Why Russia fears radical Islam threat after Nato leaves Afghanistan
RUSSIA’S leadership is fearing for the safety of its southern borders when Nato troops pull out of Afghanistan.
US involvement in Afghanistan is expected to end in 2014 and the Kremlin fears a possible return to the situation of the 1990s, when militant groups extended their activities from Afghanistan into central Asia, seriously destabilising both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
This threat was underscored by former Russian Interior Minister (1995-1998) Army General Anatoly Kulikov in February 2013 when he said, ‘If the situation in Afghanistan is not normalised within the next two years, this will affect the stability of the central Asian countries and, consequently, Russia’s southern borders.’
The Kremlin has reason to be concerned. If the Afghan army proves incapable of taking on the responsibilities of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the Nato-led security mission, then the country could return to factional struggles or plunge into open civil war.
Russia would then see a spread of militant Islam and a surge in the narcotics trade that crosses central Asia.
It is not surprising that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has been living up to his commitments to support ISAF in Afghanistan. Moscow has granted overflight rights. It has raised no objections to Nato operations out of bases in countries in central Asia, and it has granted transit use of a base on its own territory, at Ulyanovsk in the Volga region.
While Moscow has pleaded with Washington to extend its presence in Afghanistan, until ‘the job is done’, there has also been mounting concern about remaining US influence in the region as a whole.
There are reports that the US is in talks with the Afghan government on maintaining a presence even after 2014, which would entail thousands of army instructors, special units and air force units.
Yet, even if some American forces do remain, they will not be able to play any significant role is preserving stability and security. That burden will be shifted onto Russian shoulders - and Russia is far from ready for the task.
Moscow abhors the thought of having to send troops back into a country that it left in humiliation 24 years ago. The Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979-1989) left bitter memories of more than 14,000 Soviet troops killed and some 100,000 wounded.
Although the present Russian leadership would be reluctant to send young men back to die in Afghanistan, Russia may still have to become seriously involved. This is because the weaponry presently used by the Afghan forces is of Russian origin. This is partly the result of a long Soviet/Russian involvement in the country, which left a combined legacy of Russian military hardware and of Afghan skills in operating this hardware. But the weapons are not only left-overs from the Soviet era.
Although Moscow has refused to send troops of its own to support ISAF, it has been willing to provide weapons and equipment.
The Afghan security force has relied on Russian weapons. From the start, the US chose not to provide the Afghan army with modern Western weapons on the basis that they might end up in the hands of the Taliban. Instead, Washington bought new Russian weapons giving hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to state-owned Russian arms dealer Rosoboronexport.
As the US troops pull out, Russia will maintain the weapons and vehicles. The plan to establish ‘maintenance bases’ inside the country was discussed at a Nato summit in November 2010.
However, if the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorates, as it is likely to do, these Russian troops will be exposed. Once ISAF has ended its mission in Afghanistan, neither the US nor the EU will have any interest in getting pulled back in.
Russia has laboured long and hard to set up its own version of Nato, known as the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) which, in theory, could be tasked with shouldering the responsibility for maintaining regional stability and security. But little progress has been made with that venture.
CSTO membership is presently limited to Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Uzbekistan suspended its membership in 2012. Meanwhile, Tashkent has banned all foreign military bases on its territory. Without Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the CSTO cannot be relied upon to provide regional security. That will fall on Russia alone.
The nightmare scenario for Moscow is a parallel slide of both Afghanistan and Uzbekistan into open civil war. The likelihood that this will happen is worryingly high. In March 2013, rumours circulated - not for the first time - suggesting that 75-year old Uzbek President Islam Karimov had suffered a serious heart attack.
Uzbekistan has been faced with threats from Islamic militants and has already lived through substantial turbulence. President Karimov’s death is likely to precipitate a major crisis in Uzbekistan.
What makes this combined scenario of such concern is that Russia simply does not have the resources to deal with one, far less both, of these contingencies. Despite much talk about massive military re-armament, the Russian military remains in a shambles.
Ultimately Moscow need not feel alone in worrying about what the future may bring. If both Afghanistan and Uzbekistan were to slide into civil war, the impact would be felt far outside the immediate region.