Afghanistan Can Be an Opening for U.S. Diplomacy With Russia

On Feb. 15, 1989, Col. Gen. Boris Gromov became the last Soviet commander to leave Afghanistan, crossing the Friendship Bridge into what was then the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic.

On Feb. 15, 1989, Col. Gen. Boris Gromov became the last Soviet commander to leave Afghanistan, crossing the Friendship Bridge into what was then the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. Gromov’s departure ended the USSR’s decade-long military occupation of Afghanistan, characterized by some as the country’s version of the Vietnam War. Moscow left behind capable local security forces, infrastructure projects and a pipeline of assistance to support its client, the socialist government led by then-President Mohammad Najibullah. Although Najibullah’s government would hold out for another three years, Moscow’s Afghanistan debacle helped bring about the implosion of the Soviet empire between 1989 to 1991.

By comparison, America’s abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan this year, which triggered a total collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government within weeks, has been a faster moving catastrophe for Afghanistan and its neighbors. It has left the United States without any real sway in Afghanistan. It has also shifted the balance of international influence in a region that remains no less important to U.S., Russian and international security than when American troops invaded in 2001, or when the U.S.-backed Mujahideen fought the Soviet occupiers to push them out of the country in the 1980s. 

The lost war and the failure of a 20-year project to build a viable pro-Western government in Afghanistan have raised broader questions. Bearing “great power competition” with Russia and China in mind, some have asked about U.S. credibility in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan or in the event of an aggressive Russian move in Ukraine, Belarus or the Baltic states. These questions are not off the mark, but they start from the wrong end of the problem. 

Credibility must be assessed holistically. The right questions to ask are more fundamental. Can the United States define its vital national security interests without hyperbole and articulate attainable foreign policy objectives to advance them? Is Washington prepared to practice diplomacy even when it comes to thorny problems and recalcitrant interlocutors? Can U.S. government officials be trusted to generate accurate analysis, not wishful thinking, about their country’s role in the world? And will the American public be prepared, in the long run, to pay the costs of maintaining the government’s enormous rhetorical commitments?

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Having invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the Soviet Union learned little from its mistakes. The United States should try to learn as much as it can from its mistakes in Afghanistan. Pivoting from the wreckage of August 2021, Washington should redefine not just its Afghanistan policy but its approach to regional players and competitors like Russia in ways that rebuild damaged American credibility step by step. Indeed, far from abandoning Afghanistan and the failed American project there, Afghanistan and Central Asia may well be the right theater to develop and put into practice a new U.S. approach. Washington should begin by recognizing limits on its own ability to dictate outcomes and the consequent necessity of conducting tough, sustained diplomacy, including with competitors like Russia.

More than three decades after Gromov left Afghanistan, Russia has returned to the role of regional powerbroker in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Now that Washington has endured something like the full cycle of elevated expectations, costly occupation and harried retreat that Moscow experienced from 1979 to 1989, the political decks may be sufficiently cleared to undertake a limited and pragmatic dialogue with Russia. Both countries can identify areas where their interests align in and around Afghanistan. Countering extremism and instability, and promoting development in the region, would be good places to begin.

When it comes to such shared interests, Russia potentially has much to offer. Since the collapse of the USSR, Russian diplomats and operatives have remained in every one of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Russia has supplied border-security forces and maintained military bases in some of them, and three of the five countries in the region are formal members of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, a kind of post-Soviet NATO. Russia was instrumental in brokering the so-called Northern Distribution Network, which supplied the increased number of U.S. and NATO forces that were deployed to Afghanistan from 2009 to 2012 via rail and airlift from Russia’s territory and from that of its Central Asian neighbors. Following the U.S. departure, Moscow remains keenly interested in securing energy exports from and through the region, as well as in interdicting flows of refugees, arms, drugs and extremist fighters, all of which may be destined for Russia and Europe. 

As the principal security guarantor in Central Asia, Russia is an essential interlocutor for any outside power seeking a platform from which to counter terror threats from the region.

In short, Russia is the principal security guarantor in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. This makes it an essential interlocutor for any outside power seeking a platform from which to operate against terror threats from the region. For this reason, President Joe Biden broached the potential for the U.S. to operate military bases in Central Asia with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at their Geneva summit in June. Putin reportedly balked at the suggestion, although he apparently floated the offer of hosting U.S. military personnel on Russian bases in the region. With or without formal U.S. bases in the neighborhood, American and Russian military leaders ought to maintain closer dialogue and greater transparency, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley noted following a September meeting with his Russian counterpart in Helsinki. After all, U.S. and Russian forces are likely to be pursuing compatible goals. The risk of inadvertent provocation and escalation would be dire.

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Russia’s diplomatic reach in Afghanistan is also considerable. As U.S. diplomats were boarding the final few military helicopters from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul last month, “temporarily” relocating the U.S. mission to Doha, Qatar, Russia’s ambassador, Dmitry Zhirnov, remained secure in his embassy compound. Zhirnov, who had called resistance to the Taliban takeover of the country “doomed” in mid-August, before their takeover was complete, also praised the Taliban fighters guarding the Russian compound as “serious guys.” In addition to Zhirnov’s embassy staff, a Moscow-based presidential envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, maintains regular contacts with Taliban leaders. Both Zhirnov and Kabulov have been central players in brokering international evacuations from the country in the wake of Washington’s chaotic departure. 

Despite the alignment of interests on Afghanistan, U.S.-Russian talks on this issue could face roadblocks. The reports that emerged last year of Russia paying bounties to Taliban fighters for killing American soldiers remain an obstacle—although the evidence behind those reports is not iron-clad. It is also by no means clear that Russia wanted the U.S. to exit Afghanistan. At the same time, the Biden administration has prioritized strategic stability in U.S.-Russia relations, and it would make no sense to exclude Afghanistan from the set of regional security issues through which Washington pursues greater “stability and predictability” with Moscow, including so-called “guardrails” on direct escalation. In fact, it is more likely that some progress could be made on Afghanistan than on other longstanding sensitive issues, like Ukraine, Belarus and Syria.

The United States will not achieve any immediate breakthroughs with Russia in Afghanistan. But in its approach, Washington can try out a style of diplomacy that is less strident and sweeping, less credulous about narratives of its own creation and more attuned to the incremental achievement of well-defined interests. For years, the United States refused to talk to the Taliban and confidently predicted its demise. Seemingly overnight, it was forced to negotiate out of necessity. Better to practice the art of speaking with competitors and adversaries from the outset, and, in the case of Russia, with an adversary far more capable and perhaps less implacable than the Taliban.

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Michael Kimmage is a professor of history at Catholic University in Washington. From 2014 to 2016, he served on the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State, where he held the Russia/Ukraine portfolio. His most recent book is “The Abandonment of the West: The History of an Idea in American Foreign Policy.”

Matthew Rojansky is the director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. He is an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins SAIS and the U.S. executive secretary of the Dartmouth Conference, a track-two U.S.-Russian conflict resolution initiative begun in 1960.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

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