With International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) slated to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, how will U.S. and Russian security interests in the region align?

An Afghan policeman sits on a wall on a mountain overlooking Kabul, Afghanistan. Source: AP

The history of global intervention in Afghanistan over the past two centuries has been one of colossal failure. However, it’s still too early to tell whether the presence of international forces there during the last decade, as well as the recent plan to withdraw these forces by 2014, will ultimately be judged as a success or failure.

After previous unsuccessful interventions by Britain and Russia during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the contemporary occupation by international forces in Afghanistan has encountered an entirely different set of circumstances and a complex set of diversified interests. Almost 2.8 billion people have suffered direct and indirect damages in South and Central Asia. Moreover, another negative byproduct of the war in Afghanistan has been the export of terrorism to some Western and Eurasian countries.

There are two sides to Afghanistan. On one hand, Afghanistan has continuously remained a cause of disagreement among the world community; on the other hand, it has been a uniting point. During the Afghan intervention by the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the conflicts of interests have greatly reduced the possibilities for success.

There are various matrixes of conflicts, and each of these sources of conflict has contributed to the broader instability. There has been interest-based competition among the international stakeholders as well as regional conflict, occurring almost on a country-by-country basis.

The worst of these conflicts was the race between Afghanistan’s neighboring states, such as Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan. Pakistan took a further step to adversely impact the broader military situation by supporting the Taliban based in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. The role played by India and China in the reconstruction, along with their reluctance over sending troops, has also been significant.

There were also stand-offs over transportation routes in the region, which Pakistan tried to take maximum advantage of as a destabilizing factor. Meanwhile, Russia opened new troop movement corridors and facilitated new routes for transportation. This development further created more possibilities for Russia to re-integrate with the West in general, and the U.S. in particular. Linked by mutual interests, there now seems to be the possibility for future joint initiatives in the region.

An important aspect of the endgame in Afghanistan is that China and the U.S. are not on the same page on a wide range of issues. The U.S.’s primary focus in the region is creating a ‘Greater Central Asia’ or a ‘New Silk Road’ that connects almost all the potential economic zones of Asia. The disturbing point of this approach, however, is that Central Asia and Afghanistan can only connect economically with the rest of the Asia either through the ports of Karachi and Guwadar in Pakistan or through Port Abbas in Iran.

Pakistan is actively tilting towards China, while previous antagonism between Iran and the U.S. shows signs of abating. The relationship between Iran and the U.S. could improve, especially now that a liberal government has been elected in the clergy-led Persian country, which also happens to be a close ally of India.

NATO troops in Afghanistan. Source: PA Photos / Ben Birchall / ITAR TASS

The changing notions of security in the region due to the ISAF pullout, especially in Russia and its allied Central Asian states, will prove to be the major factor regarding the future stability of Afghanistan. Destabilizing factors like the presence of the Taliban on the Pakistani-Afghan border will pose a major threat to the interests of Russia, Central Asia, Iran, and India.

In the Russia-specific context, a number of factors play a role: the infiltration of Islamist militants throughout Eurasia, the narcotics supply from Afghanistan, the strengthened existence of Russia’s ally Northern Alliance as a possible security valve, and Tajikistan’s connectivity with India and the rest of the world via Port Abbas in Iran.

These connections between Afghanistan and Asia, Central Asia and Eurasia are of importance to the West. An axis of Eurasia-Iran-India with the support of the U.S. and the other Western powers is the only viable option to change the game. Pakistan has already finalized agreements with China over the construction of railways and roads to the ports of Guwadar and Karachi. This is a development that could ultimately hamper the pursuit of global interests in South Asia.    

Although Russia, China, and the Central Asian states have been on the same page about Afghanistan, at least to a certain extent, their competition of economic interests has separated them into two different groups: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Central Asia’s socio-cultural nexus with Afghanistan would be an edge for Russia, especially from the demographic point of view. The strategic contours of this advantage can be glimpsed by watching how Russia interacts with the Northern Alliance. 

In addition, by allowing the U.S. military to cross its territory after 2009, Russia now has an opening to revive its relationship with NATO and, especially, with the U.S.

The worst aspect of the current situation is that international forces have done practically nothing to root out drug production in Afghanistan, which has further aggravated the security concerns of Russia and the Central Asian states.

Moreover, Russia’s aspiration for the enhanced role of the United Nations in Afghanistan during the post-ISAF pullout stage has added value and prestige. In the post-pullout scenario, the role of Russia would become crucial: Russia would be geopolitically at the helm of almost every development in Afghanistan. As a result, the prospects for new Tajik-Afghan border security measures are inevitable.

At the Chicago summit, NATO reached the decision of gradually handing over control to the Afghan local security forces. Although there is much dissension among NATO members over the successes, achievements and failures in the context of objectives and vision for the intervention, there is visible consensus among them regarding the withdrawal. 

According to estimates, $4.1 billion a year are required for Afghanistan after the ISAF pullout. However, the direct and indirect costs, as well as the adverse economic impact of the war for the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia and others have probably crossed the ten-trillion-dollar mark. These high levels of monetary expenditures could have used for fighting unemployment and poverty within these countries, or at least, in the countries where poverty has become the sole reason behind the expansion of terrorism globally through terrorist syndicates.    

The practical geostrategic realities suggest that the U.S. may not attain its future interests in Central-South Asia without partners in the region such as Russia, Tajikistan, India, and Iran. Banking on the Taliban would be disastrous not only for Afghanistan but also for the liberal and secular majority population of Pakistan as well. The Talibanization of Afghanistan would ultimately influence the interdependent security of the region, especially in Pakistan.

It is assumed that Pakistan, under Nawaz Sharif, would favor an orientation towards China and Saudi Arabia. An India-Russia-Central Asia nexus would be another potential option because the state policy of ethno-sectarian exclusivity in Pakistan would never allow there a major policy change that would change its ethnically Punjabi-dominated army and its Salafi Islamic school of thought.         

There is another important factor: Emerging talks about regional solutions led by China and Russia are becoming a central discussion point among Asian academics. It is therefore important for almost all international actors, particularly the U.S., to consider an integrated approach towards the ISAF pullout and Afghan security and stability thereafter.  

The international community needs to make it through a difficult next stage that consists of the ISAF pullout, Afghan elections, and negotiations with the Taliban. The policy of gradual pullout is important, but chances of a gradual increase in anarchy in Afghanistan are also high, which would be the real test for the Afghan National Army and security system.

We have reached an important point.

President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai will face a serious challenge after the expected withdrawal of NATO troops. Source: RIA Novosti

It is now possible to consider building a new state in Afghanistan from the ethno-sectarian point of view. A sustainable peace in Afghanistan will not be possible until a localized model of Afghan federalism is developed that accommodates all ethno-linguistic and religious-sectarian demographic groups appropriately.

The most important factor would be the ability to build relationships between Afghan society and the new state. This can only be attained through transparent governance at the local level, empowerment of communities and determining the relative power of the federal authorities. Until then, the Afghan people will not be at the center of state-building or economic development.

In short, stability will remain a dream for Afghanistan until these conditions are met.

How Russia-U.S. relations play out in Afghanistan could hold the key not only for a successful exit strategy from Afghanistan, but also for a sustainable solution for future Afghan affairs.

Other options, while appearing to resolve matters in the short-term, may only end up complicating issues over the long-term.