The new U.S. Administration seeks a fresh start regarding Russia. Part of the "reset" approach to Russia is to get its support for U.S. activities in Afghanistan. Whatever the merits of the initiative in other areas, in this one it poses at least as many risks as possibilities and may be a non-starter. Bluntly, Russia, with its "zero sum" thinking regarding the U.S., has not wished us well in Afghanistan and shows no sign of doing so now. Russia has gratefully taken advantage of this and pursued a pro-active policy towards Afghanistan ahead of the presidential election on August 20.
Starting in 2007, and crystallizing after Obama took office, Moscow has extended sizeable arms deals, cancelled 93 per cent of Afghanistan's Soviet-era debt, and pursued intense diplomatic exchanges with Kabul. Most recently, on May 14, a 60-person Afghan delegation was invited to Moscow to develop a "strategic dialogue between Moscow and Kabul" and launch "Russia's new Afghan policy". Meanwhile, criticisms of President Hamid Karzai's alleged incompetence by the U.S. and NATO have effectively pushed him and other Afghan officials into the arms of Russia.
President Barack Obama has had four months to react to this development. President Karzai, for his part, has repeatedly tried to get his alternative "Russian option" across to him. When speaking in presence of the U.S. Ambassador at a Graduation Ceremony only five days after President Barack Obama's inauguration, Karzai put it bluntly: "I have told America and the world to provide us with planes; otherwise, we will get them from elsewhere. I have also told them to bring tanks to Afghanistan, otherwise, we will get them from somewhere else." That Russia's arm exporter Rosoboronexport announced on the very day of Obama's inauguration its readiness to work towards "establishing military technical cooperation with Afghanistan" should erase any doubts that Karzai had any other actor than Russia in mind.
Russian aid has also been pouring into Afghanistan since then. During the months of February and March alone, Russian assistance to Afghanistan spiked with the delivery of a total of 18000 tons of wheat flour.
President Karzai's nomination on May 4 this year of General Mohammed Fahim as his Vice-Presidential Candidate for the upcoming presidential elections further served to underscore his Russian tilt. Serving in the position of Defense Minister under the transition government and as the Security Chief of the Northern Alliance during the Civil War, Fahim was the first high-level Afghan official to visit Russia in 2002 and is known to have close ties with Russian intelligence services who have funnelled tanks, helicopters, and financial assistance through him.
Since 2007, Russia's intelligence apparatus has also reactivated its ties with Northern Alliance members by inviting parliamentary delegations to its capital and by reopening its consulate in
Mazar-i-Sharif. In late May, 2007, for example, Russia invited an Afghan delegation to Moscow consisting solely of former Northern Alliance warlords, including founding-member Mohammed Yunos Qanun.
The worrying part of Russia's engagement with Afghanistan is not so much the assistance itself. Indeed, this is highly welcome. But the problem is that Russia conceives U.S.-Russia relations in Afghanistan in zero-sum terms.
When NATO resumed high level contacts with Russia in early March this year, U.S. Secretary of State Clinton cited Afghanistan as one of the greatest "common concerns" and stated that the U.S. intends "to cooperate with Russia" on Afghanistan. During the same ceremony, however, Dmitri Rogozin, Russia's envoy to NATO, stated confidently how Russia after the crisis in the Caucasus "negotiates from a position of strength" on Afghanistan.
True to form, Russia's first action as part of this "cooperation" was to offer the government of the Kyrgyz Republic $2 billion to expel the United States from its vital Manas Airbase supporting the Afghan mission. In compensation it offered the United States transits of NATO supplies through Russia instead. Apart from revealing Moscow's true concerns over the success of the mission in Afghanistan - essentially forcing the U.S. to relocate in the midst of the Taliban's spring offensive -- these actions by Russia have made the continuation of the Afghan mission dependent on Russia's good will. In view of how Russia has used the exact same dependencies in the form of pipelines as a foreign policy tool earlier, it is guaranteed to employ the very same tactics as a lever on the United States.
Worse, Russia's courting of various Northern Alliance warlords may upset the balance of power in the post-election government and return the country to the power imbalance existing in Afghanistan before 2004. This may fan further internal power struggles, if not another civil war. Interlocutors close to the government in Kabul also indicate that Iran, as well as sliding NATO-member Turkey, are increasingly preparing for a Russian primacy of influence in a post-election scenario and are adjusting their policies accordingly.
One may ask why the U.S. and NATO give Russia, who less than a year ago invaded a prospective NATO member, the latitude to both determine the domestic politics of Afghanistan and control the lifeline of NATO's military supplies bound for Afghanistan.
Two immediate actions must be taken to prevent this erosion of influence. The first is to diversify supply channels to support the mission in Afghanistan, most favorably over either the route Azerbaijan-Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan-Afghanistan or from Pakistan's Gwadar port up to Kandahar. The first-mentioned route would also solidify the U.S. relationships with these countries and strengthen their sovereignties vis-à-vis Russia. The second is to prepare for President Karzai's re-election with Russian-friendly Fahim as Vice-President - a highly likely development. The U.S. must regain the trust of Karzai by publicly acknowledging the domestic constraints he is facing and continue to work with him. The alternative is a strong Russian influence over Afghanistan's domestic politics in the post-election scenario. At best, such inaction will force the U.S. and NATO to make a number of concessions to Russian demands in post-Soviet space and elsewhere. At worst, Afghanistan may spiral down into the great-power conflict that defined it during the period 1992-1996. This would not be a pretty scenario when President Obama is deploying 17,000 additional troops there.
Until Russia displays a genuine concern for Afghanistan and does not undermine other channels supporting this mission, it cannot be considered a worthy partner for cooperation. The terms of this "cooperation" suggest nothing less than that the U.S. is being duped, with the success of Afghanistan at stake.