Earlier this month, in what amounted to a dramatic shift in strategy, the Obama administration announced that the US would not be pulling all of its troops out of Afghanistan after all. Under Obama’s previous plan, Washington would withdraw most of the 9,800 troops operating in the country by the end of next year, leaving a force of just 1,000. Now, all 9,800 troops will remain for “most” of next year and 5,500 troops will remain in 2017.
The apparent change of heart comes as some “experts” remain concerned about the security situation amid recent territorial gains by the Taliban. According to the United Nations, insurgents now control more territory than at any other time since 2001 (so... “mission accomplished”?).
(Taliban presence in Afghanistan via NY Times)
Ultimately, the move is symptomatic of what tends to happen when world powers get the bright idea to intervene in Mid-East affairs. It almost always goes awry in one way or another and by the time everyone comes to their senses a decade has gone by and no one can remember what the “plan” was in the first place. The White House contends that this same dynamic will eventually plague Russia’s involvement in Syria and while that’s certainly possible, it’s worth noting that using Hezbollah and Shiite militias to fight the ground war decreases the odds of Moscow getting mired in asymmetric warfare with an enemy they don’t fully understand.
As we said when Obama announced that nearly 10,000 US troops would not in fact be coming home from Afghanistan, the timing of the strategy shift seems terribly convenient. That is, one certainly wonders if the move to keep a US troop presence in the Mid-East has something to do with Russia and Iran’s stepped up role in Syria. Furthermore, it seems entirely possible that Washington is anticipating a Russian push into Iraq and so the Pentagon wants to ensure that at the very least, there are American troops in close proximity.
To be sure, this entire story is riddled with irony and all sides have exhibited a penchant for Einsteinian insantiy.
Recall that the Russians also got bogged down in Afghanistan in the Soviet-Afghan war during which Washington backed the fighters who would eventually become al-Qaeda. Now, Washington’s regional allies are providing support to al-Qaeda in Syria (via al-Nusra), and the Sunni extremists fighting for control of the country have declared a jihad against Moscow. So essentially, this is just a rerun of what happened in the 80s, only this time it’s going on in Syria.
Meanwhile, the US is still hanging around in the very same Afghanistan where the Russians fought in the 80s and the whole reason Washington is there in the first place is because the very same al-Qaeda who America supported in the Soviet-Afghan war ended up flying 747s into American buildings a decade later. And because the US never, ever learns anything when it comes to foreign policy, the Pentagon and CIA are now indirectly supporting al-Qaeda in Syria.
For better or worse, The Kremlin has apparently decided to try its hand at cleaning this mess up once and for all, and as we noted in “Russia Takes Over The Mid-East: Moscow Gets Green Light For Strikes In Iraq, Sets Up Alliance With Jordan,” Moscow looks set to effectively underwrite the expansion of Iranian regional influence on the way to establishing a presence in Syria, Iraq, and even Sunni Jordan.
That marks a disastrous turn of events for Washington who’s now been effectively kicked out of the playground that the US has sought to control for decades.
Now, in what might fairly be described as the final insult in a list that recently includes Iraq greenlighting Russian airstrikes just days after PM Haider al-Abadi promised Gen. Joseph Dunford that Baghdad wouldn't request direct military intervention from Moscow, Afghanistan has asked for assistance from The Kremlin. Here’s WSJ with more:
Afghanistan, battered by worsening security, is reaching out to an old ally and patron—Russia—just as the Kremlin is seeking to reassert its position as a heavyweight on the world stage.
President Ashraf Ghani has asked Moscow for artillery, small arms and Mi-35 helicopter gunships for his country’s struggling military, Afghan and Russian officials say, after the U.S. and its allies pulled most of their troops from Afghanistan and reduced financial aid.
The outreach has created another opening for the Kremlin, stepping up the potential for confrontation with Washington. East-West relations are already strained over such issues as Ukraine and Middle Eastern policy.
“Russia is seizing the opportunity,” a U.S. official said.
The Kremlin’s muscular new foreign policy has raised hopes among Afghan politicians that Russia will come back to their country as a friendlier ally in the wake of the Western drawdown, which has seen the U.S. troop level drop to about 10,000 this year, from a peak of about 100,000 in 2010-11.
The last Red Army troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. That war was a national trauma on both sides, ending in defeat for Moscow and the eventual collapse of Afghanistan’s communist government.
Because of that history, direct intervention in Afghanistan would be a very hard sell for the Russian public.
Alexander Mantytskiy, Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan, said his government is considering the Afghan requests for military assistance, which he said have increased this year following the withdrawal of most U.S. and allied North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces.
“We will provide some assistance, but it doesn’t mean that any soldier from the Russian Federation will be here on Afghan soil,” he said. “Why should we carry the burden of a problem that was not solved by the Americans and NATO countries?”
Well, that's a good question, but one could also ask it vis-a-vis Syria, and the answer (for Putin anyway), seems to be this: "because by acting decisively to accomplish what the US and NATO apparently cannot, Russia gets to project its military prowess to the rest of the world and The Kremlin gets to supplant The White House as Mid-East superpower puppet master at a time when relations between Moscow and the West are the worst since the Cold War." Back to WSJ:
Abdul Rashid Dostum, Afghanistan’s first vice president, has been at the forefront of efforts to reach out to Russia directly.
An ethnic Uzbek who rose to prominence as a military commander in Afghanistan’s pro-Soviet government, Mr. Dostum met with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and other defense officials in Moscow this month to discuss possible assistance.
“Gen. Dostum wanted Russia to pay attention to the situation in Afghanistan,” said his spokesman, Sultan Faizy, who described Russia’s response to the request as positive.
So here again we see that US influence is waning in the face of what it is either an abject strategic failure or else a lackluster effort on the part of the Pentagon when it comes to battling extremism (of course dropping bombs on hospitals doesn't do much to help relations either).
Countries in the region are now taking a hard look at what's taking place in Syria and asking whether it might not be better to just have the Russians step in rather than spend another ten years wondering what exactly the US is doing and whether ulterior motives are leading the Pentagon to adopt strategies that aren't necessarily in the best interests of the host country.
The obvious question now, is whether Russia will be content to supply the Afghan government with weapons or whether the next step after Iraq is a move to eradicate insurgents in Afghanistan. Don't forget, despite a burgeoning and very tenuous alliance aimed at deterring ISIS, Iran despises the Taliban and not only did Soleimaini help the US locate insurgent targets in Afghanistan after 9/11, the General actually spent years fighting the group personally in the 90s.
Needless to say, if the Russians and Iranians end up in Afghanistan, the stakes will be even higher than they are in Syria because unlike Syria, there's a sizeable contingent of US ground troops operating at Kandahar and elsewhere.
We'll close with the following rather ominous quote from Ramzan Kadyrov, the pro-Kremlin leader of Russia’s Chechen Republic:
"Kabul needs the support of Russia, just like Syria."