Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told lawmakers on February 9 that thousands more American or NATO troops are needed to break the «stalemate» between Afghan forces and the Taliban insurgent group while the Islamic State also remains active in the nation. According to him, outside powers, including Russia and Iran, complicated the mission. The statement comes at the moment the Trump administration is shaping its strategy in the conflict. The official also said that there was a need for a «holistic review» of the relationship with Pakistan, adding that it was supporting the Taliban and undermining the Afghan government.
The Afghan Defence Ministry welcomed on February 10 suggestions by the commander of international forces in Afghanistan that more troops were needed to train Afghan security forces who are battling to hold back a growing Taliban-led insurgency. Mr. Nicholson’s comments came just as US President Donald Trump and his Afghan counterpart Ashraf Ghani spoke by phone for the first time since Trump's inauguration last month.
The general did not specify how many additional troops were needed, but did not rule out the potential for up to 30,000.
After taking office, President Trump mandated that a new strategy be developed within 30 days to defeat the terrorist group, focusing heavily on fighting the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq. According to UN, around 2,000 to 3,500 IS fighters operated in Afghanistan. About 8,400 American servicemen remain in the country, well down from their peak of about 100,000 in 2011. Other NATO members provide about 6,300 troops to the mission.
The prospects for progress in Afghanistan are dim at best. The situation may destabilize dramatically in the near future. The administration in Kabul lacks unity while the clout of regional leaders and warlords is growing. Inter-ethnic tensions are deepening.
The Afghan government controls about 57 percent of the country’s populated districts, about 15 percent fewer than it controlled in November 2015, according to the most recent report by the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction released January 30. Its ability to control the country is questioned. Robert Grenier, who served as CIA's top counter-terrorism official, believes 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 prospect of a future coalition government, including the Taliban, seems to be more of a pipe dream. 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.
IS forces are active in in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces. After the Russian task force in Syria launched a vast air campaign against IS targets and struck a heavy blow to its oil infrastructure, officials say that the issue of controlling heroin routes in Afghanistan became even more important for the terrorist group. According to the Russian Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN), terrorists have been making $1 billion a year from Afghan heroin.
Mr. Nicholson was wrong blaming Moscow for what it has never done. Hopefully, President Trump will study the situation more thoroughly and impartially.
Zamir Kabulov, Russian president’s special envoy to Afghanistan and director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Second Asian Department, said Russia is ready to restore cooperation with the US and NATO in Afghanistan. According to the official, Moscow had not yet held official contacts with the Donald Trump administration regarding the situation in the country.
The expected Russia-US discussions will take place against the background of Afghan government expressing willingness to revive the cooperation with Russia. Mohammad Hanif Atmar, the Afghan national security advisor, on Russia to resume military ties with his country as the situation deteriorated. He also has mentioned the important role the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has to play in crisis management in the country. NATO has also sent signals that the alliance is willing to resume the cooperation with Moscow.
Russia and NATO had cooperated in Afghanistan till 2014. There was also a NATO transit center near Ulyanovsk in Russia, and 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. For instance, in 2010 NATO bought 31 Russian Mi-17 helicopters to refurbish them for the Afghan army. The cooperation was suspended in 2014 upon NATO’s initiative.
According to the statements of the officials, Moscow is ready to contribute into the anti-terrorist effort in the war-torn country. Russian President Vladimir Putin believes the situation in Afghanistan causes concern and needs to be addressed urgently. As he put it, «In more general terms, our country is willing to develop such formats of interaction in the above-mentioned region that would allow responding swiftly to emerging security challenges, jointly seeking for ways to address potential threats».
Indeed, the situation in Afghanistan poses a direct threat for Moscow’s national security. The spread of instability from Afghanistan spreads to the Central Asian states neigbouring Russia. At least 2 thousand militants operating in the Afghan northern provinces come from the countries that were part of the Soviet Union. Fighters with combat experience received in Syria have already been spotted in Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley. The infiltration of IS militants into Afghanistan threatens the Russian North Caucasus and the Volga region.
Faced by the growing threat, Afghan forces badly needs Russian weapons. Kabul has already submitted its request for repairs and service of its Mi-35 helicopter fleet. The first step on the way of unfreezing the cooperation would be getting back to the Helicopter Maintenance Trust Fund Project, which was launched by the Russia-NATO Council in April 2011 to build capacity in the Afghan Air Force (AAF) to operate its helicopter fleet. If Russia delivers its helicopters aviation equipment to Afghanistan, as it is asked to, it will need to train Afghan pilots, creating a needed infrastructure. It will bring Russia and NATO together in the effort to boost the capabilities of Afghan military.
It should be noted that the US has partially lifted sanctions against Russian cooperation with Afghanistan on helicopter maintenance with Russia’s Rosoboronexport, the country’s state agency for exports/imports of defense-related and dual-use products. Like in the case of the Russia-produced RD-180 and RD-181 rocket engines needed to keep afloat its space research program, the US forgot about anti-Russian punitive measures.
The war in Afghanistan and its aftermath are likely to have far-reaching consequences for the US, Russia and the world. Ongoing instability in Afghanistan risks spilling over into Pakistan, a highly dangerous scenario. Just like Syria, this is a burning problem only an international effort can solve. There are other parts of the world, like Libya and, probably, Algeria, where Russia and the West are likely to cooperate. Afghanistan could become a starting point on the way of rebuilding the broken relationship.