Afghanistan: Hot Issue on Security Agenda

With a number of major ongoing international crises, especially in Syria, the   events in Afghanistan have not gotten as much attention as they deserve. In recent months, the country’s security situation has dramatically deteriorated. 

The Islamic terror threat in Afghanistan is expanding and poses new threats to Russia, Central Asia and the West, especially now as the Islamic State build up forces inside the war-torn Southwest Asian state. The terrorist group is working to control and hold more Afghan territory. Taliban factions have markedly increased the pace of operations throughout Afghanistan following the September 28 offensive against Kunduz city. 

The Taliban fighters mass their forces and make new gains in Pashtun-dominated areas of southern Afghanistan. The group  now  also controls much of southern Helmand province and has launched an increasing number of attacks in Kabul in what has been one of the deadliest annual fighting seasons in years. The recent attack on the city of Kunduz also showed Taliban advances in the northern part of the country and further strained Afghan forces that are battling them. 

The opinion is widely spread that Afghanistan may again become a safe haven for the Taliban and al Qaeda. The Islamic State is   operationally emergent attracting disaffected Taliban and Pakistan Tehrik-e-Taliban members. Its presence appears to be spreading rapidly. More than 120,000 Afghans have already applied for asylum in Europe this year, many more want out. They now constitute the second largest population of refugees trying to reach the old continent. 

Afghanistan’s security forces have suffered devastating losses in the recent offensive. About 4,100 troops and police were killed in the first half of this year, a 50 percent increase over the same period last year. Desertion has become such a problem that troops are sometimes barred from returning home on leave.  

On October 13 the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned of a deteriorating humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and appealed to the international community for more help.

It gives rise to new concerns that Taliban terrorists could begin conducting attacks outside Afghanistan.

Russia’s Ambassador to NATO Alexander Grushko told a news conference on October 9 «What has happened was what we had warned of for a long time. The hasty withdrawal of the international stabilization force has led to the landslide deterioration of the security situation», he said. «We see not only the strengthening of the Taliban movement, but, what is especially worrisome, the penetration of Islamic State into Afghanistan», the diplomat added. «By all odds, about 4,000 Islamic State gunmen are already in Afghanistan, and their ranks grow».

On October 16, leaders of post-Soviet states gathered for the summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). They  signed 17 agreements, including a statement on combating international terrorism and an agreement on military cooperation through 2020. They also took a decision to form a group of border guard and other agencies to tackle possible crises on the external borders of the CIS. Addressing the top level meeting, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that violence in Afghanistan could spill over into ex-Soviet Central Asia, a day after the US announced it would keep thousands of troops in the conflict-wracked country. According to him, «The situation there (in Afghanistan) is genuinely close to critical», «Terrorists of different stripes are gaining more influence and do not hide their plans for further expansion», the President emphasized. «One of their aims is to break into the Central Asian region. It is important for us to be ready to react in concert to this scenario», he warned.

Russia has agreements with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to extend its bases till 2042 and 2032 respectively. It has announced an increase in troops in Tajikistan from 6000 thousand now to 9,000 soldiers by 2020. Moscow  has announced plans to renew the fleet of its airbase at Kant, Kyrgyzstan by 2016. A helicopter unit is to be stationed at the airbase in Ayni, Tajikistan. Russia has already sent a dozen of new and modified versions of Su-25 fighter jets to replace older planes. It has been upgrading other equipment at the bases – from trucks and armoured personnel carriers (APCs) to drones. Joint training has been intensified recently. 

Tajikistan shares a roughly 1,300-kilometer border with Afghanistan that acts as one of the main corridors for heroin making its way into Russia and neighboring countries. Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon requested help with border security from fellow member states, saying the terrorist threat from its southern neighbor was also growing. Putin vowed that the CSTO would provide additional collective assistance.  The Russian President announced that the group’s annual joint maneuvers would take place next month in Chelyabinsk and said an anti-narcotics exercise called «Channel» was also planned.

U.S. and NATO combat operations in Afghanistan formally ended at the end of last year. About 13,000 international troops are still in the country, including 9,800 Americans. They are involved in training Afghan forces as well as conducting limited counterterrorism raids. 

On October 15, US President Barack Obama said American troops would remain in Afghanistan past 2016, retreating from a major campaign pledge as he admitted Afghan forces were not ready to stand alone against the resurgent Taliban. The President has decide to maintain the current American force of 9,800 troops in that country  through most of next year, and to leave a force of 5,500 U.S. troops in the country in 2017, when he leaves office.

The decision ends his ambitions to bring home most American forces from that war-torn country before his term is over. The force of 5,500 troops is  more than five times the number of troops previously set to remain in the country at the start of 2017. Only about 1,000 troops had previously been set to remain in Afghanistan at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. It may also lead to more U.S. casualties. This year, 25 American service members and civilians have been killed in the country. “Afghan forces are still not as strong as they need to be”, Obama said October 15 from the White House, explaining his decision... 

Meanwhile, the Taliban has made gains, particularly in rural areas, and can still launch deadly attacks in cities, including Kabul,” he stressed.  Under the new plan, the U.S. military will retain bases in Kabul, as planned, but also have forces at Bagram air base and at bases outside Kandahar and Jalalabad, the largest cities in Afghanistan’s southern and eastern regions. The United States will also maintain a significant counterterrorism capability of drones and special operations forces to strike al-Qaeda and other militants. 

The President’s decision to keep troops in Afghanistan follows the collapse of the U.S.-trained Iraqi army last year under pressure from Islamic State. It is also a stark illustration of the US failure to keep the promise of ending ground wars.  The reversal on the troop drawdown is a setback for the president’s strategy and an indication that his policies over the past six years have not worked.

It all boils down to the fact that the West and Russia face common threats. Syria is not the only one. Talking to each other is a must. It would be a folly to act separately without due level of cooperation. Russia has done its part. It offered to launch a broad political dialogue ready to send a representative delegation headed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to discuss Syria.  The US refused to receive it. The decision presupposed great responsibility for the implications to follow. Afghanistan is another burning issue to hit the global security agenda pretty soon. Will the US refuse a dialogue again in favor of unilateral actions, the policy that has brought about such disappointing results in recent years?