Wednesday, 20 May 2009

RUSSIAN THINKING ON AMERICA’S ROLE IN AFGHANISTAN

Published in Analytical Articles

By Dmitry Shlapentokh (5/20/2009 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Russian officials have recently sent contradictory messages in regard to American policies in Afghanistan. On the one hand, Moscow signaled that it is quite concerned with the possibility of a U.S.

Russian officials have recently sent contradictory messages in regard to American policies in Afghanistan. On the one hand, Moscow signaled that it is quite concerned with the possibility of a U.S. debacle and wishes the Americans to win the war. On the other hand, the very fact that the U.S. publicly entertained the idea of finding a friendly Taliban leader ready for compromise was displeasing. Russia also pushed the Kyrgyz government to close the Manas base, regardless of its importance to the NATO forces. These mutually exclusive messages are due to contradictory drives in Russia, implying that Russia’s policy regarding Afghanistan and the Middle East could change in any direction and could preclude the continuation of a coalition policy in dealing with Afghanistan.

BACKGROUND: The U.S. landed in Central Asia in the wake of September 11, 2001. Russia acquiesced to this development for a variety of reasons. One was that a U.S. presence, notwithstanding all its potential problems, would counter the Taliban who were seen by Moscow as a much more serious threat than the U.S..

Still, other theories frequently presented in Russia view the relationship between the U.S. and radical Islamists from quite a different perspective. These build on the assumption that radical Islamists are not antagonists, but rather allies, of the U.S., and that they are quite similar to each other in spite of allegedly superficial differences. Alexander Dugin, a prominent proponent of Eurasianism/Neo-Eurasianism and a popular philosopher and political commentator, has propagated this theory with much passion. Dugin asserted that the U.S., the major representative of “Atlanticism,” is rejecting the cultural multiplicities of the people of Eurasia and is trying to homogenize them. The same could be seen among the Jihadist/Wahhabis; for this reason, the Americans and Wahhabis actually gravitate to each other, despite their differences. This assumption, however outlandish to Western ears, has been quite widespread among Russian pundits.

This approach is also incorporated in a broader theory, which sees the West and the East as forces equally hostile to Russia. It is assumed in the context of this approach that these forces could even work together at Russia’s expense. In this case, the anti-Asian streak in Russian nationalism supplements the lingering suspicion and hostility toward America.

The proponents of this approach argue that the U.S. created Al Qaeda, and that September 11 was arranged by American elites to justify its “imperial policy”. The Chechen resistance—both nationalists and jihadists—is seen in this context as being manipulated and used by the U.S. to weaken Russia. These views seem to penetrate to the very top; it is not accidental that in the wake of the Beslan terrorist attack on a school on North Ossetia in 2004, then president Vladimir Putin stated that the terrorists could well be just tools in the hands of forces who want to snatch the Northern Caucasus from Russia, a statement that was widely assumed to target America. The idea that the U.S. could reach an agreement with the Taliban to simply redirect them against Central Asia and Russia was fueled by the potential abrupt changes in U.S. foreign policy.

The end of George W. Bush’s presidency was marked by grand economic and geopolitical debacles. The implications could be manifold, ranging from a rapid U.S. geopolitical retreat – quite similar to what one saw in the collapsing USSR and later in Yeltsin’s Russia, to a radical rearrangement of the country’s geopolitical priorities. One of them is a possible rapprochement with the Muslim world, including the radicals, even if this would upset and marginalize Israel. A new trend was pointed out by a Russian Muslim Internet publication. It claimed, with satisfaction, that resentment against Israel and the Jewish lobby is rising in the U.S.. The publication also alleged that Obama advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski is critical of the Jewish lobby, which in his mind is alleged to be sympathetic toward the “neocons.” Brzezinski, according to the site, had openly warned Israel that it would not always be able to use America for its own goals.

IMPLICATIONS: While these perceptions of U.S. policies that combine the U.S. geopolitical retreat from the Islamic world and an attempt to strike a new alliance with at least some Islamic countries or movements were made not only in the beginning of the Obama presidency, this approach has grown in popularity since his election. For example, Shamil Sultanov, an influential analyst of Islamic affairs and until recently a member of the Russian Duma, noted in one TV interview that Obama understands that the U.S. could hardly subdue Iran or do anything in Afghanistan. Consequently, he concluded that the administration had already decided both to extend a hand to Iran and to abandon Afghanistan. The idea that the U.S. could both decrease its “imperial” presence in Asia and at the same time turn its “historical” enemies into friends could also be found in official and semi-official Russian media. Izvestia, for example, wrote that Obama has already decided to meet with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the near future. The authors of other articles noted that Iran also took steps toward the U.S. at the possible expense of Russia. In a broader context, this implied that the U.S. would be contemplating significant concessions to the Muslim world. In Afghanistan, a possible agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban could be similar to the abortive concessions of the Pakistani government in the Swat valley, where the Taliban became largely institutionalized and were allowed free hands in Afghanistan. Russian pundits are afraid that the U.S. could do the same in Afghanistan. Such an arrangement would imply that U.S. interests would not be harmed, and at the same time the Taliban, or even al-Qaida, would be allowed to act in Central Asia, Russia’s soft underbelly, and in the future, in Russia proper. Consequently, while Russian Muslims see the possibility of a Muslim-U.S. rapprochement as positive, Russian pundits observe with apprehension as they entertain the idea that the U.S. would use Muslims to bring Russia harm.

CONCLUSIONS: Russian fears about the possibility of a deal between the U.S. and the Taliban, and in relation to this a sharp turn in U.S. foreign policy, indicate a continuous fear of instability both in Central Asia and Russia proper, as well as an understanding of the limited span of Ramzan Kadyrov’s “Chechenization” of the previously rebellious republic, despite announcements that the war in Chechnya is over. It also indicates an increasing sense of a dead-end scenario for NATO forces in Afghanistan, where additional contingents transferred from Iraq would still make NATO forces much smaller than the Soviet forces were. Since in the last war Russia was unable to subdue the insurgency, Russian analysts see no reason to believe that NATO would be more successful. The Russian elite entertains a lingering fear that a U.S. debacle could also lead to a new realignment in the Middle East from Iran to Afghanistan where any solutions would come at Russia’s expense. And these feelings have led to an increasingly muddled Russian policy toward Afghanistan and the U.S. presence in the country. On the one hand, there are concerns over possible attempts to find compromises with the Taliban. On the other hand, Russia itself entertains the idea of building a buffer zone in the North of the country, mostly populated by Uzbeks and Tajiks. Such a buffer zone would provide a cushion in case of an American failure, as well as a Russian stronghold in case of a U.S.-Taliban rapprochement. Russia seems ready to provide free passage for NATO supplies to Afghanistan, seeing the war as a danger to both Russia and the East. Yet, Russia’s persuasion of Kyrgyzstan to close Manas created additional problems for the U.S. All of this indicates that cooperation between the U.S. and Russia in Afghanistan will be complicated, at least in the foreseeable future. The Taliban definitely stand to benefit from this discord.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Dmitry Shlapentokh is Associate Professor of History, Indiana University South Bend.
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