Responding to Afghan challenges


Responding to Afghan challenges

Эксперты МГИМО: Лукин Александр Владимирович, д.ист.н., PhD

Afghanistan is a tremendous challenge for the international community today — primarily because the conflict is so difficult to resolve. Today, it’s hard to say who is more to blame for Afghanistan’s failure as a state and the ensuing chaos — the Afghans, who dislodged a rather enlightened monarch, the Soviet Union, which sent troops to support a local revolution, only to later pull out, abandoning its former allies, the corrupt Afghan groups that are constantly fighting one another, the Taliban, which destroyed cultural values and supported Al-Qaeda, or the outside forces that defeated the Taliban, but failed to destroy them entirely and stabilize the country.

It’s worth remembering that the operation against the Taliban began in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist acts in New York City. It’s also worth noting that the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which is trying to stabilize Afghanistan, was formed upon the U. N. Security Council’s unanimous decision. Although the ISAF is a U.S.-led and NATO-commanded force, it involves over 40 countries — mostly non-NATO members.

Despite a decade of painstaking efforts, the ISAF has so far failed to gain control over the entire Afghan territory. The Taliban is waging a guerrilla war, and retains control over several regions. Worse still, most Taliban supporters, and possibly Al-Qaeda leaders as well, are based in Pakistan as opposed to Afghanistan — in a borderline region that isn’t controlled by the Pakistani government either.

This creates a vicious circle. No one can stabilize Afghanistan without gaining control over the borderline areas. Meanwhile, the Pakistani army isn’t in any hurry. At the same time, deploying international forces to the area could bring the already unstable country to the verge of collapse and further aggravate regional problems.

Realizing further fighting is futile, U. S. President Barack Obama’s administration wants nothing more than to pull out. Washington’s alleged malice and supposed desire to influence Central Asia through an Afghan foothold are a myth, although these ideas are popular among Russian and Chinese military and security officials.

During his election campaign, Obama promised to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The plan was supported by most voters. Given the present financial difficulties, few people in the United States want to spend their money on a lost war. Yet, pulling out is easier said than done. If the U.S. forces leave the country to the Taliban, they will be undermining U.S. prestige and returning the country to the 2001 situation. This would be as good as admitting that it can’t defeat terrorism.

U.S. military commanders claim they are almost winning — something they always do, while asking for more troops, supplies and funds. The Soviet command said the same thing, too, but eventually retreated without glory. Therefore, Washington is likely to withdraw its forces gradually, shifting control to the Afghan army, but preserving its bases so they can strike the Taliban if the situation worsens.

They will probably announce the operation’s closure and their final pullout in 2014, but a few units may linger on at key bases that are promptly being equipped.

Time will tell if this is the right strategy. It mostly worked in Iraq, but Afghanistan is a different story altogether. There are other factors working against stabilization, such as Pakistan, the mountains that provide shelter to terrorists, and the collapse of government agencies. If the ISAF forces are withdrawn gradually, then the Taliban is unlikely to have a quick victory.

One of the reasons for this is that Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic state, while the Taliban is a predominantly Pashtun group. Although the Pashtuns constitute the majority of the Afghan population, local Tajiks and Uzbeks have their own armed units and are strongly anti-Taliban. The Taliban, however, is quite capable of waging a protracted guerrilla war in which whole provinces, with their own governors and armies, may change sides repeatedly.

In general, the ISAF actions in Afghanistan largely benefit Russia. Afghanistan is a source of major threats to Russian security — chiefly drugs and terrorism. According to the Federal Drug Control Service, Afghanistan annually produces 800 tons of heroin, with 35% of the locally produced drugs supplied to Russia. The number of drug users in Russia has reached 5 million, and is growing further. If the Taliban wins, then radical Islamism will spread to Central Asia and could penetrate Russia.

The opium poppy crops have increased 40-fold over the past decade — that is, during the anti-Taliban operation. However, this isn’t the result of an alleged U.S. policy to flood Russia with drugs so as to benefit from the country’s troubles — another widespread myth. On the contrary, the ISAF command is simply wary of cracking down on drugs. Opium poppy farming is the only source of income for many Afghans, and losing it could prod them to support the Taliban.

Therefore, Russia is pursuing a wise policy. While underscoring the need to take a stronger stance against drugs, it supports the ISAF in every way except militarily.

It would take a comprehensive effort to resolve Afghanistan’s problems, including the drug issue. The country’s living standards must be improved, the people should be provided with other sources of income than drug production and trafficking, and the Afghan government needs help establishing an effective political system. The interests of the international community and its major players — the United States, Europe, China and India — all coincide here.

Supporting the international coalition and deepening economic and political cooperation with Afghanistan would draw the ISAF withdrawal closer, and also help stabilize the country.

Alexander Lukin is Director of the Center for East Asian and Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation.

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