Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 53

Russian power is returning to Afghanistan in military and security terms, albeit without a military presence on the ground, at least for now. Moscow is using the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as a thin cover.

On March 9 through 13, a CSTO Working Group on Afghanistan held talks in Kabul with senior officials of the Afghan Ministries of Defense, Internal Affairs, Foreign Affairs, and other security and civilian government departments. The Russian-led delegation proposed to institute regular contacts with Afghanistan’s military, security, and law-enforcement agencies and invited Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak to Moscow. The delegation offered assistance to Afghanistan to build its army, security agencies, and border protection units and to combat “terrorism” and the drugs trade. Specific proposals include delivering arms and military equipment and training Afghan military and border-troop officers as well as “special services” personnel. In the civilian sphere, Russia and the CSTO are offering “help in establishing the organs of executive government both at the central level and in the regions” (Interfax, RIA-Novosti, Itar-Tass, March 12, 13).

Although such assistance could only be initiated politically and supplied in practice by Russia, the official reporting presents it as an initiative of the CSTO’s Central Asian member countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan). The delegation held meetings with these countries’ embassies in Kabul. There were apparently no working meetings with Western representatives there.

Russian officials (though not the group’s Central Asian members) periodically complain that NATO and other Western organizations and governments have declined to recognize the CSTO. Just during the last three weeks, CSTO General Secretary Nikolai Bordyuzha aired that complaint at a meeting of the OSCE’s Permanent Council in Vienna, during an official visit to Tajikistan (see EDM, March 6), and at a briefing in Moscow.

According to Bordyuzha, the CSTO central staff is embarking on a needs-assessment for Afghanistan, based on the delegation’s findings. The CSTO Working Group on Afghanistan consists of members of the organization’s Secretariat in Moscow as well as national coordinators from the member countries. The Working Group is defined as a staff organ subordinated directly to the CSTO’s Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs. Afghanistan’s charge d’affaires in Moscow, identified as Gholam Sakhi Gheyrat, acts as the Afghan government’s representative at meetings of and talks with the CSTO (Interfax, March 2). Whether this appointment by the Afghan government — or some faction within it — is compatible with NATO’s and Washington’s non-recognition policy vis-à-vis the CSTO is unclear.

Moscow also proposes turning the CSTO’s annual anti-drug operation in Central Asia, “Kanal,” into a “permanent regional operation;” and to combat the drug traffic not only outside Afghanistan’s borders as heretofore, but also within Afghanistan. A special meeting of the CSTO on March 14 in Minsk will discuss this issue. Russia singles out the narcotraffic issue as one suitable for NATO-CSTO cooperation. Moscow’s primary motivation is to achieve a political link between the two organizations, implicit equivalence, and a step toward long-sought recognition of the CSTO by NATO.

The CSTO created its Working Group on Afghanistan with a notably limited mandate in 2005, when Russia had practically discontinued military assistance to that country. Moscow desisted at that time “in order to avoid duplicating American activities. Now, however, given the reactivation of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, President Hamid Karzai and the Afghan government have themselves requested Russia to renew deliveries of arms and equipment,” stated the Russian MFA’s Central Asia department chief Alexander Maryasov in the run-up to the CSTO delegation’s visit. According to his listing, Russia had supplied some $200 million worth of mostly old military equipment to Afghanistan from 2002 to 2005 (Nezavisimaya gazeta cited by Interfax, March 5).

Russia clearly signaled its strategic re-entry into Afghanistan on February 22-23 when Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov descended on Kabul to reopen the Russian embassy in its reconstructed building and meet with Karzai. During the visit, Lavrov offered Russian military assistance through the CSTO to Afghanistan “against terrorism and drug trafficking” and also hinted at the “work under between the security services every day, painstakingly and imperceptibly.”

Lavrov also confirmed Moscow’s intentions to settle Afghanistan’s Soviet-era “debts” (largely the costs of occupation), on the understanding that the Kabul government would in return support the entry of Russian companies into Afghanistan. Apart from those Soviet “credits” to Afghanistan, Russia is also legal heir to the responsibility for Soviet military atrocities in Afghanistan during the nine-year occupation. However, Lavrov and other visiting Russian officials do not mention that issue, and neither do the beleaguered Afghan president or his factionalized government.

Yet in view of this recent history, Moscow has until now ruled out the idea of again sending Russian military personnel to Afghanistan. The proposals just made through the CSTO may signal a slight change to this policy, however. But even if a small number of Russian military advisers do make their appearance in Kabul or some corner in the north of the country, Russia will not assume any real responsibilities for security in Afghanistan. It will quietly watch NATO’s military difficulties in the country, publicly highlight the failures of Western soft-power on the anti-drug front, and use the CSTO to minimize the West’s role in Central Asian security arrangements.

From this point on, moreover, Russia will actively seek to build up political influence and clienteles in Afghanistan through the military and security assistance programs just proposed. What has long been touted as a Russian cooperative policy in Afghanistan is now acquiring a competitive edge.