Foreign Policy Blogs

The Bear Comes Back Over the Mountain


Afghan National Army soldiers disembarking a Mi-17 helicopter (credit:

Russia looks to do its part for Afghanistan, and itself

While trigger-happy drones do their part to smooth a coming US drawdown in Afghanistan, pundits and diplomats alike nervously pace the green rooms of news and late-night talk shows. What will a counter-insurgency look like without a stabilizing super power? Whether one bets on red or black, the Afghan roulette wheel has started its spin, with international onlookers anxiously awaiting its jerk-stop at the end of 2014.

Unless the Taliban start to re-take cities, conservative wagers expect the area to once again be contested among regional powers. Pakistan, always at the Pashtun doorstep, will always be a contender for influence in Afghanistan, with or without its mountain militants. China has already dug in deep with natural resource investment and, if its approach in Africa is any indication of future behavior, will be a source of unconditional cash and pocket-linings for bureaucrats for the foreseeable future. Ties with Iran will likely be restricted to trade. And while Indian firms have been eager to carve out niches in their underdeveloped neighbor, an unspoken China-Pakistan axis occasionally acts to balance what they consider undue Indian influence. And there will of course remain development advisors of all stripes, funded by the US and EU, coaxing the Afghan state off its training wheels and into adulthood.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional security group consisting of Russia, China, and several Central Asian nations, welcomed Afghanistan as an observer member this week, another sign that the neighbors are extending a hand.

Russia, for its part, seems eager to pitch in. Two scourges of its southern flank – Islamic fundamentalism and heroin smuggling – are currently its biggest motivators.

Heroin makes its way to Russian cities from Afghanistan through the porous borders of its Central Asian neighbors. A raid on Nangrahar opium labs in October 2010, which involved Russian security agents alongside US and Afghan Forces, raised some eyebrows in Kabul and elicited sovereignty questions, yet nonetheless marked Russia’s overt participation in regional security. Russian knowledge of labs and routes from the Soviet occupation can also help contain trafficking.

On a grander scale, Russia wants to curb the Islamic fundamentalist influence it knows too well from its own nightmares in the North Caucasus, from which fighters have transited back and forth to Waziristan. Fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), responsible for bombings in the Uzbek capital, additionally come and go at will.

The agreement to participate in the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), albeit at a price, also indicates a commitment. The NDN shepherds coalition military materiel and supplies, bound for Afghanistan, through Russian ports and across Russian railroads, providing an alternate (and alternative) route to the customary path through Pakistan.

General discussions among officials about other areas of Russian contribution include security training and infrastructure development, including dams and power stations. Soviet Army engineers in the 1980s greatly improved the Salang Highway, which winds through mountainous terrain subject to winter avalanches, and connects Kabul to its northern provinces and Uzbekistan.

There is also a pending sale of 20 Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters, to be purchased by the US and handed to the Afghans. Russian equipment is reliable and more affordable than other arms exporters, making it very attractive.

Russia is urging NATO to stay in Afghanistan after 2014. Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov,  speaking in April, argued that “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,” during a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels in April.

Yet Moscow also very clearly, at least in actions, sees itself as the rightful chaperone for the Central Asian nations as they develop their own institutions and trade infrastructure. Moscow has been subtly campaigning for its own military bases in Kyrgyzstan (which hosts one already) and Uzbekistan while prodding those leaders to disengage with the US. It has long stationed troops in Tajikistan.

The Russians also appear to be taking a path to cooperation independent of NATO. Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s presidential envoy to Afghanistan, commented at the recent NATO summit that they would not be contributing a requested $10 million toward support of security forces. Suggesting NATO duplicity, Kabulov recounted that “[f]or several years we had been knocking on the door of the ISAF suppliers club. But this door was reluctant to open. Now they invited us and started hinting…in response we noted that we’ve long been rendering aid to Afghanistan.”

Russian private transport companies, with their giant Ilyushin-76 cargo aircraft, have long been servicing Kabul airport.

The horrors of the 10-year Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that ended in 1989 have been forgotten by no one–least of all Afghans alive at the time. Yet the some 200-year history between these nations has been predominantly cooperative. In the 19th century, while their empire grew southward, Russians courted emirs and khans in Kabul as a buffer to an expected British advance from nearby India. Starting in the 1930s, Soviet engineering schools welcomed Afghan students and preached the glory of the socialist state through technology and industry. During the 1950s and 1960s, Soviet construction crews built up large residential sections of Kabul and other cities, much as they had done in Tashkent and other present-day Central Asian capitals.



Jason Anderson

Jason has lived and worked for over five years in Russian-speaking countries. He spent April-May 2014 researching religious extremist groups in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. He has project experience in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. He previously served as a trainer for U.S. military and civilians working alongside counterparts in Afghanistan, and as a coordinator with Afghan ministerial advisors on National Priority Program (NPP) funding proposals. Jason speaks conversational Russian and holds a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University.