The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is to be withdrawn from Afghanistan in 2014, the same year a presidential election is due in the country. The US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has already started concentrating US troops in major urban centers. As the US and the allies draw down troop deployments, security in the country is still in a perilous state, with the Taliban able to operate largely with impunity. Evidently coordinated action by the international community becomes a matter of special importance.
The popularity of the Taliban is growing because of the huge rate of unemployment, drugs, poverty and corruption. There was an embarrassing revelation made earlier this month that British intelligence agency MI6 regularly provided Karzai’s government with ‘ghost money’ estimated to run in the tens of millions of dollars in order to buy influence through bribes. Karzai’s government is widely seen as corrupt as it is unpopular with many Afghans. There was significant overlap between the corrupt Afghan political establishment and the country’s illegal heroin trade, including the president’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, who was assassinated in 2011. A UN report released last month showed that Afghan poppy production was rapidly expanding, and that the country was expected to produce 90 percent of the world’s opium this year.
Russia expresses legitimate concern
Russia has voiced concern over the security threats increasing following the planned withdrawal of most US-led foreign combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. On May 8 the President of Russia said at the Security Council meeting that U.S. and NATO-led forces «have not yet achieved a breakthrough in the fight against terrorist and radical groups» and that these groups have become more active recently. He noted, «We need to strengthen the security system in the strategic southern area, including its military component», emphasizing the need for close cooperation with fellow members of regional security alliances. The President further pointed out that «international forces have done practically nothing to root out drug production in Afghanistan» and ignored Russian proposals for more efforts to eradicate crops of poppies used to make heroin. As a result «there is every reason to believe that in the near future we may face a worsening of the situation»… He added, «International terrorist and radical groups do not hide their plans to export instability». Vladimir Putin said Russia should step up migration controls on its southern border and «exponentially increase the effectiveness of work to stem drug trafficking». According to him, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) should speed up efforts to better arm and equip a rapid-reaction force that has done little so far. The President also stressed the role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes Russia and China as well as the Central Asian states of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, should be involved in efforts to improve security.
After a meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in the southern Russian city of Sochi on May 17, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia is counting on the UN to develop proposals regarding the international presence in Afghanistan after 2014. As to him, «We consider it important to start discussing in advance what forms of international presence there will be in Afghanistan after 2014; we will count on the proposals that the UN Secretary General is planning to prepare together with his colleagues».
After the ISAF withdrawal from Afghanistan the situation in the part of the country near Russia’s southern borders will worsen, Nikolai Bordyuzha, General Secretary of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), warned the same day. He pointed out a zone of instability will emerge in regions bordering Afghanistan, and the influence of extremist groups will grow, as will the penetration of Islamist fundamentalist ideas in neighboring states. «The member countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) will offer all possible help to Tajikistan to ensure security at its borders after the withdrawal of the ISAF from Afghanistan» the General told journalists on May 17. According to Bordyuzha, mountainous terrain complicates the mission of ensuring security at the Tajik-Afghan border, which can be «easily trespassed». «We are coordinating our efforts with Tajikistan, offering assistance in logistics and weapons supplies, and personnel training», he stressed.
Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan Andrei Avetisyan said Russia is considering deploying border guards on the Tajik-Afghan border. He noted, «We prefer to tackle this problem on the Afghan border to stop these threats of narcotics and terrorism reaching Russia». As to him, «We used to have a serious presence on the Afghan-Tajik border and, at that time, the situation there was much better, so it would be in the interest of both Russia and Tajikistan and even Afghanistan if Russia is present there.» Avetisyan said such a presence would involve Russian border troops, but he did not give a number. He told Reuters on May 17 that any agreement on border troop deployment would «of course» have to be agreed upon with Tajikistan.
Russia has previously expressed concerns over the presence of foreign military forces in Afghanistan. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov said at the third ministerial conference of the Istanbul Process on Regional Security and Cooperation for a Secure and Stable Afghanistan held in Almaty, Kazakhstan, «We will not accept reformatting the International Security Assistance Force into long-term foreign military presence in Afghanistan under a different cover and without a relevant UN mandate. We are confident that such a step will not bring stability to Afghanistan and will only escalate tension in the region».
The Afghanistan security issue was also part of NATO-Russia Council Chiefs of Defence meeting in Brussels on May 14.
Steps to enhance security
Russia has already contributed some 12,000 paratroopers to the CSTO; it has an air base in Kyrgyzstan and more than 6,000 soldiers in Tajikistan, its largest deployment abroad. Tajikistan, which shares a long border with Afghanistan, has not yet ratified an October agreement extending Russia's lease on the base where the troops are stationed beyond the end of this year. Let me note here that General Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of the General Staff, announced last month the formation of a Special Operations Command. According to General Gerasimov, the new command will include a Special Forces brigade, a training center, and helicopter and air transportation squadrons. These forces will be used exclusively outside Russian territory, including in U.N.-mandated operations. The CSTO has already announced the decision to establish a combined air force formation of SU-25 fighters and SU-27 attack aircraft located in Kant, Kyrgyzstan. According to Bordyuzha, the mission is to support peacekeeping ground forces fighting terrorists, especially in mountainous terrain.
Other countries with stakes in Afghanistan are also preparing strategies for post-withdrawal Afghanistan as they fear a spillover of violence once the international troops pull out.
The fact that military contingents will remain not only in Afghanistan but also in the region is doubtless and is openly stated by officials. On April 23, the U.S. Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Robert Blake said the fact of the coalition’s presence in Central Asia is unequivocal, adding that it is still not decided on what other transit points and bases will be maintained in the region. The US also plans to leave behind a sufficient number of troops in Afghanistan to help the Afghan National Army deal with terrorists. President Barack Obama is expected to announce a plan in this regard soon, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai has given his consent for the continued presence of the troops. The exact number of troops to stay behind is not known yet, but it could be between 2,500 and 12,000, according to US officials. It still remains unknown what type of military contingent will remain in Afghanistan and Central Asia thereafter and which countries of the region will be selected by the West for this purpose. The stated aim of the plan is that soldiers would continue to train the Afghan army and police, and carry out attacks on Al-Qaeda militants.
China is strictly in favor of stability in the region. From the economic aspect it is clear that China and Central Asia have close economic relations. Regarding the security issue, China is worried about if Afghanistan becomes a base for separatists in West China. Therefore, the interests and the targets of Russia and China primarily coincide. Beijing is taking this approach welcoming Mr. Karzai to Beijing last month for the fourth time, and responding favorably to requests for economic co-operation, technical training and preferential tariffs for Afghan exports.
New Delhi is also actively discussing its role in Afghanistan. President Karzai arrives in India May 20-22, coinciding with the visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. This is Karzai's 12th visit to India, where he last came in November 2012. Military aid is high on the agenda. So far India has been training a limited number of Afghan military officers for years at its military institutions, but provided little weapons assistance except for some vehicles. The timing of Mr. Karzai’s India trip is likely related to recent border skirmishes with Pakistan. A politically and economically stable Afghanistan is of a strategic significance to India, but more collaboration is necessary. Despite little support among India’s policy makers for greater military cooperation with Afghanistan, the lingering ambiguity around Afghanistan’s future after 2014 provides a good opportunity for New Delhi to step up its efforts to be a force for stability in the country. Afghanistan and India signed a comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) in October 2011. The SPA serves as the foundation of the two nations expanding bilateral relationship in multiple sectors, including security and defence cooperation, as well as cultural and people-to people cooperation.
Neither China, nor India will expand their efforts in co-operation with NATO. Instead, they are expected to act in their independent national interests to contain militancy and drug trafficking, while also moving to protect significant investments of time, capital and expertise in the country. China has pledged US$3.5 billion to develop the Aynak copper mine 60km south of Kabul, and has built a state-of-the-art hospital in the city. India has committed $1.2bn on a broad program of assistance; including power transmission lines from Uzbekistan that now supply Kabul with reliable electricity, as well as a major hydroelectric dam in Herat. India has also invested hundreds of millions of dollars in small, community-based projects that have brought roads, water, schools and health care to hundreds of impoverished Afghan villages. US plans to drawdown troops may threaten those projects, particularly in the rural hinterland.
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The risk that Taliban-inspired militancy will spread into Tajikistan and other parts of Central Asia is now a critical concern for regional powers. With NATO gone, the chances of Taliban control of large portions of the country and a civil war are the most probable scenario. The US has actually lost the war and failed to win peace. But the country cannot be left alone. The SCO and the CSTO have an important role to play gradually involving Afghanistan into the cooperation process. Afghanistan now needs huge economic programs implemented with the help of the international community and under its control. The CSTO and NATO joining together in economic projects would be a logical step for everybody’s benefit. Still NATO rejects the very idea of dealing with the CSTO, be it security or economy. No matter, the time is ripe for the countries involved to get united and address the regional security agenda, there is not much time left. Russia and its SCO-CSTO allies are doing just that.