WASHINGTON, Oct. 22, 2015 — There are increasing signs that Russia may be inching toward expanding its presence in Afghanistan and that at least some locals would welcome Moscow’s interest. Only weeks after President Vladimir Putin launched a military effort in Syria, local and media began suggesting that Russia may move to Afghanistan next.
The speculation is fueled by comments by Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, as well as by visits to Moscow by Afghan leaders and concerns about NATO’s pullout from Afghanistan.
Local Afghan news widely carried comments by Putin during an address to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Kazakhstan on Oct. 16. In that speech Putin specifically mentioned Afghanistan. He said the situation in that country is “close to critical” and warned of “terrorists of different stripes…gaining more influence and not hiding their plans for further expansion.” He also urged the CIS members to “be ready to react in concert.”
To some in Afghanistan, that suggested that Russia is ready to take action against terrorists in the country. One intelligence officer in the region said his sources are well aware of Russia’s actions in Syria, and some have interpreted Putin’s comments as suggesting he will “come in and blow up the terrorists” in Afghanistan.
One source took a U.S. military officer in Afghanistan aside and asked, “Do you think Putin will launch air strikes here too?”
Lavrov took up the theme a day later, noting that the military situation in Afghanistan had “sharply deteriorated.” He also stated Moscow would “continue assisting” Kabul in its fight against terrorists.
Russia has backed the international mission in Afghanistan by supplying weapons, ammunition and helicopters. It has also provided a critical supply route for international troops in Afghanistan.
The take-over of Kunduz last month by the Taliban has made many in Afghanistan nervous about the future, especially post-NATO, and has caused some to look toward Russia for solutions. NPR reported that the attack on Kunduz led many leaders in Afghanistan to believe the United States and NATO are losing the war against the Taliban.
One military source in Afghanistan admitted, “Some of the tribal leaders believe the West is basically pulling out and giving up, and the Taliban’s take-over of Kunduz was their proof of that. They are afraid of the Taliban and afraid of what will happen if we leave.”
Senior Afghan officials have recently visited Moscow, further raising questions about Russian interest in Afghanistan.
Sources in Afghanistan say officials traveled to Moscow to request more military assistance in the fight against militants. The Afghan military has complained publicly about lack of weapons and ammunition, as well as lack of airplanes and spare parts. Afghanistan also continues to request training and intelligence advisers.
However, Lavrov publicly stated that Moscow has not received an official request for help.
Afghanistan not only is fighting the Taliban, but is also dealing with the new threat of the Islamic State in the country. ISIS fighters attacked Afghan military positions in September, and new photos released by the group reportedly show training camps in northern Afghanistan.
Russia is concerned about instability so close to its borders and its sphere of influence and wants to avoid radical contagion. Putin is already discussing a joint border task force with Central Asian leaders to keep militants from entering their areas. The advances by the Taliban and the growing presence of ISIS are of particular concern for Putin, who already has a problem with radical Islamists in some former Soviet republics. Conflict in Afghanistan’s previously peaceful north is also troubling to Putin.
Moreover, Putin is gaining momentum in his efforts in the Middle East, and has taken a public posture of filling vacuums left by the United States. He could see Afghanistan as yet another public relations point in his proxy conflict with Washington.
At the same time, however, both Moscow and Kabul are likely wary of another actual Russian incursion into Afghanistan. The Soviet military intervention into Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 was an economic, political and military disaster. Many Afghanis doubt Russia’s sincerity and its intentions, and Russians desperately want to avoid a quagmire. Moreover, Afghanistan wants to avoid becoming another battlefield in the fight between the United States and Russia for global influence.
Sources report that, while most in Afghanistan do not trust Russia, others think Syria-like actions by Russia could give Afghanistan the upper hand against the Taliban. However, the scars from the Soviet incursion are still fresh in Afghanistan, and many Afghan citizens would violently oppose an expanded role by Russia.
The most likely scenario is for Russia to step up supplies to Afghanistan without becoming directly involved in the conflict. This will please Kabul while not alienating Washington and could work to keep terrorists in check.
However, one intelligence officer in the Middle East commented that it is not “out of the question” that Putin could conduct air strikes or some other direct military activity.
“Remember,” he notes, “This is Putin we are talking about. It may not make sense to us, but it may make sense to him. And his is really the only vote that counts.”