"Russia Back in Afghanistan, But in a Necessarily Limited Capacity"
Op-Ed, Global Intelligence Report
November 4, 2010
Author: Simon Saradzhyan, Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
SITUATION: The participation of Russian agents in a recent joint special forces operation on Afghan territory falls short of crossing the Rubicon for Russian forces that have foresworn to return to Afghanistan after leaving more than two decades, but highlights Moscow's preparations for the containment of instability emanating from this country as the US-led coalition there ponders exit strategies.
Last month saw US, Russian, and Afghan agents jointly raid four laboratories in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border in what the US embassy in Moscow billed as an unprecedented collaborative military operation.
Russia's Federal Drug Police, the US Drug Enforcement Agency, the US Department of Defense, NATO, and the Afghan Interior Ministry were all involved in the raid, which destroyed an estimated $250 million worth of heroin and morphine at four labs on the AfPak border.
ANALYSIS: The operation, in which some 930 kilograms of heroin was seized, cannot have any long-term practical impact on steady exports of this drug from Afghanistan, where some 360 tons of heroin are produced annually, according to UN estimates.
However, the symbolic importance of the operation cannot be overestimated, given Russia's repeated vows to never again send any forces to Afghanistan, which the last Soviet military unit left in February 1989, crossing the Amu-Daria River to end Moscow's ill-fated and bloody attempt to transform Afghanistan into a stable ally.
Only four Russian agents participated in the past raids, but Afghan President Hamid Karzai still protested Russia's involvement while the Afghan Ministry of Counternarcotics dodged questions on whether Russian personnel were involved.
Karzai's protests highlight Afghans' aversion to any pretense of Russian forces on Afghan soil, which runs strong even though Moscow has supplied the current regime in Kabul with helicopters, arms, and other military hardware as well as training Afghan security personnel. Neither is the public in Russia supportive of returning Russian soldiers to the arid lands, where over 14,000 Soviet soldiers died during the 1979-1989 campaign which gave birth to Russia's version of America's Vietnam syndrome.
Russian Deployment Considered: Nevertheless, in spite of strong opposition in Moscow and Kabul, Russian forces may indeed be returning to Afghanistan on a limited scale. In fact, Russian officials have discussed such a return with their US counterparts, according to reports in the Russian press.
Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov discussed deployment of Russian forces in Afghanistan during his meeting with US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in Washington in mid-September. Following the talks, a Russian General Staff source told Russia's Argumenty Nedeli newspaper that Moscow had pondered sending the 45th Separate Reconnaissance Regiment of the Internal Troops to Afghanistan to help the US-led operation.
NATO officials have said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will attend a Alliance summit in Lisbon on 19-20 November to discuss the terms of an agreement which could see Russian forces enter Afghanistan for the first time since Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev pulled them out in 1989, according to a 27 October report by CBSNews.com. The agreement would reportedly provide for Moscow's involvement in training of the Afghan military and counter-drugs personnel, delivery of several dozens of helicopters, and increase in transit of military cargoes by rail via Russia and its Central Asian allies.
The Public Semantics of Deployment: In spite of the agreement, Russian government may still be able to keep its promise to send no military units to Afghanistan. The Russian Special Forces that participated in the raids were part of the Federal Drug Police. Just like the 45th Separate Reconnaissance Regiment of the Interior Ministry Troops, the Federal Drug Police units belong to Russia's law-enforcement establishment and are not part of the Defense Ministry. Therefore, their involvement cannot be technically described as the use of the armed forces in Afghanistan, from which Russian leaders have vowed to refrain in their messages to both domestic and foreign audiences.
Afghan Drugs, the Bane of Russian Society: And Russia has a very good reason to send law-enforcement personnel to Afghanistan in the eyes of both domestic and foreign audiences. Since the start of NATO's military operation in Afghanistan the production of narcotic drugs in that country has grown more than 40 times, according to Viktor Ivanov, who heads the Federal Drug Policy. According to this law-enforcement agency, about 2.5 million people in Russia were addicted to heroin as of 2009; the number of drug addicts in Russia has increased tenfold over the past decade; and from 30,000 to 40,000 people die from heroin in Russia annually.
Containment in the Face of a NATO Withdrawal: Russia also needs to expand its capability to project force within and without Afghanistan and contain instability there in case US-led NATO forces pull out. And Russian leaders think this exit may happen fairly soon. "Victory is impossible in Afghanistan. Obama is right to pull the troops out," Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev told BBC in late October. Therefore, involvement of Russian agents in dismantling elements of Afghanistan's booming drug industry may be an attempt to destroy at least some of the targets before NATO exits and Russia will have to begin containment of a failed state that would threaten its southern underbelly.
Russia's Economic Interests in Afghanistan: Apart from the vital interest in preventing the spread of instability from Afghanistan, Russia may have important economic interests in Afghanistan, where geological surveys conducted by the US and reported in the US press in June 2001 found to contain about $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits. Also in October 2010, Russia's influential Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin said Russia could join the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas-pipeline project.
BOTTOM LINE: However, while national interests require a more active posture of Russia vis-à-vis Afghanistan, including selected involvement of its law-enforcement agencies in special operations inside the country, as well as in terms of the robust containment of Central Asia borders with Russia, Moscow should not and will not concede to a full-fledged return of its armed forces to Afghanistan, which has seen great powers take painfully unsuccessful turns at attempting to either conquer or at least stabilize it.
Copyright 2010, The Global Intelligence Report. All rights reserved. Available at http://www.globalintelligencereport.com/articles/russia-back-in-afghanistan-in-limited-capacity
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