[pictured: Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the Russian General Staff.]
As Syria Buildup Continues, Russia Warily Eyes Afghanistan
Moscow recently hosted an international conference on the security situation in Afghanistan (“International Conference on Interaction of Defence Agencies on Security in Afghanistan and Central Asia in the New Environment”). Senior Russian military and diplomatic officials painted a bleak picture of renewed deterioration in Afghanistan, highlighting the rise of ISIS as a toxic addition to the long-standing threat posed by the Taliban; the significant number of Russian citizens involved in terror activity; and the inability of Afghan government political and military forces to stem the tide.
Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the Russian General Staff, discussed Afghanistan in the context of an international situation he described as growing more unstable, at the same time as regional and global institutional means of resolving conflicts peacefully lose credibility and effectiveness. This observation may serve as an oblique hint that Russia is pondering what it can (or must) do unilaterally to address the perceived security threat to Russia emanating from Afghanistan. In light of Russia’s new-found willingness to project force in the Middle East far beyond its borders in Syria, what options might be under consideration with regard to Afghanistan, which shares a long border with former USSR republics, now viewed from Moscow’s perspective as part of Russia’s “near abroad” (a term roughly, if euphemistically, synonymous with “sphere of influence”)? Gerasimov specifically stated that the increase in terrorist activity posed a threat “for neighbors and first of all for states of…Central Asia,” according to a summary of remarks posted on the Russian Defense Ministry website.
Gerasimov estimated the ISIS presence in Afghanistan at 2000-3000 and growing, and the total strength of militant formations at about 50,000.
Speaking at the same conference, Russian diplomat Zamir Kabulov, an Afghanistan specialist, stated that “several” ISIS training camps conducted in the Russian language are now operational in Afghanistan.
Colonel General Igor Sergun, head of the Main Intelligence Directorate, also addressed the conference. According to RT, he warned that Islamic State sees Afghanistan as a source of recruitment and finance for expansion throughout Central Asia, “adding that such development poses a real threat to Russia’s security.”
At the “Russia Beyond the Headlines” blog, Sergey Strokan and Vladimir Mikheev describe Central Asia as “the soft underbelly of Russia” and suggest that while Russia’s Syrian air strike template is not currently being considered for replication in Afghanistan, “some pre-emptive moves by Moscow were considered a likely option.” The article portrays a lively debate in Russian think tanks and the security establishment about just what those pre-emptive measures should entail, with some discounting the gravity of the threat posed to Russia by the proliferation of illegal formations, and others stressing it.
If recent geopolitical events are any guide, we can expect that some of Russia’s “pre-emptive measures” may contain surprises and may be designed and timed with a view to wrong-footing and taking off guard other actors—including in the west.