Another Russia-U.S. Proxy War Looms Over Afghanistan

Photo: iStock.com/michaelbwatkins

As the Trump Administration struggles to develop a strategy in Afghanistan, Russia has surreptitiously inserted itself into the mix. In late July, reports once again surfaced that Russia has been providing material support to Taliban militants battling U.S., NATO, and Afghan forces. In some respects, this seems as though a complete role reversal between the U.S. and Russia in Afghanistan has taken place over the last three-plus decades. During the 1980s, the CIA funneled weapons to Afghan rebels who were fighting Kabul’s communist government and the Soviet troops backing it. And now, by aiding the Taliban, Russia has seized an opportunity to inflict casualties on U.S. supported Afghan forces and extract revenge.

“The Russians probably look at this role reversal as a delicious irony and a payback for their own involvement in Afghanistan years ago,” Mike Sulick, Cipher Brief expert and former Director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, told The Cipher Brief. “They have a long memory. I’m sure many of them still resent the U.S. provision of weapons to the Afghans and eventually, the Russians walking from the area with their heads held down.”

Russia’s interests in Afghanistan are longstanding, dating back to 19th century when the British and Russian empires vied for political and military control over the country in what came to be known as the “Great Game.” Today, Moscow views security along Afghanistan’s northern border with Tajikistan – a key Russian ally – as critical for its regional interests. Furthermore, Russian President Vladimir Putin may be chomping at the bit to expand his influence into a part of the world where the U.S. has gained little traction in cultivating capable partners or recruiting trusted allies.

A growing Russian presence in Afghanistan could transform the war-torn country into the next “Syria,” – a proxy battleground between Russia and the United States. At the very least, Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan may jolt the U.S. government into finally addressing perennial questions that have remained unanswered over the last sixteen years, during the Bush, Obama and now the Trump administrations: should the U.S. maintain its military presence in Afghanistan, and what is the most desirable outcome for a country that has seen persistent war for nearly half a century?

To some, including Barnett Rubin, professor at New York University and an expert on Afghanistan, a strategic withdrawal of U.S. military personnel from Afghanistan combined with continued U.S. funding for the Afghan military and the country’s social service programs could benefit both Washington and Kabul.

“The endgame should be to negotiate conditions under which the U.S. and NATO can withdraw their troops from Afghanistan without a collapse of the Afghan state or the violent seizure of power by the Taliban or any other group, leaving behind a government that will be a moderate effective partner in fighting ISIS, al Qaeda, Leshkar-E-Taiba (LeT), or other international terrorist groups,” says Rubin. “The U.S. should commit to continued funding for at least a decade of the Afghan state, including its security forces, education, health care, and economic management.”

Others maintain that the U.S. should keep a military presence in Afghanistan, however indirect their combat role may be.

“I believe there are enough U.S. interests at stake for there to be a relatively modest U.S. commitment to Afghanistan,” Admiral Sandy Winnefeld, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview with Cipher Brief reporter Mackenzie Weinger. “Thus, I have to believe that our role should be indirect. That means robust close air support, training, and logistical support, but not direct action, except against legitimate targets that pose a threat to the United States.”

Last month, The New York Times reported that the Trump Administration is considering replacing U.S. forces in Afghanistan with private security contractors, a proposal that has been heavily criticised.

“I guess if you had never dealt with foreign governments, if you had never paid attention to all of the complaints and charges and attacks on U.S. posture and the U.S. role overseas, it might not occur to you that essentially saying we’re going to send in a force of mercenaries is about the fastest political way to aid terrorists, anti-American arguments, and virtually any critic of the United States you can possibly find,” Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Cipher Brief.

And with the U.S. seemingly stuck in neutral in Afghanistan since the mid-2000s, there has been a growing sentiment that the U.S. is actually losing the war in Afghanistan, a country that has been billed as the “graveyard of empires.”

What much of the Afghanistan debates seems to effectively boil down to is a critical cost-benefit analysis: is the threat of Afghanistan devolving back into a safe haven for terrorist organizations to train, plot, and organize attacks against the U.S. and its interests in the region enough to warrant a continued U.S. troop presence in the country and justify the U.S. spending approximately $50 billion per year on a country filled with corruption, which remains in disarray?

“We have fallen into that decision-making paradigm where policymakers and military leaders seem incapable of thinking of anything else that might work better,” explains Cipher Brief expert and former CIA Chief of Station Kevin Hulbert. “We have other mechanisms at our disposal, too. U.S. Central Command leaving Afghanistan would not mean us having to abandon the counterterrorist mission there.”

“Take Pakistan, for example,” he continued. “Pakistan has been the home of al Qaeda’s senior leadership for the last 16 years, and we don’t have any boots on the ground in Pakistan, yet we have proven very capable in managing the threat emanating from al Qaeda’s senior leadership there by working with the Pakistanis and using a variety of other covert action tools at our disposal. You don’t think we could do the same thing in Afghanistan?”

On Thursday, U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) unveiled his Afghan strategy, which he plans to file as an amendment to the 2017 defense authorization bill next month. Although he did not offer specifics on U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, McCain said in a statement that the amendment would put forth an “integrated civil-military strategy,” which includes deploying more U.S. troops to the country; authorizing enhanced targeting authority against terrorist groups such as the Taliban, Haqqani network, ISIS, and al Qaeda; working with the Afghan government to draw up an agreement for a long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan; increasing U.S. air and economic support conditioned on the Afghan government meeting certain anti-corruption standards; and ramping up pressure on Pakistan to eliminate terrorist safe havens.

Perhaps the biggest concern now is what would happen if the White House decides to abandon the Afghan mission and completely turns its back on the country. Such a decision may be seen as the U.S. taking a back seat to Russia, similar to what happened in Syria, when Russia intervened to bolster the Assad government, and the U.S. pulled its support for Syrian democratic forces. This risks offsetting any security and political gains that have been achieved since 9/11— the very reason the U.S. entered Afghanistan in the first place.

Bennett Seftel is deputy director of analysis at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @BennettSeftel.

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