Is Russia returning to Afghanistan?

The Afghan story, in other words, will continue to develop. It needs to be carefully watched by Islamabad.


Shahid Javed Burki July 05, 2020

Afghanistan is back in the news. Not a day passes without the front pages of the main American newspapers carrying the news of some Afghan development. For obvious reasons, the coverage seldom refers to how Pakistan is likely to be influenced by what was happening in its neighbourhood. To develop a good understanding of how developments in Afghanistan have affected and are likely to affect Pakistan, we have to go a long way back into history. The Afghan history is dominated by how various large powers have been involved in the country’s affairs. First the British, then the Russians, then the Americans, and now the Russians again and the Chinese in the near future, have made it their business to take interests one way or the other with Afghan affairs.

At this time, what is receiving a great deal of attention in Washington is the Russian effort to hurt the Americans as they begin to withdraw from Afghanistan. This they are doing, it is alleged, by paying the Taliban fighters large sums of money to kill the United States soldiers. The Taliban have been engaged with the Americans ever since the latter invaded their country almost 20 ago. The Taliban have now signed an agreement with the US that would result in the Americans withdrawing their troops from Afghanistan, adopt a new system of governance for Afghanistan, and not permit any terrorist group from their country’s territory to carry out operations outside their country’s borders. It was the operation mounted by the Al Qaeda that destroyed the twin towers in World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan and did damage to the Pentagon building near Washington. These led the Americans to invade Afghanistan and remove the Taliban administration that had governed for five years. The terrorist attacks on the US was on September 11, 2001. The Americans struck Afghanistan on October 7, 2001.

Moscow’s alleged involvement with the American forces engaged in Afghanistan raises a number of questions. How are the Russians carrying out this operation? Why are the Russians undertaking this operation at a time when the US has indicated that it is pulling out? Wouldn’t increased American casualties in Afghanistan cause the US to delay its departure? If President Donald Trump was briefed on the intelligence reports about the Russian operation, why did the American President choose to ignore this information? Now that the intelligence reports have become public through leaks to the press, what course of action is Trump likely to adopt? How will the Afghan situation be affected by this back and forth between Washington and Moscow? What will be some of the consequences for Pakistan? Not all these questions can be answered in one newspaper column. I will revisit the Afghan story off and on as it develops.

According to the US agencies that have gathered information about the Russian activities, the military spy agency that is believed to have offered the bribes to the Taliban is the GRU, in particular a sub-unit within the agency that in 2018 poisoned a former official that had been its employee but had become a double-agent, working for the British as well. A different GRU unit interfered in the 2016 US election, carrying out hacking attacks meant to exacerbate discord in the Democratic Party. According to Thad Troy, a former CIA officer who was one of the first US officials to meet with Putin in the late 1990s when the latter ran Russia’s FSB, the main successor to the KGB. “Though Putin has continually been active against the United States, 2016 election was sort of ‘got ya’ moment for him, that this works,” Troy told one of the reporters working on this developing story.

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s long-serving President, is nostalgic about his country’s past. The past includes his country’s interest in Afghanistan that goes back to the time when the British governed the South Asian Subcontinent. With the two-decades long fight over defining the future of Afghanistan moving towards some sort of resolution, Putin’s Moscow would like to ensure that what emerges is helpful to it in minding its strategic interests in Central Asia and the Middle East.

Putin can see Afghanistan going one of three ways. It could adopt the Western-style liberal democracy roughly in tune with what the country is following today. Or, it could opt for an Islamic system that is the wish of the Taliban who had briefly governed the country in the late 1990s. Or, it could place the country in the hands of an authoritarian ruler who would sit on top of a strong state and decide for the people without consulting with them. If the first course is followed, the Americans would retain their influence over the country. If the third route is the preferred option, Moscow would have a strong presence in Kabul. An Islamic republic would increase the influence of Iran in the country. Putin believes that he can move the Afghans in the direction in which they would like to go if they become suspicious of America’s interests. Moscow is not the first capital to move Kabul in the direction it prefers.

What can be described as the “Greater Middle East” and the region of Central Asia have become areas of contention for the world’s major powers. These include the US, China, Russia and the European Union. A couple of lesser powers have also joined the race. They include Turkey and India. The large powers are not likely to get involved with one another militarily but that can’t be said about the secondary powers. For instance, China and India have had a fist and stone fight in mid-June in the upper reaches of the Himalayas.

The large contenders will contest through proxies and use trade and other economic interventions to gain influence. For the moment there are a number of areas of contention. These include the oil-producing countries in the Greater Middle East and the Himalayas. Russia and Turkey are engaged in Libya and China and India are fighting it out in the Himalayas.

If the US intelligence services were aware of what Moscow was doing by way of bribing the Taliban to kill the American servicemen, why didn’t they persuade President Trump to act? They had known that these bribes were being given money: they had looked into the bank accounts of both the GRU and some of the Taliban leadership. According to one theory, this was the time when the US was about to conclude a peace treaty with the Taliban. If information that some of those who were active in the negotiations were also being bribed, they may have walked out of the talks. Also, Russian involvement against US interests in Afghanistan is “nothing new”, said Mike Pompeo, the American Secretary of State, in a conversation with the press. “They have been selling small arms that have put Americans at risk for 10 years.” He said he brings up Afghanistan “with great frequency” in talks with his Russian counterparts. The Afghan story, in other words, will continue to develop. It needs to be carefully watched by Islamabad.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 6th, 2020.

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