Moscow (Brussels Morning) It is said that the Taliban reflected on their conflict with the Russians and the Americans with the same motto: you have the clocks, we have the time. Essentially, the Taliban fought a war designed to weaken the resolve of the enemy rather than their ability to fight and win.
Afghanistan is bigger than France, with the population comparable to Poland, but it is landlocked and underdeveloped, living in conflict continuously for the best part of 40 years. Getting any administrative centre to rule over thousands of dispersed villages was a challenge for the British during the Victorian age and subsequently the Soviets and the American-led NATO Alliance. The Afghans themselves have never had a nation state with the characteristics we have come to recognise elsewhere.
To understand Western defeat in Afghanistan, the most relevant experience is that of the USSR. From 1979 to 1989, the Soviet Union lost the best part of 15,000 men and had over 53,000 wounded. For comparison, US forces count approximately 2,350 casualties while all other NATO member states lost about 1,150. The cumulative number of wounded troops were approximately 20,000. Unlike the Taliban and the Russians, western armies were accountable to elected leaders that need to take public opinion into account. But both the USSR and NATO fought until the perceived end did not justify the means.
To go deeper into the Russian experience and perception of unfolding events in Afghanistan, we turn to Lilia Shevtsova, one of the most influential Russian foreign policy analysts in the world. We talk with her about the future of Central Asia, a region in which Russia is a more immediate stakeholder and is far more engaged than Europe and the United States. The question is simple: “what now?”
Ambassador Tedo Japaridze: Afghanistan undermined the USSR’s financial position and some would say it was the “beginning of the end.” Do you see any comparison between the Russian and the American experiences, other than they both failed to put together a centralised country they could rule over?
Lilia Shevtsova (LS): Afghanistan demonstrates a dramatic predicament:
On the one hand, the country has become the object of great powers’ rivalry and the laboratory for political engineering on the part of competing systems – the Soviet and the Western one.
On the other, Afghanistan has succeeded in undermining three great powers that tried to control it – Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States. It accelerated the demise of the USSR and can dash the U.S. hopes of restoring its global leadership.
The current Afghanistan debacle not only returns the threat of terrorism to the global agenda, but is testing the ability of five nuclear states – China, Russia, Pakistan, India and the U.S. – to contain their impulses.
The world has failed to mould Afghanistan, while the Taliban regime could affect the world stage. These guys are going to be the most belligerent Islamist movement on the planet and their smash victory over the most powerful state makes it a godsend for any radical group in any part of the world.
What happens in Afghanistan cannot be locked there. It could provoke not only a terrorist movement, but a refugee tsunami that will trigger populist backlash and give birth to dozens of European and American Orbans.
TJ: If Russia and the United States failed to create a centralised state with a capable national army, should we just conclude that Afghanistan cannot be governed as a nation state?
LS: The civilisational angle of the Afghan drama looks confusing. The fact that this country has resisted all external attempts to define its system provokes temptation to bring in a mantra about the “clash of civilisations”. However, we saw the readiness of thousands of Afghans to accept the Western values and fight the radicals. The Taliban killed so many members of the Afghan National Defence and Security forces that the Americans and Afghan governments decided to keep casualty figures a secret for fear of further eviscerating their morale.
Afghans have been unlucky with the elites and their leadership. President Ghani’s decision to flee, which scuttled negotiations for a gradual handover, is an example of failed leadership. The bitter irony is that the Western occupation has produced in Afghanistan a corrupt ruling class that made the Taliban victory possible.
TJ: China and Russia have broken ranks with the UN Security Council to essentially announce the recognition of the Taliban regime. What does that mean for security in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, or even Moscow and St. Petersburg?
Lilia: China and Russia found themselves in a precarious position. The Western coalition in Afghanistan defended them from the radical Islamic offensive. While Beijing and Moscow may enjoy watching Washington’s humiliation, they should have fears about the security risks posed by the Taliban’s return to power. Today, Russia and China must walk a cautious line trying not to provoke Taliban and at the same time secure their borders. The Taliban has proved that they easily destroy rules and deals. Their ideology could appeal to the unhappy segments of populations in Central Asia and the Chinese Xinjiang region.
Drug money is another problem: more than 80%t of the global heroin supply originates in Afghanistan; the Taliban controls the world’s largest opium operation, earning about $460 million a year from taxes on the sale of heroin. They have branched out to methamphetamines, which have much higher margins.
Frantic Russian attempts to secure the borders of Tajikistan prove that Moscow is worried. Russia began to strengthen its alliance in Central Asia, (conducting exercises) with regional military forces along the Afghan border. Whether Russia could turn the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) into an effective cordon against Taliban is still unclear: the Taliban have demoralised the region, winning hearts and minds. Tanks and army divisions are helpless against this type of offensive.
Meanwhile, Moscow faces a new conundrum. It has to decide on the key consolidation idea: whether to continue viewing the U.S. as the arch enemy, or shift toward the antiterrorist “arch”, which has to bring cooperation with the U.S. (letting Americans use its military bases in Central Asia). The Kremlin has moved too far in the anti-Western direction to change the trajectory. But what if the Taliban enter Central Asia?
TJ: It is said that Russia and China are stepping in to fill the geopolitical vacuum as the US leaves the region. Other than their obvious opposition to American influence in Central Asia. Do China and Russia see eye-to-eye?
LS: I wonder how Russia and China could fill the vacuum. Russia remembers its defeat in Afghanistan. China is too cautious to undertake the containment directly. Both states would certainly coordinate their actions regarding the Taliban. They can’t risk rivalry. But the tendency so far is: Russia is turning into the “military arm” of the Chinese “One Belt” strategy.
Besides, if the Afghan withdrawal articulates a U.S. effort to refocus its agenda towards managing the rise of China, why should Moscow continue its chummy relationship with Beijing, risking to be viewed as the China ally?
The Russia-China duo will have other states to deal with in the region – Pakistan, India and Iran. With India moving closer to the US, there is ground for cooperation between Russia, China and Pakistan. However, Moscow can hardly be the leading actor in this triangle.
Finally, Iran has mixed feelings towards Russia, China and Pakistan; its own agenda in Afghanistan could kick over the chessboard any time. Predominantly Shiite Iran has a history of bitter enmity with the Sunni Taliban. The Taliban have to view Iran as the key supporter of the Northern Alliance who fought the predominantly Sunni Taliban in the 1990s.
In turn, the regional puzzle could push the Russia-China relationship in any direction.
TJ: Pakistan has moved from a primary US ally to the Chinese sphere of influence. Where is Russia in that nexus?
LS: Russia has been trying to compensate its unravelling marriage with India by stretching its hand to Islamabad. In 2015, Russia announced it would be supplying Pakistan with Mi-35 attack helicopters, despite Indian objections. The Russia-Pakistan militaries have regularly held joint exercise described as “Friendship” since 2016. Russia has also expressed interest in helping to build a gas pipeline from Karachi to Lahore. In April, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visiting Pakistan and offered unprecedented geo-economic cooperation.
Observers have concluded that the Russia-China-Pakistan engagement with Afghanistan entails Chinese economic backing. I would not be so sure. Despite converging interests, there is suspicion between all of them. Russia fears becoming China’s “junior partner.”
There are also several issues in the relationship between Moscow and Islamabad that could derail this nascent relationship: Pakistan’s use of jihadi elements as proxies and India’s economic leverage, Islamabad’s economic reliance on China and Pakistan’s continued dependence on the United States. Russia is wary of Pakistan’s role in beefing up radical Islamism. Thus, this is hardly a serious love affair.
This “triangle” does not look a formidable alliance.
TJ: Afghanistan is likely to miss billions in foreign food and health aid. Do you think Russia and China will be scaling up humanitarian support, working hand-in-hand with the Taliban regime?
LS: Afghanistan is going to be a litmus test for the readiness of the world to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. Russia’s resources do not allow massive humanitarian support. China could be more skillful with its game of “reciprocity”- assistance in exchange for benefits.
Regretfully, at the moment the West is not in a hurry for a consolidated humanitarian package. Six years after the 2015 migration crisis, EU countries have still not yet found a deal over migration. Afghans are the No. 1 nationality of irregular migrants coming into the EU. What is clear is that nearly half the Afghan population are in need of aid.
One can understand: the Western powers do not want to support the Taliban without a commitment to playing by the rules. One can’t expect they would! At the moment, the EU continues to provide humanitarian help to Afghanistan having no leverage on its proper distribution. The West faces the need to scramble for moral ground and empathy, and guarantee its security needs – that is a dilemma with no apparent solution.
TJ: What does that mean for American power in the region.
LS: The world now is engaged in discussing Biden’s “Dunkirk”.
Indeed, the Biden administration has botched the mission. But Biden was the hostage of the previous three administrations ! He had only two options – both devastating:
Fist one: to preserve limited U.S. presence in Afghanistan and try to strengthen its security and institutions. This option would work only if the problem of Pakistan and its influence has been resolved. But the U.S. could not bring itself to do what needed to be done: apply sanctions against Pakistani military, intelligence, and politicians for supporting the Taliban. This option would hardly be popular with American public opinion that seeks a US withdrawal.
The second option was to end the mission. But even in the case of a disciplined evacuation of the pro-Western Afghans, the return of the Taliban was inevitable. Blasting Biden looks as if the West found a scapegoat for its ruinous policy during the last two decades.
In other words, there was no chance to win this war and hardly a chance to have an elegant exit from the mission that was lost. For two decades, the United States fought a battle for an unachievable objective. A lot depends what lessons the U.S. will draw to prevent an impression it has become a feckless power.
Having failed to prevent the rise of anti-American Islamists, Biden may be compelled to take a tougher stance on other issues, like negotiating with Iran, defending Ukraine or deterring authoritarianism. But could the U.S. be tough after defeat?! In any case, Washington will be forced to start the “compensation” campaign as the damage control.
Today, Biden faces three major problems. The first is how to rescue vulnerable Afghans. The second is to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States. The third challenge may prove crucial: to come to terms with defeat and find a new model of leadership.
TJ. What does that mean for the perception of American power?
LS: The Afghan disaster became one more crisis in the apocalyptical “package”: crisis of neo-liberal capitalism, of democracy, pandemics and climate shock.
However, this multidimensional crisis is better than gradual rot. Crisis gives hope for emergence of new elites and leaders with a constructive agenda. But crisis-resolution needs global leadership. The EU is unable to offer the breakthrough strategy. Hence, the only state that could become the “transformation engine” is the U.S. This begs the question of when the US will finish its soul searching and licking its wounds? Could Biden start the process of rethinking? It took the U.S. a decade to overcome its “Vietnam Syndrome” and start a new rise. While Western powers are blaming each other, we are entering an Interregnum, where the threat of the world turning into Jurassic Park becomes real. The Afghan catastrophe could be the wake up call for all key global actors.