Russia remains wary of what Afghanistan can do in the wake of the emergence of ISIS in the region, injecting a sense of discomfort among policy makers in Moscow.
Following in its policy of intervention in Syria, Russia has stepped up its involvement in Afghanistan, both in the military aspect and in the political aspect. U.S. and NATO forces were to withdraw from Afghanistan, but recent incidents, such as the temporary capture of Kunduz by the Taliban, have forced the Obama administration to take a U-turn. U.S. forces are now set to stay in Afghanistan for another year, during which they will train the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), as Washington believes that in the wake of the recent Taliban attacks, the Afghan National Security Forces have yet to reach the level where they can counter Taliban aggression.
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Russia, on the other hand, has increased its role in Afghanistan after successfully launching a military offensive against ISIS in Syria. Moscow sees Afghanistan as the biggest threat to peace in region, and with ISIS being targeted in Syria, Russians believe that the extremist group can move towards Afghanistan in a bid to further its heinous agenda. ISIS can use the fact that the U.S. plans to withdraw its forces from the war-stricken country to its advantage and strengthen its position in Afghanistan.
Russia looking to stop ISIS?
In addition, the Taliban’s recent capture of Kunduz, a very important strategic city, has the Putin administration shifting uneasily. Russians are still wary of Afghanistan, with memories of the 1979-89 war still haunting them when more than 15,000 Russian soldiers lost their lives, along with a huge number of Afghan civilians. That war subsequently resulted in the collapse and eventual disintegration of the Soviet Union.
In addition to the threat posed by a resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Russia is increasingly worried about the role of ISIS in the country. ISIS has established several training camps in the region where they have been training fighters before sending them out to Syria and Iraq. Moscow is aware of the fact that if they are given free rein to carry out their activities like this in Afghanistan, ISIS can turn out to be a much bigger threat to not only this region but also the entire world, starting with Central Asia where Russia still carries a considerable amount of influence.
Protecting Central Asia
Russian authorities believe that these elements can infiltrate former Soviet states in Central Asia and will affect Russia’s Muslim-populated Caucasus region negatively. During a recent Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit, which took place in Kazakhstan, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for all the member states to pay close attention to the situation unfolding in Afghanistan. He termed the contemporary situation in the country as “Close to Critical,” or something that can escalate very rapidly if left unattended.
Russia is adamant that terrorist groups are using Afghanistan as their base camp to bring people from several regions in order to train them and convert them to lethal mercenaries. Russian authorities also warned China that their Muslim autonomous region of Xinjiang in the Northwest is being targeted by ISIS and other terrorist groups in order to recruit militants. More than 50,000 militants are currently present in Afghanistan working in more than 4,000 different groups.
At the end of that joint summit of CIS, the member countries announced plans to form a joint border task force in the wake of serious warnings from Tajikistan that several groups are engaged in battles along its border with Afghanistan. Following that warning, Russia has already shored up its military base in Tajikistan by sending reinforcements. Tajikistan plays host to Russia’s biggest military base in a foreign land, where the Russian army’s 201st Motorized Rifle Division resides.
Russia, in order to counter these threats from Afghanistan, is looking to help the Afghan government stand on its own and fight these non-state actors. Moscow is set to supply Kabul with military equipment that includes heavy weapons, including helicopter gunships, the same Hind-E types that are promised to neighboring Pakistan. The move came in the backdrop of Abdul Rashid Dostum’s visit to Moscow this month. Dostum is a former Russian-trained warlord and is currently serving as the vice president of Afghanistan.
Afghanistan seeks Russian help
Dostum asked for Russian aid as Afghanistan lack air support, and that is where Russia has vowed to help out the troubled Afghan government, just like Moscow is doing in Syria for Bashar-al-Assad’s regime. However, unlike Syria, Kabul has not sent any formal invitation to Moscow regarding an intervention in the country, and it is highly unlikely that this will ever happen. What is confirmed, however, is that Russia will continue aiding Afghanistan militarily with Western knowledge.
Russia’s actions in Afghanistan are similar to those taken in Syria. U.S. disengagement from the region is creating a power vacuum there, and Moscow is catching up on the situation by moving into the vacuum cleverly. Putin wants to see Russia become a major player in world politics once more, and these actions by Moscow in recent months are a clear indication of Russia following that objective.
Russia’s profile as a global player has been raised significantly following its intervention in Syria, which so far has yielded positive results for the region. Moscow sees the USA’s decision to postpone the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan as a failure of Obama’s policies in the region. However, one of the reasons behind Obama’s decision to put a hold on the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan is the fear of Russia taking the place of the United States in the region.
Russia gives the U.S. something else to worry about
Russia has started another period of the Great New Game by expanding further into the region following the annexation of Crimea. The United States, on the other hand, is wary of that, and Moscow’s success in Syria has further worried policymakers in the United States, who will now be considering devising a policy to counter Russian advances in Afghanistan.