Despite the fact that the main threats facing central Asia are its internal issues, as well as confrontation of big actors for spheres of influence in the region, Afghanistan, with its influence, could be the third critical factor for security.
Throughout the 25 years since the moment of gaining of independence by the governments of central Asia, Afghanistan remains one of the main suppliers of terrorists, religious extremists and drugs. At the same time, Afghanistan is a very complex region for analysis, with its own stack of political, economic, inter-tribal etc. contradictions, on which there is an influence (political, economic) from western states (USA and Germany) and neighboring ones, first of all Pakistan, Iran and China.
During the operation enduring freedom that started in October of 2001, a slew of commanders of global terrorist groups was liquidated, including terrorist number 1 Osama bin Laden (2011) as well as other influential field commanders. This became the formal reason to announce, in 2012 the withdrawal of troops of international anti-terrorist coalition ISAF before 2014.
However, having placed their military bases in Afghanistan, US is implementing its long-term geopolitical goals, first of all, reshaping of the region with its interests of constraining China in the context of competition for global dominance, creation of additional foothold for carrying potential strikes on Iran, as well as localizing of Russia’s efforts to save their influence in the region.
The “forced” agreement on strategic partnership between USA and Afghanistan, which was made on may 2 2012 and oversees remaining of American military bases and objects on Afghan territory until 2024 with the right of prolongation of terms their presence, proves our thesis.
In april Donald Trump returned to Pentagon the right to determine optimal number of American military-men in Afghanistan for solution of aimed goals. At the same time Washington recognizes the existing situation as a tough one. In July a final strategy of US in Afghanistan will be formed. It looks like the number of American servicemen will increase by at least 5 thousand. Right now there is 8.4 thousand of them in Afghanistan, moreover there is over 6 thousand servicemen from member-nations of NATO and around 30 thousand fighters of private foreign military campaigns.
In the backdrop of long-term military fastening of USA in Afghanistan, other that try to expand their spheres of influence in this country are Pakistan and Iran, as well as China and India entered the fight. Such a concentration on their territory of competing serious foreign players (and today we can speak of formation of informal coalitions China-Pakistan and USA-India) doesn’t promise anything good for Afghanistan, since as we know, in a fight between everyone, giving of financial or other (supply of arms, military transport service) aid to terror organization is an effective tool.
From the viewpoint of prospect for solving of Afghan crisis, a crucial factor is Afghan-Pakistani relations, a foundation for which lies in the unrecognized by Kabul so-called Durand line, as a border between two governments. An absence of the border remains a threat factor for territorial wholeness of Pakistan. Due to this, Islamabad is invested in Kabul having a friendly and ideally puppet regime.
Thus, motivation for Pakistan’s support of Taliban* (in this article Taliban means strictly IMTA – Islamic movement of talibs in Afghanistan) – author is trying to avoid the accepted and confusing interpreting of the term Talib, under which is usually assumed any oppositional to Kabul military formations) and other armed formations on the territory of Afghanistan, that are hostile to the powers in Kabul.
Despite the fact that in may of 2015 an agreement between Inter-institutional intelligence of Pakistan (ISI) and Administration for national security of Afghanistan a memorandum on mutual understanding was signed (which was an important and quite sensational fact in bilateral negotiations) the level of distrust and hostility didn’t go down. In the opinion of majority of surveyed Afghan experts (though part of the same military-political bloc) such memorandum as well as visit in May of Pakistani parliamentary delegation headed by the speaker of the parliament Ayaz Sadyk and then the head of ISI Navid Mukhtar will not bring significant positive changes to bilateral relations. In their opinion, for Pakistan Afghanistan is just a pawn in the game for receiving maximum benefit from relations with US.
Whatever it is, but the responsibility for a large terror attack, that took place in Kabul on May 31 2017, was put by Kabul regime on the fighters of “Khakani network” which is known for its close ties to ISI. After that Kabul regime has proceeded with execution of earlier death sentences for 11 members of Khakani network (this organization is considered by many experts to be a part of IMTA, but in authors opinion, based on the survey of slew of afghan experts it is a separate organization, having direct access to ISI and source of financing.
Also unquestionable is the information from various sources that territories of Pakistan are used by IMTA, Khakani network and other terrorist organizations for placing of fighter preparation camps, recruitment of new allies, collection of financial aid as well as organizing of treatment, etc.
Recently there were serious armed confrontations between subdivisions 209 of armed corps Shahin and subdivisions of IMTA in region of Imam Sahib of the Kunduz province. Organizing of efforts to seize the region without outside support and home front supply is essentially impossible and the fact of offensive actions from Taliban, in surveyed experts’ opinion is a proof of continuing support of this movement from Pakistan.
In recent times, Afghan sources indicate an increase in the number of followers of IS in the north of Afghanistan, from the ranks of people of central-Asian republics. In their opinion they are initially thrown by the military-transport aviation of US from Iraq and Syria into Pakistan and then via helicopters without identifying marks with stops into the north of Afghanistan. Such information is pretty common, including in Afghan press. However, what is perplexing is the fact that in most cases it is impossible to verify the purity of the initial source.
The same problem with information is with Turkmen sources. They indicate that, on Afghan-Turkmen border there is in fact a galvanizing of activity of Turkmen ethnic criminal groups, though of the ones that are far removed from any political dogmas. I.e. these groups don’t care under whose name to fight.
Also Turkmen sources indicate that provocations are organized by delegates of Great Britain, that act in the interest of USA, that are trying to get more tight military cooperation from Turkmenistan. However, I wasn’t able to get any documented proof – even in the form of photograph of a particular citizen of Great Britain with his connection to an area in the north of Afghanistan. This is why I am very distrustful of any such information even the one received by the way of personal discussion with the sources.
Still, we need to pay attention to the statements of former president of Afghanistan Khamid Karzai, who participated in end of April’s VI Moscow conference on international security. In the interview to Fox News he announced that terrorist group IS turned up in Afghanistan in 2015 with the support from US, and during his tenure as president from december 2004 until September 2014, he received daily messages about occurrence of helicopters without identifying marks, which dropped cargo to terrorist groups at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
In the Afghanistan’s former president’s claim that US is the creator of IS, one can see a contradiction with the fact of liquidation of april 27th in the Nangarhar province, by US- Afghan intelligence of the head of Afghan branch of IS “khalif of Islamic state of Khorasan” Abduala Hasib. Also, before that, in 2016, of his predecessor Hafiz Said Khan. However, one shouldn’t forget, that based on the estimate of the experts from intelligence services, Afghan IS, while keeping in touch with the core of IS in Syria in Iraq, doesn’t have significant operative independence. Plus, liquidation of terrorist leaders, who got out of control of intelligence, that created them, is a common practice.
Based on UN data, that was also voiced at the aforementioned Moscow conference in the present time the number of fighters of IS in Afghanistan is 2-3.5 thousand people. Most of them are supposedly citizens of central Asia and Kazakhstan, that received fighting experience in Syria and Iraq. However, such point of view is not shared by all experts. Those who deal with Afghanistan professionally for 25 years or longer indicate that initial core of Afghan branch of IS consisted of Pashtuns from the Urukzai area, near Durand line.
Notably, not so long ago, religious schools were built and supported in tribal areas of Momand, Bejawer, Kuram, Urukzai, etc. through the funds of CIA from the so-called “tribal politics fund” effective on the territories of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Iraq.
In the light of forecasted worsening of situation in Afghanistan, including due to transfer of part of fighters of IS from Syria and Iraq, cooperation of foreign players with each other, that have personal interests in Afghanistan, with the goal of neutralizing of military-political, religious and drug-related threats coming from it, become vital. However, this doesn’t happen even at the level of signing of some non-binding memorandums about intentions between say NATO-CST or NATO-SCO; moreover US practically openly opposes expanding of the mandate of CST, considering it the tool of Russian influence.
At the same time, American experts forecast that the onset of war in central asia will completely destroy economy of Russia. In their opinion Russia is already waging prolonged wars, damaging to its economy in Syria, Ukraine and in the north Caucasus (they think that despite pacification of Chechen republic, northern Caucasus continues to be on fire for 23 years already). The price of a new war in CA will cost an inordinate price for Russia, both in economic and sense.
American experts assume that such war with participation from CST will not be supported by the majority of local population, for whom Russia will serve as a defender of their corrupt regimes, that led their states and population to poverty and war. Essentially this will lead to long and costly guerilla war.
In my opinion, a real international cooperation with the goal of solving of Afghan crisis isn’t possible not because someone doesn’t understand the scope of threats coming from Afghanistan for neighboring countries and the world. On the contrary, everyone understands that, and some even try justify their own personal domestic situations and calculations through the threat of Afghanistan.
The main reason is that Afghanistan is a very important part and subject of the world’s shadow economy and as such ended up at the center of complicated web of interests of many governments and non-governmental cross-border actors.
In this situation, not much depends on the bilateral Russian-Afgahn relations. Without a doubt, Afghanistan is interested in Russian investments, for example, in extracting of natural resources. At the same time, we shouldn’t forget that a number of promising deposits of oil, gas, brass, chrome and rare-earth metals, were discovered by Soviet scientists; still for Russia including for Russian private business, Afghanistan today, isn’t an attractive country in terms of investing.
Author had a chance to participate in discussion of a slew of commercial projects on the territory of Afghanistan. As a rule, everything ended at the stage of creating of preliminary calculation of costs (primary related to providing security), not related to production. No sane businessman would agree to such expenditures. This clearly isn’t a time to spend Russian budget in Afghanistan. Moreover, there are still fresh memories of “remains of Soviet investments” being destroyed almost from the start, at the onset of operation “Enduring freedom”.
Russian experts and some service companies work in Afghanistan in the private sector. As a rule they work also in the projects of international organizations. But those cases, even if tied together, could not be called Russian economic presence in Afghanistan. Today, Russian companies can work in Afghanistan exclusively in the projects financed within the framework of providing international aid to Afghanistan. But who would give them access to international financing?
As such Russian interests, in relation to Afghanistan, have a strictly political character and are mostly concentrated in the security sphere, first and foremost related to threats to central Asian countries neighboring Afghanistan, and in a wider sense – related to concerns of Russia with regards to military-strategic activity of US and its NATO allies in the region. Maybe recent inclusion of India and Pakistan into SCO with the rights of full-fledged members of that organization, as well as after inclusion of Iran, Afghan problem will get a new impulse for solution, which will be logical.
About the author: Andrey Medvedev is a Russian political expert, executive director ANO PolitKontakt.