US withdrawal from Afghanistan worries Russia and Central Asia
by Ramtanu Maitra on 07 Apr 2012 1 Comment

Talks about US final exit from Afghanistan, if, and when, that occurs, do not make Russia or the Central Asian nations feel relieved. That much is certain. Concerns about “sudden” US withdrawal from Afghanistan make Russian policymakers uncomfortable. That discomfort has been expressed very many ways in the Russian media by Russian academics, security officials and political authorities in recent years.


In a March 18 interview with Afghanistan-based TOLO News, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made Moscow’s thinking very clear, insisting that the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan must fulfill the mandate of the United Nation Security Council before being allowed to leave. “We see it from the point of international law. The presence of the international stabilization force in Afghanistan has been mandated by the UN Security Council. The mandate is clear. They must fulfill this mandate before they leave, and before they leave, they must report to the Security Council that the mandate has been fulfilled,” Lavrov stated.


“Everyone understands that by the time the international forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan, the Afghan government itself must possess the capabilities to maintain law and order and to be able to address all security problems inside the country,” he added.


Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, then Moscow’s ambassador to NATO, went on record in an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro (Sept. 17, 2011) saying: “NATO set itself the task, and it must implement it. We do not want NATO to go and leave us to face the jackals of war after stirring up the anthill. Immediately after the NATO withdrawal, they will expand towards Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and it will become our problem then.”


Russia’s concerns


One may ask: what concerns Moscow? In an Oct. 26, 2011, article in The Atlantic magazine, “Withdrawal from Afghanistan Could Kill the US-Russia ‘Reset’,” Joshua Kucera pointed out: “Moscow has been publicly critical of US involvement in Central Asia, calling it an encroachment on their sphere of influence, but that rhetoric hid an inconvenient secret: behind the Kremlin’s closed doors, observers here believe, Russians were glad that the US was doing their dirty work. Even after the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, Moscow continued to station Russian border guards in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan and aided Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance. Nevertheless, a low-level but persistent Islamist radical insurgency bedeviled several of the Central Asian states on Russia’s southern border.”


Beyond the “Islamist radical insurgency,” which is real, Russia is also worried about the tons of heroin produced from Afghan opium that is coming into Russia and destroying hundreds and thousands of Russian youths annually. Russia is also aware that heroin coming in from Afghanistan is generating cash for the Islamist radical insurgents and corrupting many security officials and some administrative authorities along the drug-trafficking route through Central Asia to Russia.


Kucera quotes a number of Russian officials expressing Moscow’s concern about a post-US-NATO Afghanistan. Colonel-General Vladimir Chirkin, commander of Russia’s Central Military District told The Atlantic: “Russia should expect the activation of militant activity on the borders of Central Asia after the withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. Threats can now come creeping to our southern borders.”


A more direct statement came from Andrei Zagorski, an expert on Russia’s relations with the West at Moscow’s Institute of World Economy and International Relations, who told Payrav Chorshanbiyev of Asia-Plusin September 2011: “Moscow is afraid, first and foremost because what the US and the coalition were doing is very much in the interest of Russia, keeping the Taliban as far away as possible from Central Asia and Russia.” And now that the US is leaving, he told Chorshanbiyev, “Moscow has no viable strategy for this.”


There are others. For instance, Mikhail Troitsky, a Russian analyst and co-author of a report on US-Russian relations and Russia’s near abroad, believes such a withdrawal would affect US-Russia relations adversely. “It’s going to remove some of the glue that made the reset possible, and then there are all sorts of implications. If there’s no Afghanistan, I think people on both sides will think they can get away with much harsher rhetoric,” Troitsky told The Atlantic.


Is Moscow exaggerating the danger?


But in a major country like Russia, where for good reason many consider the United States a real friend, there are some who speak differently. The Atlantic quotes Arkady Dubnov, a Russian journalist and expert on Central Asia, saying: “There is a danger, but we also might be exaggerating the danger. What we’re seeing now is PR, preparation for this period [when the US leaves]. This PR is to prepare popular opinion, internal Russian popular opinion, and also Central Asian popular opinion, to accept the inevitability of Russian security measures.” Dubnov does not believe the United States will leave Afghanistan; but neither does he say that such an eventuality would be advantageous for Russia.


In a June 25, 2011, Eurasia Net commentary, “Understanding Russia’s Approach on Afghanistan, Pakistan,” Mark N. Katz outlines what the Russians are likely to do vis-a-vis Afghanistan following the withdrawal of the US/NATO troops, but also points out that in recent years, Russian thinking has adjusted to the reality that the United States and its allies could not easily contain the Islamic insurgency in Afghanistan.


“By 2009, Russian leaders even started to grow concerned that the Obama administration might suddenly withdraw American forces from Afghanistan, thus leaving Russia alone to deal with the threat that a resurgent Taliban would pose to Central Asia and Russia itself,” Katz notes. “Accordingly, Moscow helped the United States put together the Northern Distribution Network, a re-supply route that facilitates the overland transit of non-lethal goods from Europe to Afghanistan.”


By contrast with Russian reactions, the smaller and weaker Central Asian nations are less forthcoming in their views about a US-NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. In his article in the Aug. 17, 2011 issue of CACI, “US Drawdown in Afghanistan Stirs Reactions,” analyst Stephen Blank notes this: “Central Asian governments, though unwilling to discuss their alarm publicly, clearly fear a Taliban takeover and do not have much confidence in the Karzai regime or the Afghan army to defend Afghanistan. Indeed, many local analysts view a victory or stabilization in Afghanistan as a necessary precondition for the ongoing security of Central Asia. Many of these governments as well as some commentators believe that the indigenous terrorist threats are growing or have been growing since 2008-2009, and view a Taliban victory in Afghanistan as providing the basis for the spiritual and material encouragement of these groups that threaten their own domestic security.”


Blank continues: “Fully grasping the neo-imperial motives behind Russian ambitions to create more military bases and postings for its troops there, they are reluctant to give Moscow that access but fear being left with no other choice. This particularly applies to Tajikistan. Moreover, given the importance of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) to their economic well-being, they certainly are reluctant to see it fade away. In view of the historic absence of regional integration among these governments, it would also probably be quixotic to expect them to produce a large-scale, coherent military alternative force to replace the US-NATO forces. Thus they fear that they might be abandoned to Moscow, if not Beijing, or left on their own to face what they believe to be a mounting terrorist threat.”


Blank’s observations may suggest that the Central Asian nations, particularly Tajikistan, have an extreme view about a post-US/NATO Afghanistan. But underlying this view is their concern over how, weak as they are, they will be able to stand up to an unknown adversary who has defied both the United States and NATO, who together deployed 150,000 troops and had an endless supply of arms, weaponry and communication, for 11 years. The thought of facing such an undefeated adversary is surely not a pleasant one for any Central Asian nation. What perhaps worries them most is who they will have to lean on if such an adversary chooses to extend its claws northward.


Worries in Central Asia


Central Asia is a vast region. In its north is situated Russia and on its east, China. Both would like to have a strong presence in the nascent Central Asian nations that emerged as independent countries following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early1990s. How do the Central Asian countries, including Russia, look at such a US plan? What will be their reaction if the United States chooses to withdraw lock, stock and barrel?


Some thinking has begun in Central Asia about what to do under those circumstances. On Sept. 19, 2011, Asia-Plus highlighted a report released at a news conference in Dushanbe. Prepared by the Tajik think-tank Center for Strategic Studies (CSS), the report pointed out that NATO’s plan to withdraw forces from Afghanistan in 2014 may dramatically change the situation in the region.


“Therefore, the countries of the region should have plans of action for the period until and after 2014,” Suhrob Sharipov, the director of CSS, told Asia-Plus. “We must combine our efforts in order to efficiently address the threats,” Sharipov added. Asia-Plus also noted that

Sharipov considers that the United States and countries of the European Union (EU) should provide all-round assistance to Central Asian countries, providing regional security after withdrawal of the coalition forces from Afghanistan. “They must not do as the Soviet Union did; Soviet troops entered Afghanistan, deteriorated the situation and left the country,” the expert said, noting that Russia, which uses the Okno space surveillance facility in Tajikistan, should also provide assistance. 


In this context, it should be noted that Moscow is in the process of beefing up the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russia-led political-military bloc consisting of former Soviet states, with the aim of becoming a viable collective security organ. In September 2011 CSTO held military drills with 12,000 soldiers from Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.


Asia-Plus reported that the group’s general secretary,

Nikolai Bordyuzha, says the drills were aimed at preparing for the 2014withdrawal. “We are not on the verge of solving the problems in Afghanistan, but on the worsening of them, and quite a qualitatively different situation in the Central Asian region, especially after 2014,” Bordyuzha was quoted. “The prognosis is clear: Afghanistan will remain a base for organizing terrorist and extremist activities, we feel.”


In conclusion, Asia-Plus added: “But it’s not clear how Moscow intends the group to work. While the recent CSTO exercises focused on conventional military threats, Moscow has shown little stomach for military action outside its own borders. Last year, as unrest in CSTO member-state Kyrgyzstan devolved into horrific ethnic pogroms, the CSTO declined to step in. Some top officials have suggested that they should try to combat popular movements like the Arab Spring, even considering such options as shutting down Twitter to forestall popular uprisings in Central Asia. But military intervention, it seems, is not on the table. Other officials say the CSTO should act as a security assistance tool, building up the hapless, often corrupt security forces of Central Asia to be able to manage threats from Afghanistan on their own.”


Uzbekistan wants to lean on US


Late last year, in her article “Uzbekistan Considers the Strategic Implications of NATO’s Drawdown in Afghanistan” (Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume 8, Issue 210, Nov. 14, 2011), Umida Hashimova said: “The future of the country and its neighbors following the withdrawal by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is unclear, even though the US government pledges its continued support. Anxiety about militancy in the country dominates wider concerns in the region. In the absence of large numbers of US and allied forces, the potential for militant activity to spread beyond Afghanistan affects all neighboring countries. Even if the Afghan security forces are able to control the country, a deterioration of security conditions can be expected to accompany any anticipated withdrawal of US troops.”


To deal with this situation, as Umida Hashimova explains, Uzbekistan is toying around with at least two options. Not part of the CSTO, Uzbekistan has no interest in Moscow’s CSTO-based security plan. In an address to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) summit in December 2010, then-Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov spelled this out: “Uzbekistan does not consider it possible for itself to participate in the implementation of the programs and projects adopted on a collective or bloc basis.”


Alternately, Uzbekistan has promoted the “6+3” initiative, a collective approach the Afghan problem that the United States and European Union do not favor because it excludes the Afghanistan government itself. Uzbekistan will confine its relations with Afghanistan to the bilateral level, as Norov also stated in the OSCE speech. “Uzbekistan builds and shall build its relations with its close neighbor — Afghanistan — only on a bilateral basis, proceeding from mutual national interests,” Hashimova reported.


Hashimova points out that with little support from the Afghan people, a weak and unpopular central government and little or no foreign ground troops in the country after 2014, a new period of instability will almost certainly become the norm. That is when the US and NATO will need to start increasingly to rely on Afghanistan’s neighbors to contain the threat, and Uzbekistan can expect to begin to play a greater role.


“Therefore, the US may start paying greater attention to sustaining stability and good relations with Uzbekistan, and Tashkent is aware of its growing strategic importance. Uzbekistan does not mind having strong relations with the US, as long as Washington desists from trying to impose its own view of Uzbekistan’s internal political dynamics. Uzbekistan will benefit from this partnership in particular, because the USis a strong ally, but it is distant enough not to pose a threat to Uzbekistan’s sovereignty,” Hashimova concluded.



The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review

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