The US has turned down the Russian invitation for an international conference on Afghanistan. The reasons: the US wasn't consulted before receiving the invitation and doesn't know Russia's objectives for the gathering. Instead, State Secretary Rex Tillerson would bring up the matter when he visits Russia in April. Of course, he could touch upon the subject but it won’t be the same thing as participating in an international forum devoted specifically to the problem.
The Moscow event will be held on April 14. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, India and several Central Asian nations are on the list of participants.
US officials have accused Russia of supporting and legitimizing the Taliban. Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on March 23 «I've seen the influence of Russia of late – increased influence in terms of association and perhaps even supply to the Taliban». The statement was not backed up by any details.
Moscow has dismissed the allegations as a «complete fabrication», saying it was an attempt to cover up for US and NATO own failures in Afghanistan, with the Taliban making territorial gains. The group may be poised to seize control of major cities in Afghanistan for the first time since the US-led coalition intervened in 2001. The Taliban has already seized swaths of rural Afghanistan in such provinces as Helmand, Uruzgan, Nangarhar, and Kunduz.
The Taliban forces conducted several offensives against district and provincial capitals recently. For instance, the town of Sangin, the gateway to central and western Afghanistan and the strategic town in Helmand province, fell to the Taliban on March 23. It gives the Taliban a launch pad for attacks on the provincial capital of Lashkargah. The group is filling a vacuum left by the diminished US-led coalition’s presence. The Afghan security forces now control less than 60 percent of Afghan territory. With fighting underway in 24 of the 34 provinces, the government’s ability to control the country is questioned.
Despite 16 years and $8.5 billion in taxpayer dollars spent to fight opium cultivation and trafficking, the industry is booming. Afghanistan is responsible for 90 percent of the world’s illicit opiates, such as heroin, and opium production increased 43 percent just in the past year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported in October. Poverty and unemployment prompt young Afghans to join extremist groups.
The UN believes that Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous, and most violent, crisis-ridden countries in the world. The continued deepening and geographic spread of the conflict has prompted a 13% increase in the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance in 2017, now 9.3 million.
It all goes to show the US-led effort has been a total failure. This is a very acute problem that cannot be swept under the rug.
The situation in Afghanistan poses a direct threat for Moscow. The instability spreads to the Central Asian states – Russia’s neighbors. At least 2 thousand militants operating in the northern Afghan provinces come from the countries that were part of the Soviet Union. The majority of them belong to regional extremist groups, like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which moved to Afghanistan in the 1990s and 2000s. The rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan has become nerve-racking for the whole region.
The infiltration of IS militants into Afghanistan threatens the Russian North Caucasus and the Volga region. There is a growing risk of extremist attacks on the states allied with Russia. Militants with combat experience received in Syria have already been spotted in the Uzbek Fergana Valley. Afghan heroin kills 25,000 Russians annually.
Russian President Vladimir Putin believes the situation in Afghanistan causes concern and urgent steps should be taken to tackle the problem. According to him, decisive actions are needed to rebuild the war-torn country and defeat terrorism. «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».
Afghan officials have approached Russia asking it to resume cooperation. They believe that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has a role to play in managing the crisis in the country. Russia and China are working to expand the SCO regional anti-terrorist structure into Afghanistan by bringing on board all regional countries and SCO member states.
The SCO has already established a database of terrorist groups while, under the umbrella of Russia, all Central Asian countries have agreed to formulate a single list of terrorist groups on the platform of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) which counts as a sister organization of SCO. Both organizations are working to prevent the filtration of terrorists from Syria and Afghanistan to Xinjiang, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and other regional countries.
The Collective Security Treaty Organization, including Afghanistan, which has observer status of the alliance, has proposed cooperation with NATO on Afghanistan under the flagship of Russia. NATO rejected the initiative.
On February 15, Russia hosted discussions on Afghanistan aimed at encouraging the Taliban to negotiate with the shaky government in Kabul. Representatives from Afghanistan, China, India, Iran, Pakistan and Russia met to confer about further efforts in support of the country.
Now Russia has undertaken another initiative to bring on board the regional countries and pertinent actors to discuss the ways to solve the burning problem. Moscow stretched a hand to Washington in an effort to launch cooperation on the issue of mutual interest. The US rejected the offer. It means that Russia, China, Iran and other interested parties will have to join together in an effort to rectify the situation deteriorated as a result of US policy. It will greatly damage the United States’ image in the region and reduce its clout. But that is the choice of the US Administration. It should not blame others for its own mistakes and failures.