By Monika Pawar
From the Bonn I to Bonn II Conference, Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan has come a long way. Russia’s support for the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) by allowing supplies through its territory alludes to its strategic interest in the region. With mounting tensions between Pakistan and the US – after US unilateral action against Osama, Pakistan’s alleged support to the Haqqani Network against NATO troops, and Pakistan’s shutting down of supply routes through its territory – the NDN has become a sort of a trump card for Russia. Russia’s advocacy for the national reconciliation government and the continued presence of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) are indicative of its active interest in the Afghanistan problem.
From the perspective of Russia, Afghanistan occupies an important geo-strategic, geopolitical and geo-economic position. The geo-strategic location of Afghanistan is such that it connects important regions like Central Asia and the Middle East with South and East Asia.
Owing to Russia’s natural sphere of influence in Central Asian countries, it wants Afghanistan to play the role of a bulwark which will protect its vulnerable southern border from illegal narcotics and Islamic extremism, which threaten the stabili¬ty of Russia and its strategic allies in Central Asia. As can be seen, Afghanistan is of key significance to Russia’s wider Central Asian policy and its claim to a great power status.
The geo-economic interest is testified by Afghanistan as a source of vital hydro-carbon reserves, iron-ore reserves, copper, gold, lithium and so on. Russia will have to keep a check on formidable economic rivals in Afghanistan like China, which recently outbidded Russian companies on the Ainak copper reserves, one of the biggest in the world. Afghanistan can also help Russia in diversifying its energy exports by providing access to South Asia and China through its territory. The recent interest displayed Russia in the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan and India) gas pipeline can be seen in this context.
The socio-cultural ties between Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia are also of interest to Russia as both these regions are dominated by ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen. The support of Central Asian countries and Russia to the Northern Alliance, an alliance of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen against the Taliban, is borne out of this socio-cultural affinity.
Russia has important security interests in the success of the international coalition in Afghanistan, both to contain the movement and activities of Islamic insurgents, terrorist activities, and to curtail the increasing drug problem within its own population.
The subsequent withdrawal of US-NATO military forces by 2014 will leave Russia alone to deal with the threat that a resurgent Taliban would pose to Central Asia and Russia. A Taliban return to power would facilitate the flow of drugs from Afghanistan to Russia, promote insurgencies throughout Central Asia, and use it as a pathway into Russia proper.
As a result, in spite of reservations about the strategy adopted by ISAF, Russia is hopeful that US-NATO presence in Afghanistan is successful, and Moscow continues to provide the ISAF operation with support. However, as recent happenings have shown bleak chances of ISAF’s success, Russia has been preparing for the worst in Afghanistan.
How is Russia likely to achieve its objectives?
Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Dmitrii Rogozin, while emphasizing the Foreign Policy Concept, warned that should the NATO campaign in Afghanistan fail, Russia would be left with no choice but to implement its multi-pronged involvement in the affairs of Central Asia, the failure of which would lead to the destabilization of the en¬tire region. For this reason, the nature and character of NATO’s exit strategy from Afghanistan is extremely im¬portant from a Russian perspective. Post 2014, Russia will try to flex its muscles in the border regions of Central Asia, which it views as its traditional sphere of influence.
Russia will further beef up the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russia-led political-military bloc consisting of former Soviet states, in the hope that the group can somehow become a viable collective security organ. Recently, it held military drills with the aim of preparing for the 2014 withdrawal. Russia will also try pleading with NATO to establish alliance-to-alliance relations with the CSTO. Further, Russia will try to enhance the role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization by supporting Afghanistan’s bid for a full member state, and can also use the CSTO to counter China’s influence in SCO.
Russia will hope to be an active player in shaping Afghanistan’s post-war strategic environment. It will enlarge its presence in Afghanistan and rebuild the country to pursue its own interests in the region. In the longer term, Russia can do one of two things: try to rebuild the Northern Alliance to contain the spread of the Taliban and the international coalition supporting it, thereby creating a bulwark in northern Afghanistan. Or, it can support the Afghan government’s efforts to achieve a political agreement, which may actually lead to the return of Taliban, in which case Russia will have to reach a temporary agreement with them. Therefore, the course Russia will choose is a matter of time and will depend on both the internal developments in Afghanistan and the role of international actors.
PhD Candidate, Russian and Central Asian Studies, JNU
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