Russian leaders are grappling with difficult and complex foreign policy choices on Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S. and NATO military exit, a Stanford expert says.
"Russian policy in Afghanistan is at a crossroads, with worsening relations with the West looming against the background of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict," wrote Kathryn Stoner, a Stanford political scientist and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, in a new article in the journal Asian Survey.
The Soviet experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s left haunting memories in the minds of Russian policymakers, "who have no interest in being trapped again in a war they can neither afford nor win," wrote Stoner in the article, titled "Russia’s 21st Century Interests in Afghanistan: Resetting the Bear Trap."
The Soviet-Afghan War from 1979 to 1989 was called a "Bear Trap" by some Western media, and thought to be a contributing factor to the fall of the Soviet Union.
Power vacuum perils
Stoner said that as the U.S. pullout deadline approached in December 2014, Russia was critical of the arguably hasty retreat of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Some troops remained behind in an advisory role.
As she described it, Moscow's leaders thought a sudden power vacuum would leave a variety of threats within Afghanistan – weapons proliferation, corrupt police, a rising drug trade and radical Islamists, for example.
Of the latter, recent news reports indicate the Islamic State group has established a presence in Afghanistan; Russia has urged the United Nations Security Council to stop its expansion.
"On the ISIS vs. Taliban question," Stoner said in an interview, "it is a question of the lesser of two evils, of course, from a Russian perspective."
For Russia, she said, the Islamic State group may be more undesirable than the Taliban in Afghanistan because they are attempting to recruit young Russian Muslims to their cause, which could breed homegrown terrorists who return to Russia with the group's message and training.
"The other issue is that although Afghanistan was brutally ruled under the Taliban, it was more stable than it is currently. Still, neither group is pro-foreigner or pro-Russian especially," she added.
As Stoner wrote, in the interest of stability Russia has expressed possible support for moderate rank-and-file Taliban to be included in the Afghan government.
"Russian leaders point to the fact that heroin trafficking was less under the Taliban than in the past five years under the U.S./NATO coalition," noted Stoner, adding that narcotics were reaching the Russian population.
Meanwhile, Russia is exploring the possibility of moving additional troops to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as re-equipping those countries' armies to provide a "defensive zone in Central Asia against Afghan radical or narcotics incursions into the Russian heartland," according to Stoner.
The ideal Russian scenario in Afghanistan would have been for President Hamid Karzai to stay in power and a government of national reconciliation formed with moderate Taliban, she said. That scenario, however, has failed, and Russia will have to cope with an Afghanistan without Karzai.
Choices and a crossroads
Stoner believes Russia is faced with three choices. One is to return to its 1990s policy and support an updated version of the Northern Alliance as a way to create a northern buffer zone that protects its Central Asian allies from any incursions from Afghanistan.
The second is to cooperate with the new Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, and perhaps a moderate Taliban, in governing Afghanistan.
"The latter strategy could have the advantage of reducing narcotics trafficking, but it risks allowing Afghanistan to again become a haven for radical Islamic terrorists," said Stoner.
Russia clearly does not want another front to open in its war on radical Islam – the Chechen conflict has already produced enough grief for the Russian population and its leadership, she noted.
A third option for the Russians, according to Stoner, would be to continue some degree of cooperation with Western forces in creating a protective zone around Central Asia. The problem for the Russians is that this might bring about a "counterbalancing strategy on the part of China, which would not fit with Russia's strategy."
Besides, it's a long shot, she added, as Russia's renewed conflict with the West over Ukraine has deeply damaged its ability to cooperate with Western powers in and around Afghanistan.
"There are few reliable indications of which path Russia is likely to choose," wrote Stoner. "One can discern elements of each scenario in Russian statements and actions in Afghanistan."
She explained that Russian leaders want to reassert their country's prominence on the global stage.
"In many ways, Russia is resurgent internationally. It has emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Union not as the superpower it was, but as a formidable regional power that cannot be discounted," said Stoner.
Under Vladimir Putin, Russia seeks to command the respect of the international community, though it can no longer rely on brute military force. Rather, it must today depend on adroit diplomatic or strategic moves to "act as facilitator or spoiler in many parts of the world," she wrote.
This Russian resurgence, she said, has played a role in its policy choices in Afghanistan since 2001. "It wants influence, but not ownership, in Central Asia, and ultimately in Afghanistan," she wrote.
As a result, Russia will act on the margins of the Afghanistan issue, leveraging its power to protect its own security interests in Central Asia.
"Russia has much to lose and little to gain by doing much more. For this reason, Russian policymakers are in the awkward position of not having wanted the Americans to come to Central Asia, but now, not wanting them to leave," she wrote.
Clifton B. Parker is a writer for the Stanford News Service.