Russia Prepares for NATO Withdrawal from Afghanistan

Russia Prepares for NATO Withdrawal from Afghanistan

While most NATO troops are expected to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, Russia worries about the subsequent consequences for the stability of the region.

According to NATO officials, approximately 100,000 troops are stationed in Afghanistan today, and only 8,000 to 12,000 are expected to stay after 2014. However, although the NATO mission is close to an end, many observers point out that the situation in Afghanistan is far from secure, and the country’s future after the troops’ departure remains quite uncertain. Indeed, Central Asian states, and foremost Russia, are growing anxious about the potential consequences of withdrawal for the stability of the region. Andrey Avetisyan, the Russian ambassador in Kabul, recognises, “Russia can’t be involved in Afghanistan from a distance because we are members of the region. We are here. We can’t go anywhere like many countries involved now can.” Today, Moscow has no choice but to deal with the many consequences arising from the departure of the NATO contingent.

Russia is concerned about two important threats that are expected to rise when NATO troops leave: Afghan narcotics and terrorism, and their potential spread to the neighbouring states. These threats constitute two thorny issues for Central Asia in general, and Russia in particular. The country has long worried about the rise of terrorism and extremism in its southern regions and the Caucasus. Moreover, 2.5 million Russian citizens are considered to be drug addicts (of a population of 142 million), and 30,000 to 40,000 die from drug-related causes every year. Many of the drugs coming from Afghanistan pass through Tajikistan and Turkmenistan and end up in the hands of Russian consumers. According to Victor Ivanov, director of the Federal Service for the Control of Narcotics in Russia, “Afghan drug traffic is like a tsunami constantly breaking over Russia – we are sinking in it”.

Therefore, Russia is trying to prepare for post-2014. Of course, there is no way for Russia to militarily engage in Afghanistan as it did in 1979. The invasion was unnecessary and unsuccessful, especially considering the significant human loss resulting from the conflict. According to ambassador Avetisyan, “The Soviet Union made a huge mistake sending troops to Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union paid a huge price for this mistake. Russia prefers to learn from the mistakes of the past and we will never send our troops to Afghanistan.”

However, Moscow continues to be involved in the country through other channels. As Avetisyan explains, Russia is “already cooperating with Afghanistan on everything. We support the army and police, we support international coalition here.” Indeed, to counter the two threats described above, the main project so far has been to build Afghan forces so that they can ensure the security of their own country. In particular, Russia provided military helicopters to the Afghan National Army and also trained Afghans to repair the old Soviet material in their country. Concerning drug trafficking, Moscow cooperates both with neighbouring countries and with the US. For example, officers have been trained in Tajikistan to control the border more effectively, and Russia and the US have worked together to destroy drug laboratories.

However, in the long term, Russian officials recognize that only economic development can help stabilize the country. As a first step, in 2007, Russia forgave 90% of Afghan debt that was due to the Soviet Union. Russia also provided humanitarian aid for many years, and now tries to cooperate with the Afghan government in different sectors to sustain the country’s economy. The main idea is to favour job creation, for example through the construction of hydropower plants or high-tech industrial assembly. Other projects such as the electrification of the country, pipeline transit projects or housing construction in Kabul are also under consideration and should promote Afghan industrialization.

However, there is legitimate doubt concerning successful realization of these projects to cope with drug trafficking and terrorism. Two elements could be serious obstacles to economic development in the country. First, Afghan presidential elections in 2014 will be determinant in the capacity of the new government to lead these projects effectively. Second, Russia alone cannot finance and sustain the development of the Afghan economy. While some Russian companies have opportunities in Afghanistan, most of the firms are reluctant to invest in such an unstable environment.

Thus, the outcome of these projects remains quite uncertain. Moscow already cooperates with NATO members and neighbouring countries on Afghanistan – sometimes on bilateral terms, or through regional organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. If these projects are to be successful, the sustainability and strengthening of multilateral cooperation will be critical to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan and in Central Asia in general.

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