvement in Afghanistan — both in the political and security realms — is understandably of substantial concern to the United States. Though Afghanistan is less of a priority for the United States than is the conflict in Syria, that does not preclude future increased U.S. involvement in the country. In fact, the U.S. Department of Defense is pushing for more military intervention in Afghanistan. And given U.S. President Donald Trump's track record of listening to his generals, a substantial U.S. reinforcement of the mission in Afghanistan is likely.
The United States is fearful that if it doesn't maintain enough pressure on the Afghan Taliban, another scenario like that playing out in Iraq could unfold. In Iraq, the Islamic State gained power after the U.S. withdrew its troops, forcing Washington to re-engage. For that reason, Washington is hesitant to withdraw troops from Afghanistan according to the previously laid out timeline and will instead maintain enough forces in the country to prevent it from becoming a staging ground for attacks on the United States. Washington also hopes that its enduring presence will convince the Taliban to negotiate a power-sharing agreement with the Afghan government. In the meantime, the Taliban are expected to launch their spring offensive any week now.
Meanwhile, Pakistan is battling its own militant problem, ratcheting up its security operations under the recently launched Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas bordering northern Afghanistan. This matters to Afghanistan because Pakistan's army operations have created large militant outflows into northern Afghanistan in the past. (In June 2014, Pakistan's Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan reportedly forced hundreds of IMU fighters into northern Afghanistan.) If something similar happens this time, it could worsen the security situation in Afghanistan and increase the need for security along the Tajik border.
In such a tenuous security environment, Russia is likely to markedly increase its security presence in and around Afghanistan. But given its history of intervention during the Soviet-Afghan War, it isn't likely to send ground troops to the country. Nevertheless, Russia's tactical security interests, combined with its strategic need to push against the United States, will make Afghanistan an increasingly important area of conflict between Moscow and Washington in the months to come.