Afghanistan and Pakistan: perspectives from Russia

HIGH ON THE LIST: Narcotics control was listed by several participants at a recent conference as Russia's biggest problem with Afghanistan. A 2002 photograph of Afghan workers cutting open poppy bulbs, the first stage of the harvesting process, at Jalalabad.   | Photo Credit: JOHN MACDOUGALL

July 6, 2011: A group of senior non-official American and Russian policy analysts recently spent a long, intense day comparing notes on Afghanistan and Pakistan, part of a longer meeting on U.S.-Russia relations. Both countries' analysts started with some important common concerns. Primary among them was their hope that Afghanistan would emerge as a stable country, able to develop economically and to govern itself effectively. Containing Islamic radicalism and preventing it from radiating outward from Afghanistan and Pakistan was on both countries' radar screen; so too was the problem of narcotics trafficking through Central Asia.

But as the discussion grew more specific, the differences in the priorities as seen from Washington and Moscow became clearer. The first and most striking concerned the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Ironically, the Russians in the group were “alarmed” — a word several used — at the prospect of an early withdrawal of U.S. forces, and appeared surprised that most of their American colleagues considered U.S. military withdrawal by 2014 a near-certainty. From the Russians' point of view, the U.S. military presence helped reduce the flow of drugs, extremism and other undesirable “exports” into Central Asia and thence into Russia itself. A few commented that they saw history repeating itself, but their policy priorities gave remarkably little vent to snickering that the U.S. had fallen into the same morass that the Russians had experienced two decades ago.

Narcotics control

Narcotics control was described by most of the Russian participants as a high priority; several listed it as Russia's biggest problem with Afghanistan. One person referred to “some Russian people's” suspicions that the United States was turning a blind eye to drug trafficking in order to keep dissident tribes from making trouble.

Also high on the Russians' list was the problem of Islamic extremists moving into Central Asia and thence into Russia itself. The Russian scholars worried that the freedom of movement established in post-Soviet times made it easier for Muslims from Russia to visit Afghanistan and Pakistan and return radicalised (“returning as gunmen,” in the words of one participant). In the new dispensation, the Russian authorities had much less information than they would like about the people involved or even how many might be involved. Movement of drugs and extremists contributed to repeated references to Russian “vulnerabilities” that would be exacerbated by U.S. withdrawal.

Continuing turmoil in Afghanistan complicated Russia's policy of economic and political “reintegration of the former Soviet space.” China was also on the Russian group's mind. The discussion started with the implications of Chinese investment in natural resource industries in Afghanistan, but the real concern was expanding Chinese influence elsewhere in the region. “In twenty years, they will own Central Asia,” one commented. The undertone of general suspicion about China was unmistakable.

Some of the Russian scholars worried about the weakness and illegitimacy of the Afghan government in terms very similar to discussions one hears these days in Washington. On the U.S. side, there were different views on this subject, with one expert on Afghanistan notably more optimistic and other participants sharing the dark view of their Russian counterparts.

On the American side, concerns about Pakistan weighed more heavily, including worries about the Pakistan economy and about the insurgency inside Pakistan. Several Russian participants commented on Pakistan's troubles, but it was clear that the problem of Pakistan as “Sick Man of South Asia,” as it so frequently appears in Washington, was not on the Russians' minds to the same extent. Americans' concern about the export of Islamic extremism focused more on Western Europe and the United States.

India-Pakistan relations

Members of the American team were searching for implementable ideas on how to improve governance in states that were institutionally weak and in danger of failing. This general idea had relatively little resonance with the Russian group, but one person mused that if the goal was to “restructure Afghan society,” this could not be done from a distance.

Everyone agreed that Pakistan's goals in Afghanistan were strongly influenced by its desire to eliminate Indian influence. Some of the Russian participants went a step further and argued that changing India-Pakistan relations was essential to stabilising Afghanistan. There was not, however, any discernible appetite for active Russian diplomacy on India-Pakistan issues. One of the Russian team cited India's lack of enthusiasm for an earlier proposal that Gorbachev serve as an envoy for India and Pakistan. The Russians showed little expectation of an India-Pakistan breakthrough, but also little concern about India-Pakistan hostilities in the near term.

Several ideas for U.S.-Russian cooperation on Afghanistan came up. Russia's involvement in creating alternative logistical routes for the United States was noted, and several American participants spoke of possibly buying supplies for U.S. troops in Afghanistan from Russia. Some cooperative efforts are in fact already in operation, e.g. on narcotics control. But in general, this part of the discussion seemed less realistic than the analytical part. Several Russians noted that Russia considered itself an aid donor. They expressed an interest in taking an active part in Afghanistan's reconstruction, but little interest in paying for that reconstruction.

The Russian participants did not appear to expect Russia to be a major player in South Asia. Every once in a while, echoes of the more expansive policies of bygone years came through, along with a palpable concern about being caught off guard by changing U.S. policies. But today's Russian policy elites have focused their most intense interest on issues closer to home and to the heartland. The aspects of Afghanistan and Pakistan that were on their minds are those that affect Russia's neighbourhood — narcotics and radicalisation — but these countries are at, or even beyond, the boundaries of the neighbourhood.

( Teresita and Howard Schaffer are former U.S. ambassadors, with long years of service in South Asia. They are co-founders of Howard Schaffer teaches at Georgetown University; Teresita Schaffer is a non-resident senior fellow at Brookings Institution.)

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