Delusions of Dominance
Biden Can’t Restore American Primacy—and Shouldn’t Try
For the last decade and a half, Russia and the United States have had largely similar aims in Afghanistan: preventing chaos and the reemergence of a safe haven for terrorists. That convergence has allowed the two countries to work together. But beneath the surface, there are important differences. Although both want stability, they define it in very different ways. The U.S. approach is founded on creating a strong central government in Kabul and a well-equipped and well-trained national security force; Russia, meanwhile, works with a wide range of actors, some of which compete directly with the government in Kabul. Moscow has even reached out to the Taliban, legitimizing a group that continues to threaten the security of both the Afghan government and U.S. and NATO forces.
Over the last couple of years, the gap between the Russian and U.S. strategies has grown. Russia increasingly believes that the United States’ approach isn’t working and that political will in Washington for continued engagement will run out before long. It is convinced that it must be prepared to deal with an unstable Afghanistan on its own. For Russia, this presents a serious challenge. But it also offers an opportunity to undermine the United States—by playing kingmaker while Washington flounders.
When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, U.S. and Russian interests there were largely aligned. Both countries wanted to rout al Qaeda and its affiliated terrorist groups and prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a haven for terrorists. Ever since Soviet forces withdrew at the end of the Soviet-Afghan war in 1989, Moscow had feared that a political vacuum would emerge, allowing extremism to flourish and terrorist threats to fester. Moscow was wary of the prospect of a long-term U.S. military presence, but it tolerated U.S. and NATO operations in the hope that they would help bring stability to South and Central Asia. Cooperation between Russia and the United States in Afghanistan reached its height during the Obama administration, when Moscow allowed U.S. and NATO forces to transport equipment and supplies through Russian territory, sold Russian Mi-17 helicopters to U.S.-supported Afghan forces, and worked with the United States to curb opium production and stem the wider drug trade.
Moscow has established a relationship with the Taliban’s leadership.
But as time went on, Russia began to lose confidence in the United States’ commitment to—and ability to accomplish—its mission in Afghanistan. Moscow started developing its own strategy to defend its interests and weather a potential collapse of the government in Kabul. Souring U.S.-Russian relations in the wake of Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine in 2014 further dampened Russia’s willingness to support the United States. Still, Moscow has made it clear to Washington that it does not want an abrupt U.S. withdrawal. In January 2017, Zamir Kabulov, the Special Representative to the Russian President for Afghanistan, said that if Trump “decides to withdraw the contingent, then everything will collapse.”
Despite its support for a continued U.S. presence, Moscow was underwhelmed by the new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan, announced by the Trump administration last August. In Moscow’s eyes, the strategy, which includes a modest increase in troop numbers, a renewed focus on counterterrorism, and an open-ended timeline, was just more of the same. Sergey Lavrov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, called the focus on the use of force a “dead end” and his spokesperson suggested that the strategy was in line with the Obama administration’s approach, which had “failed to improve the security situation.” Russian officials have also criticized the Pentagon’s decision to end the purchase of Mi-17 helicopters for Afghanistan’s military and replace them with U.S.-made Black Hawks, claiming that the decision was more political than practical, a result of U.S. sanctions on Russia.
THE KREMLIN’S PLAYBOOK
In recent years, Russia has carried out a string of foreign policy maneuvers in the Middle East designed to bring political and economic gains and to position Russia as a key player in future conflict resolutions. These moves have included Russia’s military intervention in Syria; its support for General Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army, in the Libyan civil war; and its outreach to the Egyptian government, which has yielded a preliminary agreement allowing Russian forces to use Egyptian air bases. Moscow’s involvement in Afghanistan is an extension of this strategy and now goes beyond ensuring stability on the ground. Russia is developing its own network of contacts and capabilities to defend Russian interests in the event of a collapse of the central government. It is also looking to consolidate its position as a regional player and to further its reputation internationally as an indispensable participant in any global crisis.
Russia’s increased involvement in Afghanistan includes business investment proposals, diplomatic outreach, cultural programs, and financial and military support for the central government, power brokers in the north, and the Taliban. In 2014, it reopened a cultural center in Kabul. Since 2016, it has provided tens of thousands of Kalashnikov rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition to the Afghan government. Russia has several advantages in pursuing these policies. Many Russian military officers, security service personnel, and diplomats have experience in Afghanistan dating back to the Soviet-Afghan War. A significant proportion of Afghan officials and military officers were educated or trained in Russia. And the Russian government, unbound by particular values or ideology, is free to align with whichever group it determines is the most influential.
That flexibility has allowed Russia to work with the Taliban. The Kremlin believes that the group is focused on gaining power over territory within Afghanistan, and is therefore a threat to Afghanistan’s government but not a danger beyond the country’s borders. This is in contrast to its view of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), elements of which operate in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which Moscow sees as a transnational group that is a risk to Central Asia and Russia. In 2015, Kabulov explained that Russian and Taliban interests “coincide” when it comes to defeating ISIS. The extent of Russian support for the Taliban remains unclear, including whether Moscow is arming the group. But the key point is that Moscow has established a relationship with the Taliban’s leadership that it will use to boost its influence and enable peace talks. In November, Mohammad Atmar, the Afghan national security adviser, touted Moscow’s “significant role” in working to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Russia’s approach in Afghanistan replicates some of the elements of its successful Syria strategy.
Moscow has already launched several efforts at diplomacy. Between December 2016 and April 2017, Russia hosted three rounds of talks involving China, Iran, and Pakistan. In the third round, it included Afghanistan, as well. In October, Russia hosted the revived Shanghai Cooperation Organisation contact group on Afghanistan, a meeting of members—which now include India and Pakistan—as well as participants from the Afghan government. Although these discussions have yielded no concrete results, Russia has succeeded in its primary aim: positioning itself as a key player in future talks.
Moscow has also worked to strengthen its bilateral ties with other countries in the region. In 2016, Russia and Pakistan held their first joint military exercises and signed a deal for Pakistan to buy Russian Mi-35 attack helicopters. Moscow is working with Iran, its partner on the battlefield in Syria, to strengthen its contacts within Afghanistan and its relations with the Taliban. Russia’s visibility as a key player in Afghanistan will strengthen confidence among the country’s Central Asian allies in Russia’s ability to safeguard their security at a time when Chinese influence—through trade, investment, and Beijing’s vast One Belt One Road infrastructure initiative—is growing in the region.
Russia’s approach in Afghanistan replicates some of the elements of its successful Syria strategy. In both countries, Russia has taken advantage of perceptions of a weakened and faltering United States. By hosting talks in Afghanistan, as it has with participants in the Syrian conflict, it has made sure that it will be part of any future settlement. And by directly shaping the situation on the ground, Moscow will both ensure that its influence continues over the long term and force the United States to recognize its role in the country. In Syria, Russia did this with military force, but in Afghanistan it is using its relationships with key political players, as well as its business and cultural influence.
DON’T EXPECT TOO MUCH
Afghanistan is in such a bad way that there is much on which Russia and the United States could cooperate. There are terrorist groups to defeat, a national military to train and equip, an economy and infrastructure to rebuild, and humanitarian aid to deliver. Both Russia and the United States seek to counter the threat posed by ISIS, which has a growing presence in northern and eastern Afghanistan. Russia wants to stem the country’s opium production; according to a 2014 Congressional Research Service study, about 25 percent of Afghan heroin moves through Central Asia to Russia and Europe, and drug sales provide an important source of income for terrorist groups in Afghanistan. But the gap between the Russian and U.S. approaches is growing; now, only the most compelling issues—counterterrorism and counternarcotics—provide realistic prospects for working together. And even here, results will likely be limited. Some tactical cooperation, such as sharing terrorists’ locations and other targeting information, will be possible. But the experience of the Syrian conflict, where Moscow has violated even straightforward airspace deconfliction protocols in recent weeks, warns against expecting too much.
Worse still, Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan will often cut directly against U.S. interests. Moscow’s increasingly active role has opened up opportunities for Afghan groups to play off outside powers against each other. This will reinforce domestic rivalries at a time when the country’s stability depends on strengthening central authority. Russia’s engagement with the Taliban has emboldened the group that has done the most to prevent the central government from consolidating power. In this way Moscow hopes to achieve two aims at once: keep Afghanistan largely free of terrorists that can threaten Russia or its neighbors and take advantage of the United States’ retreat to set itself up as a major global power.