After campaigning for years on troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Obama reluctantly announced late last year that he intended on keeping U.S. Forces in the country. Although not patrolling or engaged in combat missions, American soldiers remain in Afghanistan, mentoring and advising Afghan security forces. 9,800 U.S. troops are to remain in the country until the end of the year.
But as Afghan forces lose ground to the Taliban, hard-won by U.S. troops for over a decade, the Afghan government is getting the cold shoulder from the Obama Administration. Last month, the New York Times reported that the State Department would deny an entry visa to the U.S. for Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, the infamous warlord from the Northern Alliance that toppled Taliban rule after 9/11. According to the report, Dostum’s plans to meet with American lawmakers to discuss the situation in Afghanistan was cancelled as a result. The decision to deny the visa application was due to Dostum’s alleged war crimes against the Taliban, according to the State Department.
Last fall, Dostum traveled to the Kremlin to meet with Russian officials. On the same trip, he visited Chechnya to meet with Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s Chechen strongman. According to a statement from Kadyrov, Dostum “asked for a military assistance in fighting [the Islamic State] whose increasing presence in Afghanistan has become a growing security concern for the government.”
“Dostum noted that [the Islamic State] is trying to make Afghanistan into a bridgehead … In order to prevent this threat, Kabul needs Russia’s support, as in Syria.” – Ramzan Kadyrov
This year’s Russian aid to the Afghan government has included 10,000 Kalashnikov rifles and millions of rounds to help combat the Taliban, as well as the Islamic State’s presence in Afghanistan. Last year, Afghanistan inked a deal with the Kremlin to purchase Mi-35 attack helicopters from Russia.
(Analyst Comment: Russia’s presence in Afghanistan is two-fold. For starters, Russia sees an opportunity to stem the growth of the Islamic State there. Numerous Islamic State affiliates have been arrested in Russia and the Caucasus region in the past year, and Russian security experts likely see the ungoverned spaces of Afghanistan as areas with the right temperature where the Islamic State can grow in the region.
A large portion of Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan are former members of the Taliban. The Islamic State provides them a greater purpose. For instance, whereas the Taliban is the national shadow government of Afghanistan, the Islamic State aspires to be the Islamic shadow government of the world. A greater Russian presence in Afghanistan means greater opportunity to fight the Islamic State’s contributions to terror attacks in Russia and its outlying post-Soviet territories.
And Russian President Vladimir Putin has been all too happy to supplant waning American influence in Afghanistan. Russian military operations in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria illustrate Putin’s desire to exploit the gray areas of Eurasia, where the U.S. is either losing its foothold or too slow to react to Russian involvement. Russia’s economic and potentially military involvement in Afghanistan allows it to shape the nation’s interest away from the U.S. and towards Russia. Putin can easily state the case that Russia is more committed to Afghanistan’s stability and security than is the U.S. For instance, as American military might and budgets are pared down, its commitments around the world necessarily follow suit. In a new cold war that pits pro-Western and pro-Russian factions against each other, Putin needs the support of as many governments in the region as possible.
If Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria are any indication, Putin could be setting his sights on Afghanistan as another front in the soft war against American interests and key relationships. It’s a near certainty that Russia is already engaged in clandestine operations against the Islamic State outside of Syria, which opens up the possibility that those operations extend into Afghanistan. And given the security situation in Afghanistan, if Russia continues to provide or increases its economic support to the country, then it could pave the way for military support to the government, too.)