Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Afghanistan: A View From Moscow

  • What the Russians discovered in the mountains of the Hindu Kush was, above all, the power of militant Islam. They also saw the limits of reforming a traditional society and the impossibility of imposed modernization. They came to appreciate the intricacies of tribal society. They had to discount the power of military force relative to the power of the purse, and the power of the purse relative to the power of religious beliefs and tribal customs
  • Unlike the situation in Iraq—where the U.S. and coalition forces were essentially caught in the cross-fire of a Sunni versus Shi’i civil war—in Afghanistan, the Western powers are a party in a domestic conflict, just as the Soviets were in the 1980s, and the insurgents are fighting under the banner of Islam.
  • The idea of domesticating Islamist radicals is deeply flawed. They cannot be bought. They cannot be held to agreements that start impinging on their interests. They can be manipulated, but not for long. At the end of the day they will disappoint their would-be minders. However, there might be a way to divert their energies toward safer and more productive channels.
  • Pakistan is an even more complex society than Afghanistan

  • It does not have sufficient confidence in the solidity of the Central Asian regimes or in its own capacity to insulate the region from the influence of a victorious Taliban
  • Central Asian countries do not want to be seen as Moscow’s clients; their refusal to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia richly attests to that
  • Even though a number of senior Russians would privately like to see the United States fail in Afghanistan and join the Soviet Union and Britain in that “graveyard of empires,” pragmatic Russian leaders realize that a Western defeat in Afghanistan would result in a rise of radicalism, which they themselves could not contain.
  • it hopes to win a measure of political influence, mostly to ensure that others do not use Afghanistan against Russian interests, including economic ones.
  • However, the more recent intensification of fighting in Afghanistan and the need to enhance U.S/NATO forces there, which Russia basically supports, is at odds with its desire to remove the U.S. military from Central Asia
  • Moscow clearly feels its position in Central Asia is challenged by others, above all by the United States, which it regards as the Other
  • The rise of China has challenged Russia’s position in Central Asia even more massively, fundamentally, and permanently than America’s insertion into the region.
  • Pakistan has the most keys to help resolve the problem of governance in Afghanistan, and it has the most incentive: It suffers more from Afghan instability than any other country. Pakistan acquiesces in following the U.S. policy course, but has no confidence in the effectiveness of the policy.
  • For Moscow, Pakistan had long been its principal adversary’s accomplice. Pakistan served as a base for U.S. intelligence operations against the Soviet Union and, most crucially, was the main base for the Afghan resistance to the Soviet forces in Afghanistan, as well as the conduit for international aid to them. Russia, however, cannot afford to ignore a nuclear-armed Pakistan with a population that has recently topped Russia’s own. Careful not to spoil its relationship with India, Russia has been maintaining and even expanding contacts with the Pakistani government and military. Yet the Russians realize they have little knowledge and even less influence as far as Pakistan’s internal dynamics are concerned. They see Pakistan as a ward of America and China and hope that, in extremis, those two powers will prevent the worst outcome: a “nuclear meltdown.”
  • Afghanistan is also a bargaining chip in Russia’s wider relations with the United States.


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