[Image: SU-24 Attack Helicopter]
While the world is riveted (or aghast) at the hair-raising Russian intervention in Syria, Moscow is continuing to evaluate its options for parrying the perceived threat posed by the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan—and is already starting to act.
On October 7, as the surprise Taliban occupation of Kunduz was still unfolding, the Russian Defense Ministry “announced that it will deploy attack and military-transport helicopters to beef up its military presence in Tajikistan amid rising insecurity in northern Afghanistan.” Kunduz province abuts Tajikistan’s southern border. The aircraft, including Russia’s workhorse Mi-24 attack helicopters—ubiquitous during the Soviet occupation, and now in action in Syria—will be stationed at a military base 170 km (105 m) from the Afghan border.
The announcement came on the heels of an alarm sounded by the Tajik president, who told Russian president Vladimir Putin on October 6 that fighting has washed up “along more than 60%” of the country’s 1400 km (870 m) border with Afghanistan.
As discussed in a previous post, on October 8, Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov and other key Russian security and diplomatic officials outlined the perceived security threats to South Asia and Russia itself: the rise of ISIS (which is allegedly conducting well-attended terror training camps in the Russian language) alongside the Taliban; the drug trade and other criminal activity; and the apparently fading grip of the central authorities in Kabul just as ISIS forces multiply and the Taliban is showing signs of resuming the offensive.
The situation is further complicated by another factor: the draw-down of American and NATO military forces. As the Stanford international affairs scholar Kathryn Stoner recently observed, Russia views Obama’s exit strategy as leaving leaving a power vacuum likely to exacerbate long-standing security threats to the region, and potentially setting a new “bear trap” for Moscow, raising spectres of the horrifically bad old days of the Soviet occupation (1979-1989), which many both inside and outside of Russia cite as helping to precipitate the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union. (Stoner’s article for Asian Survey is behind a paywall; a summary by Clifton B. Parker is available here.)
As will be suspected, Russia is neither eager nor foolish enough to blunder into a new full-scale military adventure in Afghanistan. On the other hand, mere passivity is not an option—and, as a separate post will discuss tomorrow, “passive” is not a favored posture in current Russian strategic thinking. Nor was the just-concluded conference on Afghan security issues an aberration: the Afghanistan situation, and in particular the rise of ISIS, was a key agenda item at the sprawling BRICS-Eurasian summit in the Russian city of Ufa in July, which was boycotted by NATO countries, but attended by Chinese President Xi Jin Ping as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin and leaders of the China-led “Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” which happens to include a number of countries in the Afghan neighborhood: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. “Due to the spillover effect of Islamic State terrorist activities, Afghanistan now faces a grim security situation,” a Chinese diplomat told reporters in the lead-up to the event. At the summit himself, Putin “did not restrict himself to diplomatic pleasantries,” records correspondent John Batchelor; Putin emphasized the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and acerbically commented that the American’s 14-year campaign had, in the end, done little to improve it. Xi, for his part, opaquely intimated that China would have to “play a bigger role”—a tantalizing hint that an element of Russian-Chinese joint action may ultimately inform Moscow’s approach to stabilizing security in South Asia.