Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Russia and Afghanistan's renewed relationship--this time pick a safe word

When I first saw this article in the WP my first thought was “I told you so” regarding my last policy proposal in Russian Foreign and Security Policy (even though all of you were looking at me like I was insane to propose such a thing). In my presentation I suggested that the US encourage Russia to engage in something like this, secretly endorsing Russia-Afghanistan cooperation. Media coverage of this is not really addressing why this would be good for the US.

The short of it is that Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan have come to some agreement to cooperate in counternarcotics efforts. This comes after the October raid in which Russia contributed its first eight boots on the ground in Afghanistan since the unsuccessful incursion by the Soviets way back when. The Russian force was small ( just 4 counternarcotics officers of a total coalition contingency of 70) but it was highly symbolic. It indicated that Russia, which has been reluctant to get its feet wet in Afghanistan since the US helped the mujahedeen push the USSR back, is ready to dip its toe in the water once again.

Russia has been pushing the US big time in regards to counternarcotics. Most of poppy grown in Afghanistan finds its way into Russian hands…and probably all of it into Russia’s sphere of influence. The profits of the poppy largely fund insurgencies in Russia and its sphere. Russia has asked, pleaded and all but demanded that the US raze all the poppy fields. The US may be in favor of burning the fields to the ground in principle, but is unwilling to deal with the Accidental Guerilla fallout that will surely ensue. The US would rather contain that region now and let the Afghan government deal with it later. It was looking as if this would be the plan until last week when it seems the US was cut out of the loop.

This might make some hesitant. Russia is once again expanding its sphere of influence into Afghanistan…while the US is still trying to get things under control there. Some are taken back by Russia doing anything without the US’s position due to its expansionist past. Russia taking the lead on something/anything in Afghanistan is not all bad for the US though.

Sure, there are some “what ifs”: what if Russia’s operations complicate or conflict with coalition operations? What if Russia begins to politically undermine the US in Afghanistan?…they do after all have less than altruistic economic interests in getting Gazprom into Afghanistan. The hypothetical aside, Afghanistan will need a big brother once Papa US draws down. Russia is in a good position to play that role.

There are several pros to be gained in keeping Russian involvement separate from US operations in Afghanistan, at least publicly separate. This situation would, of course, be optimal if the US and Russia coordinate on everything as to avoid stepping on toes or making things more difficult for one another. But this coordination should be high level and somewhat clandestine.

In Afghanistan there is a perception, especially in remaining poppy dependent communities, that Russia is anti-west and distinctly at odds with the US (held over from the Soviet era). This can be used. The Afghan National Police can capitalize on this by bringing Russia into the fold where American presence alone creates resistance. Russian counternarcotics forces can train and assist ANP so that they are perceived by the communities as something other than American puppets. Working with Russia and not overtly the US can contribute to the increased credibility and effectiveness of ANP, especially in Taliban dominated areas…and possibly even reduce the accidental guerilla symptoms that come from American boots on the ground.

As mentioned above, Russia has some wishes for economic involvement in Afghanistan. Russia really wants access to gas fields in the Northern provinces. Plus, Russia would like nothing better than to be invested in the energy infrastructure through the country. There is a hydroelectric plant which is in desperate need of a “remodel”. Russian industry would like access to several similar contracts. If Russia can invest effective in Afghanistan, this would lead to a long-term economic relationship between the two countries which is a win-win-win for Russia, Afghanistan and the US. The quicker Afghanistan can become self-sufficient, the better. There is no country better in the region to get Afghanistan to that point.

And we all know that economic prosperity will make a world of difference in counterinsurgency. Strong economic ties will also contribute to the legitimacy of the Afghan government in its ability to provide for its people. Plus, Russian economic interests are not just in resource extraction, so the economic impact of Russian industry has great potential.

Both the economic and security cooperation between Russia and Afghanistan mean that once the US is gone, Afghanistan will have a regional partner to lean on. Russian investment and security cooperation might just be what Afghanistan needs if long-term regional stability is to take hold.

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