What Is Russia Doing In Afghanistan?

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Afghan National Security Forces gather around a Russian aircraft at International Kabul Airport. (Rahmat Gul/AP)
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The Soviet Union fought a bloody and disastrous war in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Despite this, Russia is still active in the region today. In fact, Sen. John McCain said last week that Russia is propping up the Taliban to undermine U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.

Here & Now‘s Meghna Chakrabarti speaks with Andrew Weiss (@andrewsweiss), vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Interview Highlights

On the motivation behind Russia’s presence in Afghanistan

“Well, I don’t think we’re talking so much about presence, so much as we’re talking about harassment and efforts by the Russians to undermine the United States- and NATO-led military effort there. What we’ve seen in recent days, including this week, are the Russians trying to build a diplomatic profile on Afghanistan that basically circumvents what the U.S.-led effort is about and circumvents the government of Afghanistan itself.”

“So, what they’re doing is they’re basically building bridges to the Taliban, the radical group which ruled Afghanistan before the U.S. military intervention in 2001. And they’re trying to basically legitimize the Taliban. They seem to be doing that on the back of a false narrative, which is what Gen. Nicholson was just talking about, which claims that the Taliban are the only serious group operating against Islamic State in Afghanistan. There are other indications of Russian intelligence sharing with the Taliban, which began at least starting in 2015. There’s indications of Russian cross-border military activity, and possibly some weapons being transferred from the Russian government to the Taliban. When Gen. Nicholson was testifying the other day, he said he wouldn’t talk about any of those issues in open session. So, we’re operating on the basis of press reports. The other thing which we’re aware of is a Russian diplomatic offensive. This week there’s a big conference in Moscow. They’ve invited various regional stakeholders, they’ve excluded the United States and NATO from participating in that diplomatic exchange in Moscow.”

On Russian concerns about the drug trade in Afghanistan

“Well, there’s no doubt that the drug trade, the flow of narcotics that are grown in Afghanistan across this very porous border into central Asia and then onward into drug markets in Russia — that’s clearly a problem. But I think the root of it is the United States and Russia are now acting like competing great powers, and times, adversarial great powers. So, when you see Russian planes buzzing U.S. military vessels in the Black Sea in recent days, you see the interference in our election, you see the attempts to undermine the U.S. image around the world as a bastion of democracy — this I would put in the same basket. It’s ankle biting, it’s trying to undermine the U.S. military effort. For many years, the Russians were quite upset about the U.S. military presence on the territory of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, post-Soviet successor countries. They worked very hard to basically get us kicked out of those countries. And now that the United States is backing away from its long-term military commitment to Afghanistan, I think they’re saying there’s an opening here for Russian influence.”

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On a potential repeat of the Soviet war in Afghanistan

“I think the Russian government is unlikely, as they say in Russian, step into that river twice. But we are seeing, I think, is a revival of Cold War-style thinking. There was a great interview the other day in TASS, the Russian state news agency, with their main envoy for Afghanistan. And in this interview, Ambassador Kabulov really portrays the entire question of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan in Cold War terms. He talks about how the U.S. used to have these big bases in Iran, we got kicked out of Iran after the revolution. We then seized on Afghanistan as a pivot point to project influence toward the Middle East, toward China, Pakistan and Russia. And he sort of talks about, you know, ‘We lived through the Cold War, we know what this is all about,’ and there’s this really larding it quite darkly in terms of being geopolitical great-gain competition. I think that kind of talk is a reflection of what policy’s all about, which is if they can do things to squeeze out the United States or to make the U.S. lose, that’s gotta be good for Russia. I think that’s a misguided way to think about a problem as complex as Afghanistan, but it clearly holds a lot of sway at senior levels in the Russian government.”

On how Russian influence complicates U.S. efforts in Afghanistan

“You’d have to talk to somebody who’s following Afghanistan more closely than I do to understand exactly how much the political challenge facing the U.S. and the Congress right now, particularly the Trump administration, in lobbying for a greater military role in Afghanistan is affected by the Russian issue. My sense is that’s probably a second-order factor, but I’m not an expert on that issue. I think what I would focus more on is that the United States is doing things militarily, diplomatically and politically inside Afghanistan, and having this Russian role is just simply unhelpful. So it’s more, I think, a question of it being eroding some of the political processes that we’re trying to promote — for example, there was a peace initiative that basically involved the government in Kabul making amends and trying to get a group led by one of the warlords, Hekmatyar, taken off the UN sanctions list. Basically, for mischief-making purposes, the Russians intervened and basically said, ‘No, we’re not sure that makes sense right now,’ and it undermined an attempt to promote reconciliation within Afghanistan. So, I’d put most of what we’re seeing in the category of harassment and attempts to disrupt what the United States and the government in Kabul are doing, rather than an attempt to actually insert Russia directly back into this conflict.”

On whether Russia has been successful in its attempts to harass U.S. efforts

“Yeah, no, I’m sure. As Nicholson said in his testimony last week, the war’s at a stalemate. So, I think when you’re in a situation like that, any effort by the Russians to basically undermine what the United States is doing is a net-negative, both for us, and I think most tragically for the people of Afghanistan.”

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