By Brian M Downing
Russia’s use of its military and security forces has historically not been known for economy of force or strategic subtlety. Injudicious invaders and troublesome satellites have been met with overwhelming force. However, in the decades after Joseph Stalin and his successors belatedly departed the scene, Russia has used its might more judiciously and subtly.
Russia‘s incursion into Georgia in 2008 succinctly conveyed displeasure with North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) expansion into Eastern Europe, underscored the vulnerability of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline linking Central Asia to the West, and made countries in the area wonder if they could rely on NATO security arrangements.
Joint Russian-US raid on opium caches in
Afghanistan demonstrates even more economy of force, and considerable craft as well. It registers Russia’s deep concern with the disintegrating situation in Afghanistan, strengthens global perceptions of geopolitical partnership with the US, and is eliciting concern in Afghanistan, the Taliban leadership, Pakistan, and China. All this with a single strike conducted by a small force.
US Drug Enforcement Agency officials and a task force including Russians and Afghans destroyed four opium refining laboratories and over 1,000 kilograms of high-quality heroin in Zerasari village of Achin district, in Nangarhar province near the Pakistani border.
Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of heroin, with the opium crop last year estimated at almost 4,000 tons. Most of the drugs that flow into Russia come from Afghanistan.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has vigorously protested the raid, remonstrating from his Kabul retreat that it was an affront to national sovereignty. Indeed it was – and that is precisely how Russia and its partner intend it to be read back in his heavily guarded splendor. To make the point even clearer and more stinging, Afghan forces were used without the Afghan president’s foreknowledge.
He has been upbraided for his government’s incompetence in national affairs and his family’s complicity in drug commerce. Plagued and angered by drugs smuggled in from Afghanistan, Iran – rival of the US but colleague of Russia – would wish this latter point made clearer to a man it gives bagfuls of cash. Further, any deal Karzai might be working on with the Taliban must take serious note of Russian interests, and not be arrived at in close collaboration with Pakistan and with undue consideration of the fortunes of the House of Karzai.
The Taliban have been served notice that Russia is concerned with the rise of militancy and terrorism near its southern periphery, which has a large Islamic population – and one with an unsettlingly high birthrate. The Taliban must respect that warning and limit its influence to the Afghan south and east.
Any Taliban effort to expand into the northern province of Kunduz, despite a sizable Pashtun population there, would endanger the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Those states have in recent years had to deal with militant groups tied to the Taliban and al-Qaeda – one of which, the Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan, was driven out in the 1990s, found haven in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, and today serves with al-Qaeda along the AfPak line.
There is little prospect of Russian troops returning to the Pashtun south and east, but implied in the raid, if only obliquely, is the possibility of Russian assistance in reconstituting the Northern Alliance armies – the non-Pashtun forces who fought the Taliban to a standstill in the 1990s and drove them out of the country in 2001 with US help. Northern peoples are increasingly weary of Pashtun pre-eminence in national affairs and are seeking international leverage against Karzai, assistance in rearming, and perhaps even support for regional independence.
There are doubtless drug assets in many parts of Afghanistan, especially in Helmand province in the south, but the Russian-US raid took place far away from Helmand and only about five kilometres from the border with Pakistan – an area where Pakistani frontier troops and intelligence personnel operate freely. The expression of opposition to Pakistani support for insurgents and its heavy hand in negotiations is clear, especially in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. The joint raid underscores the growing logistical cooperation between the US and Russia, which is an increasingly attractive alternative to the unreliable routes through Pakistan. Moscow has allowed non-lethal cargo destined for Afghanistan to be transported across Russian territory.
China‘s rather muscular foreign policy in recent months has raised concerns in states along its long periphery, including Russia, whose resource-laden Siberian region might seem attractive to a resource-hungry neighbouring power. China has also been working more closely with the Pakistani military; it has recently introduced thousands of uniformed “flood relief workers” near Kashmir. This of course has alarmed India, a longstanding Russian ally and a burgeoning regional and global power toward which the US has been drawing nearer in recent years.
The US and Russia are cooperating more closely in Central Asia and elsewhere on security matters. This cooperation indicates that renewed tensions between the two powers of a few years back – Cold War Two, it was being called – are being eased.
Neither Russia nor the US can afford increased defence budgets and the world can do without a rivalry exacerbating smaller conflicts around the globe. Further, their cooperation in stabilising Afghanistan or at least in limiting the Taliban’s expansion will be welcomed in many parts of the world, though not in Pakistan or China.