President Obama has decided to send 300 US Marines back into Afghanistan’s Helmand Province – the first time in three years that the US military has been sent into that conflict zone.
Almost all of Helmand's districts, except for the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, are either heavily embattled or fully controlled by the Taliban. The province is the leading opium producer in the country.
Despite all the promises to withdraw, 8,400 US troops will remain in Afghanistan as the president leaves office on January 20. If the US pulls out, the Afghan government will hardly be able to hold power.
American forces have been engaged in combat action there for over 15 years – the longest war waged by the United States – without end to hostilities in sight.
Around 200 NATO soldiers, mainly Italians, have also been deployed to Afghanistan's volatile western province of Farah after attempts by Taliban fighters in recent months to overrun its capital city.
About a third of the country – moreterritory than at any time since 2001 – is either under insurgent control or in risk of coming under it. The Taliban forces have challenged Afghan security forces for a number of key cities in 2016. With fighting under way in 24 of the 34 provinces, the government’s ability to control the country is questioned.
Last December, General John Nicholson, the chief US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said the government directly controls about 64 percent of the population of 30 million, down slightly from 68 percent earlier in 2016.
According to Robert Grenier who served as CIA's top counter-terrorism official and was the station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 1999 to 2002, there are significant parts of the country, particularly in the south and the east, where it seems inevitable that the Taliban will further consolidate their control. The Afghan forces had more than 15,000 casualties in the first eight months of 2016, including more than 5,500 deaths.
The administration in Kabul lacks unity while the clout of regional leaders and warlords is growing. The UN says 7 million people in Afghanistan need aid. 2.2 million of them suffer from malnutrition. Poverty and unemployment prompt young Afghans to join extremist groups.
After the Russian forces in Syria struck the oil infrastructure under the control of Islamic State (IS), the issue of controlling heroin routes in Afghanistan became even more important for the group. According to the Russian Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN), the IS militants make $1 billion a year from Afghan heroin. The possibility of alliance between the Taliban and IS is a real nightmare.
Afghan officials have approached Russia asking it to resume cooperation. Its representatives believe that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has a role to play in managing the crisis in the country. NATO officials have also made statements in support of resuming Russia-NATO cooperation in Afghanistan. The cooperation was suspended after Crimea became part of the Russian Federation in 2014.
Moscow allowed land transit though its territory of non-military freight from NATO and non-NATO ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) countries. NATO used the transit center near Ulyanovsk. The parties implemented a program of common training for the prevention of drug trade in Central Asia.
Russia sold military equipment and ammunition to support the NATO operations in Afghanistan. For instance, in 2010 NATO bought 31 Russian Mi-17 helicopters to refurbish them for the Afghan army.
Against the background of ballyhoo raised in the United States regarding the “threat” coming from Moscow, Washington has partially lifted sanctions against Russian cooperation with Afghanistan on helicopter maintenance. It was not the only time. The US has broken its own sanctions regime allowing the acquisition of Russian technology for its space program.
The Afghan government badly needs more Russian helicopters to repel Taliban and IS attacks. In 2016, it formally asked the Russian government to start the deliveries.
If Russia delivers its aviation equipment to Afghanistan, it will need to train Afghan personnel. Formally, that’s what US and NATO are doing in Afghanistan now- they are in the country on advising and training missions. In fact, it will mean the resumption of cooperation while carrying out the same mission.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently expressed concern over the situation in Afghanistan and called for taking urgent steps to tackle the problem. The instability in that country spreads to Central Asia posing a direct threat to Russia’s security. Roughly, 2,000 militants operating in the Afghan northern provinces come from the countries of the post-Soviet space.
There is a growing risk of extremist attacks on the states allied with Moscow. Fighters with combat experience received in Syria have already been spotted in the Uzbek Fergana Valley. The infiltration of Islamic State (IS) into Afghanistan threatens the Russian North Caucasus and the Volga region. Besides, Afghan heroin kills 25,000 Russians annually.
Afghanistan is a burning issue – a problem that only an international effort can solve. This is an issue of common interest for Russia and the Alliance. The situation in the country could be discussed within the framework of Russia-NATO Council. On January 4, the Russian Foreign Ministry made a very important statement saying Russia was ready to restore the relations with NATO. Afghanistan could become a starting point on the way of rebuilding the broken relationship.