Withdrawal From Afghanistan Could Kill the U.S.-Russia 'Reset'

As the U.S. and NATO plan to leave Afghanistan, Russia faces a security challenge it's not ready for and an alliance with the U.S. that suddenly looks less attractive

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Tajikistan President Imomali Rakhmon grips Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev at a regional summit in Dushanbe as Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai stand to the side / Reuters

MOSCOW, Russia -- When the U.S. starts its scheduled troop pullout from Afghanistan in 2014, it will represent the end of America's bloody decade-plus engagement there, and the fading away of Americans' attention to Central Asia. But to Russians, 2014 instead marks a beginning: when Afghanistan becomes their problem again.

Moscow has been publicly critical of U.S. involvement in Central Asia, calling it an encroachment on their sphere of influence, but that rhetoric hid an inconvenient secret: behind the Kremlin's closed doors, observers here believe, Russians were glad that the U.S. was doing their dirty work. Even after the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, Moscow continued to station Russian border guards in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan and aided Afghanistan's Northern Alliance. Nevertheless, a low-level but persistent Islamist radical insurgency bedeviled several of the Central Asian states on Russia's southern border.

But, over the past ten years, those insurgencies have dwindled, in part because would-be jihadis from  Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and elsewhere in the former Soviet republics were drawn to Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight the U.S. and NATO there. Now those fighters are battle-hardened by a decade of fighting against the best military in the world, and with the prospect of the U.S. departure, could be looking for new targets. Russian officials have lately taken to publicly warning of the consequences, and it's hard to blame them.
"Russia should expect the activation of militant activity on the borders of Central Asia after the withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq and Afghanistan," said Colonel-General Vladimir Chirkin, commander of Russia's Central Military District. "Threats can now come creeping to our southern borders."

"We do not want NATO to go and leave us to face the jackals of war after stirring up the anthill. Immediately after the NATO withdrawal, they will expand towards Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and it will become our problem then," said Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, in an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro.

"Moscow is afraid, first and foremost because what the U.S. and the coalition were doing is very much in the interest of Russia, keeping the Taliban as far away as possible from Central Asia and Russia," said Andrei Zagorski, an expert on Russia's relations with the West at Moscow's Institute of World Economy and International Relations. And now that the U.S. is leaving, he told me, "Moscow has no viable strategy for this."

The Kremlin's first move has been to beef up the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russia-led political-military bloc consisting of former Soviet states, in the hopes that the group can somehow become a viable collective security organ. In September, it held military drills with 12,000 soldiers from Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

The group's general secretary, Nikolai Bordyuzha, said the drills were aimed at preparing for the 2014 withdrawal. "We are not on the verge of solving the problems in Afghanistan, but on the worsening of them, and quite a qualitatively different situation in the Central Asian region, especially after 2014," he said. "The prognosis is clear: Afghanistan will remain a base for organizing terrorist and extremist activities, we feel."

But it's not clear how Moscow intends the group to work. While the recent CSTO exercises focused on conventional military threats, Moscow has shown little stomach for militarily action outside its own borders. Last year, as unrest in CSTO member-state Kyrgyzstan devolved into horrific ethnic pogroms, the CSTO declined to step in. Some top officials have suggested that they should try to combat popular movements like the Arab Spring, even considering such as options as shutting down Twitter to forestall popular uprisings in Central Asia. But military intervention, it seems, is not on the table. Other officials say the CSTO should act as a security assistance tool, building up the hapless, often corrupt security forces of Central Asia to be able to manage threats from Afghanistan on their own.

There is an alternate theory: that Russia doesn't actually believe the U.S. will ever leave Afghanistan, and is ginning up the threat from Afghanistan in order to intimidate the governments of Central Asia into rallying behind the Kremlin. "There is a danger, but we also might be exaggerating the danger," said Arkady Dubnov, a Russian journalist and expert on Central Asia. "What we're seeing now is PR, preparation for this period [when the U.S. leaves]. This PR is to prepare popular opinion, internal Russian popular opinion, and also Central Asian popular opinion, to accept the inevitability of Russian security measures." By most indications, however, the Kremlin's fear is genuine.

The U.S. pullout also threatens to seriously harm relations between the U.S. and Russia. Perhaps the greatest dividend of the reset has been cooperation on Afghanistan, particularly Russia's permission to ship U.S. military cargo over Russian territory and airspace to Afghanistan. Cooperation on Afghanistan has been win-win, and its importance has cooled heads on both sides -- something that's been particularly important when dealing with contentious issues that might have otherwise provoked bitter feuds, such as missile defense or Iran. That could change once the U.S. leaves.

"It's going to remove some of the glue that made the reset possible, and then there are all sorts of implications," said Mikhail Troitsky, a Russian analyst and co-author of a recent report on U.S.-Russian relations and Russia's near abroad. "If there's no Afghanistan, I think people on both sides will think they can get away with much harsher rhetoric."

With Afghanistan today, Russia has a bargaining chip with the U.S., but that dynamic might be about to change. "Now, we say: 'You have a problem there, we can help.' When the coalition leaves Afghanistan, the situation will be reversed  -- Russia will need help," Zagorski said. The U.S., though, on the other side of the ocean, will have a lot less skin in the game than Russia does. Helping Russia will become politically trickier in Washington, too, when it's led (by then, overtly) by the more pugnacious Vladimir Putin.

It's perhaps Central Asia itself that holds the greatest threat for the reset to unravel. While Washington and Moscow have begun preliminary conversations on coordinating the withdrawal, Russia is pushing the U.S. to carry out its policies in Central Asia by engaging directly with the CSTO rather than country-by-country. In other words, if the U.S. wants to deal with Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, it should talk to Moscow. Russia is promoting this as a streamlining measure, making the CSTO a one-stop shop for the U.S. in Central Asia. But many Central Asian countries are extremely likely to resist the efforts to mediate their relations with Washington through Moscow, and the U.S. also will certainly reject such a demand. (The U.S. already has sought to scuttle NATO cooperation with the CSTO, Wikileaks documents have shown.) That could set up a showdown between the two powers over influence in Central Asia. "If Moscow is confronted with increasing direct U.S. and NATO cooperation in Central Asia, without increased cooperation with Russia, and without increased transparency, this is going to be a problem," Zagorski said. Afghanistan, in all sorts of ways, is shaping up to be Russia's new, old problem.