A Remarkable Comeback

KABUL/BERLIN/WASHINGTON (Own report) - In light of the new buildup of US troops in Afghanistan, experts are warning of a new proxy war between NATO and Russia at the Hindu Kush. As observers unanimously explain, Russia has been able to expand its influence in Afghanistan significantly over the past few years. Moreover, the dismal results of NATO's nearly 16 years of war have seriously damaged the West's reputation in that country. Moscow can now take advantage of this situation and enhance its prestige, according to reports. A former top US intelligence official considers that, Russian President Vladimir Putin sees Afghanistan as "one more hot spot, to exercise his influence" and depict Moscow "as the problem solver and peacemaker." If NATO and Russia ally with divergent forces at the Hindu Kush, it could develop into another proxy war, as in Syria.

Taliban Gaining Ground

The fact that the Taliban is continuing to gain ground, is only part of the reason why Berlin welcomes US President Donald Trump's decision to not only extend the military mission but also to increase the number of troops at the Hindu Kush. According to a report presented to the US Congress at the end of July, of the 407 districts in Afghanistan, only 97 districts are under government control. In another 146 districts the government exercises a - not otherwise defined - certain "influence".[1] Thus, 65.6% of Afghanistan's population live in government "controlled" or government "influenced" regions. However, the increase in the intensity of attacks in the capital, Kabul, for example, demonstrates that even "control" should by no means be confused with stability. Three million people, or 9.2% of the population live in districts controlled or influenced by the insurgents, while 25.2% of the population - 8.2 million - live in the 119 districts designated as "contested." The data reflects the situation as of May 15, 2017. A year earlier, the Afghan government still "controlled" or "influenced" six percent more districts. Since May 15, according to reports, the Taliban has gained more ground.

Support from Russia

From Washington and Berlin's perspective, alongside the total failure of all efforts to take control of Afghanistan, the significant growth of Russian influence in that country is a particularly bitter pill to swallow. Moscow has a very strong interest in at least stifling jihadism at the Hindu Kush, to prevent it from spreading north into the neighboring Central Asian countries, whose stabilization is considered essential for Russia's security. Between 2002 and 2005, Russia aided Afghanistan with free military hardware, training and logistical services worth 30 million dollars a year, to promote the country's development of its state security structures.[2] Following the 2003 - 2004 "color revolutions," the Russian government - which was in conflict with the West - suspended this support. However, since late 2010, Russia has allowed NATO to transit Russian territory to deliver supplies for its war against a revived Taliban. Even though Moscow had withdrawn the transit permission in May 2015, due to escalation of the conflict with the West, it nevertheless expanded simultaneously its bilateral security cooperation with Kabul.

Experience with the West

This has been largely facilitated by growing Afghan resentment over the western occupiers. Afghanistan's President at the time, Hamid Karzai attracted special attention in late March 2014, with his recognition of the results of the Crimean referendum. He declared that Afghanistan respects "the free will of the Crimean people."[3] Karzai later explained that his support for this step came from his "experience with working with Western governments."[4] In fact, in June 2012, because of the deteriorating relationship with the West, Afghanistan applied for observer status to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO is a security policy alliance centered on Russia and China - and is, in certain respects, an antipode to NATO. Following the July 2015 SCO meeting, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Afghan counterpart Ashraf Ghani agreed to have closer anti-terrorism cooperation. That cooperation has indeed been intensified. In February 2016, western news agencies reported that Russia had provided 10,000 assault rifles and ammunition to the Afghan armed forces. In May 2016, the Afghan Ariana news agency, announced that a new Russian-Afghan military cooperation agreement had been reached.[5]

Entrenched Behind Walls

The resentment of the West and the pivot toward Russia in Afghanistan are not confined solely to influential sectors of the establishment. Russia is enjoying "a remarkable comeback," at the Hindu Kush according to an associate of the US American RAND Corporation, recently returning from a research trip to Afghanistan. In the meantime, the "dismal results" of NATO's war has led to - a sort of reversal - unexpected public sympathy for Moscow. In addition, at the Hindu Kush, western foreigners have gained a reputation for "living behind walls," afraid to venture out among Afghans because of the terrorist threat, whereas, the Russians reportedly walk the streets openly, "take taxis and visit Afghan associates and friends in their homes without security escorts."[6] In comparison, citizens from NATO countries leave a less positive impression on Afghanistan. As the Rand associate reports, Moscow spent $20 million to build a new Russian Cultural Center, which has been somewhat of a success in Kabul. This is just one of 150 projects Moscow has undertaken at a cost of tens of millions of dollars in its effort to restore Russia's lost economic and cultural clout in Afghanistan. Moscow is rapidly making "progress" at the Hindu Kush.

Excluding the West

Accordingly, the USA and the other NATO countries - German included - are unwilling to reduce their troops in Afghanistan. To do so would mean to lose their powerbase in Kabul, to the advantage of Russia. In February, building on its new base of influence, Moscow held its first Afghanistan Conference, where the possibility of ceasefires for the country was discussed. China, Iran, and Pakistan participated and the USA and EU were excluded. (german-foreign-policy.com reported.[7]) In the long run, Afghanistan is "another hot spot for Russian President Vladimir Putin to exercise his influence" and "portray Moscow as a problem solver and a peacemaker," writes Michael Sulick. From 2007 - 2010, Sulick had served as director of the CIA's National Clandestine Service (NCS), a US agency coordinating the activities of all US intelligence agencies in the field of Human Intelligence (HUMINT).[8]

Proxy Wars

Sulick explicitly draws parallels to developments in Syria, where Moscow also succeeded in establishing itself as an independent power broker alongside the NATO countries and their allies. Another parallel is Libya, where Russia supports the former General Khalifa Haftar, who, is fighting on the side of the elected parliament (the "Tobruk Parliament"), and who has become the most important non-Islamist force in the country. As Sulick points out, also in Afghanistan, Moscow, to a growing extent, is positioning itself in opposition to NATO. On August 11, the former intelligence operative warned that "if in fact we do stay and increase troops as some of the generals have suggested, it does start to turn it into a proxy war."[9] This week, the decision to increase US troops in Afghanistan - and thereby, enter a proxy war - was taken. German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has explicitly welcomed this decision, albeit with the stipulation that the German Bundeswehr must not send more new units.[10]

[1] Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction: Quarterly Report to the United States Congress. 30.07.2017.
[2] Joakim Brattvoll: Is Russia Back in Afghanistan? PRIO Policy Brief 04/2016.
[3] Matthew Rosenberg: Breaking With the West, Afghan Leader Supports Russia's Annexation of Crimea. www.nytimes.com 23.03.2014.
[4] Joakim Brattvoll: Is Russia Back in Afghanistan? PRIO Policy Brief 04/2016.
[5] Russia, Afghanistan sign mutual Technical, military agreement. ariananews.af 08.05.2016.
[6] Arturo G. Muñoz: While Americans Fight the Taliban, Putin Is Making Headway in Afghanistan. www.newsweek.com 31.07.2017.
[7] See Vom Krisenstaat zum Gestalter.
[8], [9] Michael Sulick: Putin Could Pretend to be Peacemaker in Afghan Conflict. www.thecipherbrief.com 11.08.2017.
[10] Von der Leyen begrüßt Trumps Afghanistan-Pläne. www.faz.net 22.08.2017.