Russia’s Return to Afghanistan

2 November 2010, 0400 EDT

The participation of four Russian counter-narcotics agents in a US/ISAF raid on four heroin labs in Afghanistan has left many pundits wondering whether the war in Afghanistan as well as US/NATO/ISAF–Russian relations are entering a new phase.  However, before one can speculate, there are a few misconceptions in news reports that I think should be clarified and corrected in order to place the story into its proper context.

First, several news papers have adopted the narrative that the Soviet military was “defeated” in Afghanistan. The NY Times report (10/29/2010) states,

“The operation, in which four opium refining laboratories and over 2,000 pounds of high-quality heroin were destroyed, was the first to include Russian agents. It also indicated a tentative willingness among Russian officials to become more deeply involved in Afghanistan two decades after American-backed Afghan fighters defeated the Soviet military there.” 

The notion that the mujahideen defeated the Soviet military in Afghanistan is a rather odd interpretation of history. (It seems part of the same myth which claims a decisive role for Stinger missiles while ignoring the neutralization of that technology through the transfer of SCUD missiles to the Kabul regime). The Afghan insurgents never overran a single Soviet military base from 1979 to 1989. And while parts of Afghanistan were not stabilized, it is important to keep in mind that Soviet strategy sought to destabilize and depopulate areas which were firmly under insurgent control. The Soviets did suffer heavy casualties during a nearly decade long occupation, but the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was part of a larger strategy by Mikhail Gorbachev to gain trust and breathing room from the West in order to restructure the Soviet economy.  In any case, the insurgents were not able to overthrow the Soviet backed Najibullah regime in Afghanistan until 1992, three years after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.  In large part the reason that the insurgents were unable to overwhelm the Kabul regime was evident in the Battle of Jalabad shortly after the Soviets withdrew in 1989 — the insurgents were simply unable to transition form a guerrilla force to a coordinated military force.  If the insurgents (backed by US and Pakistani intelligence) could not even overthrow the Kabul regime, it can hardly be argued that they defeated the USSR.  It is important to realize that the Soviets were not defeated so as to avoid a simplistic narrative arc which portrays the Russian interest in Afghanistan as either vengeful or foolish.

Second, it is worth noting (as several news articles correctly point out) that Russia has been cooperating with US/ISAF for some time by permitting logistics operations across Russian territory. Russian cooperation is obviously shaped by its own interests. Russia’s immediate interests in Afghanistan is quite clearly the need to stem the flow of heroin, which they have not been able to curtail through the demand side of the equation.  In essence, the (alleged) violation of Afghan sovereignty is a means of reasserting Russian sovereignty.  (I am saying that the violation of Afghan sovereignty is “alleged” because I do not accept the explanation by the Karzai regime’s media advisor, Rafi Ferdows, that even Afghans on the raid were unaware that Russians were accompanying them since all “yellow-skinned Angreez” look alike.)  Of course, this individual raid is unlikely to have much impact on the drug (and related HIV/AIDS problem) in Russia even in the short term. From a broader perspective, Russia is also concerned about the stability of Central Asia as a region, and Russia is not merely a passive player in regional security.  Russia has been in discussions with Tajikistan about using the Ayni airbase for the CSTO and beefing up security on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border.

Third, while the international media tends to emphasize those elements in a story which seem to produce sparks, conflict, and tension between states, there is little reason to accept the notion that Afghans as a people or their government are inherently opposed to Russian involvement in counter-narcotics. Despite denouncing the (supposedly) unauthorized Russian involvement, the Government of Afghanistan also stated that a bilateral agreement might be a possible route to future cooperation in counter-narcotics.  Afghanistan has cooperated with its regional neighbors to close drug labs in the past. The most recent case prior to the Russian raid was a nine month cooperative mission with Tajikistan’s Drug Control Agency which resulted in the closure of 12 drug labs in Afghanistan and the arrest of 50 drug dealers in the first nine months of this year.  In fact, there was apparently some discussion at last year’s SCO meeting of a quadrilateral counter-narcotics initiative involving the “quartet”: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Russia. Moreover, President Karzai had indicated only a couple weeks ago that Afghanistan seeks the best possible relations and trade transactions with China, India, and Russia.  Similarly, Azizollah Karzai, the Afghan ambassador to Russia (and Hamid Karzai’s uncle), mentioned a few weeks ago that the two countries share a commitment to fighting terrorism and narcotics.

Placed into context, it is likely that Russian counter-narcotics activity in Afghanistan will probably increase in the future.  However, this activity is not likely to be tense or conflictual (particularly because of something like Soviet era animosity); there are ample mutual interests and diplomatic mechanisms to ensure cooperation between the two countries. Finally, in terms of Russia’s relations with the US/NATO/ISAF, the involvement of Russians in the recent anti-narcotics operation does not seem to be a major deviation away from an already established pattern of cooperation on selective issues of vital interest to all the parties involved.