A Dilemma for Russia
By Tim Foxley
Summary: Russia struggles with a contradiction – it wants NATO out of Afghanistan but it wants them in…
Russia has no intentions of getting involved again in Afghanistan. Yet the Central Asian republics, especially Uzbekistan, now fear instability on their borders as NATO’s 100,000-strong presence ends.
“The rulers of the former Soviet republics neighboring on Afghanistan are really scared,” wrote Mikhail Rostovsky in a fascinating short analysis in Moskovsky Komsomolets, a Russian daily newspaper. “They want Russia to be beside them and hold their hands at the crucial movement.” They also want Russia to be more actively involved in Afghan affairs.
That is the last thing Russia wants. It is in no position to end the drug trade, the insurgency and the corruption, which NATO could not stop. It has no intention of putting its own footprint on the country again.
With the security vacuum left by NATO’s withdrawal, Russia’s only hope, whether naïve or not, is a new and more stable Afghan government.
It is always tricky for Russia to make any kind of substantial point about Afghanistan without everyone rolling their eyes and talking about 1979. The Russia government has been intensely critical of almost every aspect of NATO involvement in Afghanistan over the years. But it has made much money from providing transport routes through Russia (the so called Northern Distribution Network and has at least had someone fighting the narco-trafficking and Islamic fundamentalism that it seems less willing or able to do.
But perhaps a grudging, backhanded, compliment from Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov as they reflect upon the potential risks following the departure of the ISAF’s main military commitment:
Afghanistan.ru – 20.2.2013
Although the U.S. and the International Security Assistance Force have failed to solve many problems in Afghanistan, the situation in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan would have been critical without their presence, Russian Foreign Minister said on the eve.
“The danger of terrorism has remained intact, while the drug threat has increased many times,” emphasized the Minister in a recent interview, and added that the U.S. had failed to solve the problem of spreading drugs and the weapons of mass destruction, drug trafficking and organized crimes even with the assistance of other countries participating in the ISAF mission.
Nevertheless, Sergei Lavrov admitted the significance of the coalition force activity as an impediment for the given threats. He added that the absence of foreign forces, drug trafficking would have increased to a higher level, while terrorist threat would have been spread to other countries in Central Asia, and consequently, to Russia, specially the North Caucasus.
Well, quite. Better to have someone else shedding blood and treasure than doing it yourself. I suspect Iran has a similar, but much more suppressed, feeling as well as they contemplate Sunni Taliban forces and narco-trafficking activity in western Afghanistan. The Economist this week also highlighted the potential problems in the Central Asian states in the aftermath of ISAF (“Not as Smooth as Silk”). I shall try to refocus on them a little more in the coming year – I think I described them as a group of potential “future Afghanistans” in 2009, which was perhaps a little simplistic (and perhaps even inaccurate).
In April last year, I highlighted some of the painful irony in Lavrov’s criticism:
BRUSSELS — Russia’s foreign minister sharply criticized NATO’s plan to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan by 2014, saying Thursday that coalition troops should remain in the country until Afghan government forces are capable of ensuring security.
“As long as Afghanistan is not able to ensure by itself the security in the country, the artificial timelines of withdrawal are not correct and they should not be set,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.
It must be tricky when you want them out but you want them in at the same time.