Afghanistan: A pawn in major power rivalry?

Russia has sought the opportunity to expand its influence in Afghanistan at the expense of the US.

SCO prime ministers meeting in Bishkek
Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev speaks with Chief Executive of Afghanistan Abdullah Abdullah on the sidelines of the SCO prime ministers meeting in Kyrgyzstan on November 3, 2016 [EPA/Alexander Astafyev]

On Friday, Russia held a regional conference to explore the prospects for settling the long-running Afghanistan conflict. This follows a similar conference that Moscow held in February, which was preceded by a tripartite meeting between Russia, China and Pakistan in December on the same subject.

While the Afghan government was not invited to the first meeting, raising Kabul’s ire, the second one was expanded to include Afghanistan, Iran and India. However, the United States as the main power in Afghanistan has not been invited to any of these forums.

Why the surge in Russian interest in Afghanistan?

The Afghans have bitter memories of the Russians, given the Soviet invasion and occupation of their country for nearly a decade in the 1980s. During that period, more than a million Afghans were killed, hundreds of thousands injured, with some eight million becoming external and internal refugees, not to mention the extent of the country’s physical destruction.

However, times and conditions have changed. The inability of the United States, together with its NATO allies, to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan, following the US-led military intervention in response to the September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks on the US, have opened a new window for a resurgent Russia.

Fighting extremism in Central Asia

Russia has three main objectives in Afghanistan. One is to see a stable friendly Afghanistan, so that the former Soviet republics, especially those bordering Afghanistan – Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – are not affected by Afghan instability.

Moscow is particularly concerned about preventing threats from Islamic extremist groups arising from Afghanistan. Its policy is to fight such groups, whether in Chechnya or Afghanistan or Central Asia, where the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) continues to be a potential threat. The rise of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, known as ISIS), with an estimated 1,000 activists – some from the ranks of the radical Taliban and others from outside Afghanistan – has increasingly caught Moscow’s attention.

Vladimir Putin‘s leadership has since 2013 come to the view that the Taliban are less of a danger than ISIL, given the former’s opposition to the latter, and that the Taliban are likely to have a role in the future of Afghanistan. It has found it expedient to establish links with receptive elements of the Taliban, who are in a turf war with ISIL operatives, as a means to counter ISIL. This is something that the Islamic Republic of Iran, nowadays a close friend of Russia, has also done for a similar purpose. In 2015, Zamir Kabulov, Putin’s special representative for Afghanistan, stated that “the Taliban’s interest[s] objectively coincides with ours”.

Another Russian objective is to limit the growth of the narcotics trade from Afghanistan, the largest producer of heroin in the world, to Central Asia and Russia. The latter accounts for 20 percent of the $70bn opiate market, with around 1.8 million injecting drug users in 2015. Around 90,000 Russians die from drug overdose, including heroin, every year.

Geopolitical influence

The third objective is to expand Russian influence in the face of the declining US military involvement in Afghanistan, especially from the end of 2014 when the US and its allies withdrew most of their troops from the country. The US drawdown, without Washington achieving its original goal of transforming Afghanistan into an effectively viable and secure state, has opened an important arena for competition between different regional powers, leading to claims of a new “great game” between Russia and the US.

Indeed, the former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai (2001-2014) often moved close to Russia as his relations with Washington became strained over the US reluctance to do enough to target the safe sanctuaries of the Taliban and their associates on the Pakistani side of the border and exert sufficient pressure on Pakistan to curb its support for the insurgents.

He most notably attended the 2014 Sochi Winter Games and stated: “The Soviet money went to the right place. They were efficient in spending their money and doing it through the Afghan government”. At the same time, the downturn in US-Russian relations, notably over Ukraine and Syria, has precipitously underpinned Moscow’s reorientation towards Afghanistan, with increased economic and military ties.

Economically, Russia has become involved, though modestly, in housing and construction – largely because other projects require financing and backing from international organisations and donors that are hesitant to endorse Russian enterprises. Russo-Afghan bilateral trade increased from $571.3m in 2010 to $1bn in 2013. By 2014, Russia was Afghanistan’s fifth-largest export and sixth-biggest import market, involving over 140 construction projects, mostly restoring Soviet-era housing complexes, facilities and factories and improving infrastructure.

Russia’s military involvement has so far largely been confined to selling MI-17 helicopters to the Afghan army, paid for by the United States, and performing maintenance on military equipment. In February 2016, Russia also donated 10,000 AK-47 automatic rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition to the Afghan security forces. Moscow is currently negotiating the sale of several MI-35 helicopters to Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Russia has established a number of military bases in Central Asian states, especially Tajikistan, where it has deployed forces along the border with Afghanistan. It is developing links with regional powers (such as China through the Security Cooperation Organisation – SCO) and its neighbours (particularly Tajikistan through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation – CSTO) to develop a regional security framework for Afghanistan.

Russian military ties with Afghanistan are limited, largely due to US objections to its arms sales, but they are nonetheless on the rise. In February 2017, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov once again stressed the importance of closer economic and military ties with Afghanistan.

Of course, Russia has not been able to compete with the United States economically or militarily in Afghanistan, which remains extensively dependent on US assistance. The US has spent $1 trillion on the Afghan war and $100bn on Afghanistan’s reconstruction over the last fifteen years. Nonetheless, Russia has made a concerted effort in recent years to make an inroad into Afghanistan for fighting extremism and strategic gains.

Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Public Policy Fellow and Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University, and author of Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival (2012).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.