Russia's Stake in the Afghan War

By David Satter

As the U.S. prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan, perhaps no nation has more to fear from the consequences than Russia which faces the possibility of both instability in Central Asia and the radicalization of its own Muslim population.

In the wake of the attack on September 11, 2001, Russia lent its support to the U.S. as it drove the Taliban from power. This was frequently depicted by Russian officials as a generous gesture for which Russia had a right to expect in return a free hand in the former Soviet republics. The Russian action, however, was in Russia's strategic interest.

When the Taliban was in power, it was the only real foreign threat facing Russia. Fear of the Taliban-supported radicalization of Central Asia and the North Caucasus and other Russian Muslim republics led Russia to support the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan at a time when the Taliban controlled 95 per cent of the country's territory.

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When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, Russia provided intelligence and equipment. It encouraged the Northern Alliance to assist the Americans and persuaded the Central Asian nations to give the U.S. basing rights on their territory. This assistance contributed significantly to the ease with which the Taliban was overthrown.

After the Taliban was toppled, Russia did not meddle in Afghan politics and did not contest U.S. influence over the Karzai administration. In a series of agreements, it opened up and then expanded a Northern supply route for NATO forces that would otherwise have had to rely on the route from Pakistan over the Khyber Pass.

More than 2,200 flights, 379,000 military personnel and 45,000 containers of cargo have now been transported through Russia in support of operations in Afghanistan. In June, 2012, the Russian authorities gave permission for a transit route through the Volga region for supplies supporting the NATO operation. To support this, NATO opened a special transit center in the Russian Volga River city of Ulyanovsk despite U.S.-Russian disagreements on many other issues.

While it was in power, the Taliban offered training camps to Chechen rebels and encouraged Islamic militants in Central Asia. Many militants left Central Asia to fight alongside the Taliban against NATO. Now, however, they are filtering back. According to Ahmed Rashid, a leading Pakistan based expert on Afghanistan and Central Asia, "They have done enough fighting for other people. They want to fight for their own country... They are trying to infiltrate weapons, ammunition and men back into Central Asia."

Previously dormant groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are regaining strength and, in the opinion of analysts, preparing for a long, sustained military campaign in Central Asia. The goal of the IMU is to overthrow the Uzbek president Islam Karimov who has tolerated no opposition during his two decade long rule. Another target is the Tajik leader, Imomali Rakhmon who led pro-Russian forces against Islamists in the civil war in the 1990s. The internet is full of videos by groups such as the Islamic Jihad Union that were believed to have been founded by breakaway IMU fighters.

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Foreign Policy Research Institute Senior Fellow David Satter is the author most recently of It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past, which is just out in paperback from the Yale University Press.

Originally published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Republished with permission.

(AP Photo)

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