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The Afghanistan Question and the Reset in U.S.-Russian Relations

The Afghanistan Question and the Reset in U.S.-Russian Relations - Cover

Authored by Dr. Richard J. Krickus.

October 2011

175 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The ability of the United States and Russia to cooperate in Afghanistan represents a solid test of their reset in relations. The author provides the historical background to the Afghanistan Question and assesses current events in the Afghan war with three objectives in mind: 1) To determine whether Russian-American cooperation in Afghanistan has been successful; 2) To identify and evaluate the successes and failures of the counterinsurgency strategy as the transition from U.S. to Afghanistan authority gains traction in the 2011-14 time frame; and 3) To provide conclusions and recommendations bearing on developments in Afghanistan.


U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said that the ability of the United States and Russia to cooperate in Afghanistan will be a solid test of their reset in relations. That proposition is the thesis of this monograph. Many analysts in both countries would agree with this assessment, but a significant number of them believe a fruitful reset is implausible.

American skeptics argue that under Vladimir Putin, Russia has reversed the timid efforts that Boris Yeltsin embraced to safeguard political pluralism in Russia. But in addition to the awesome value gap that compromises cooperation, Russia has demonstrated that it favors confrontation and not cooperation with the West; witness the 2008 Russia-Georgian War.

From the Russian perspective, one finds similar arguments against cooperation. For example, the Americans are looking to exit from a military engagement that is not going well for them, and all metrics suggest things will get worse instead of better. Why, then, should Russia become involved in a lost cause? The Americans want Russia’s help because the U.S. population has turned against the war in Afghanistan and in 2012 most European troops will leave Afghanistan.

Without discounting the many roadblocks, leaders in both countries believe that even limited security cooperation is in their vital interest. In this connection, both Washington and Moscow deem a return of the Taliban in Afghanistan as detrimental to their respective security priorities.

In the U.S. case, should terrorist bases be resurrected in Afghanistan, American citizens run the risk of becoming victims in a repeat of September 11, 2001 (9/11). To prevent this ominous outcome, the United States has embarked upon military operations in cooperation with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Afghan forces. The coalition has received limited but significant assistance from Russia in the areas of arms, diplomacy, intelligence, logistics, and training.

Likewise, Russia has a number of incentives to help the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan: curtailing the flow of drugs from that country to Russia; protecting the Central Asian states that are integral to Russia’s economic prosperity; and denying jihadists the opportunity to conduct terrorist operations in the North Caucasus and Russia proper. In truth, Russia has more to lose than the United States should the coalition stumble in Afghanistan.

It is the purpose of this paper to evaluate the existing status of U.S.-Russian cooperation and the prospects for future joint security ventures in the region. In the process, a second related major rationale will be to assess the coalition’s successes and failures in meeting the jihadist threat in Afghanistan.

To put the Afghanistan Question in perspective, the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan will be assessed along with the U.S. reaction to it, and subsequent events like the civil war that followed the collapse of the communist government in Kabul, the rise of the Taliban, and its association with al-Qaeda that led to the 9/11 strikes on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

Special attention will be devoted to the support that Russia provided the United States in the wake of 9/11 and, more recently, its role in advancing U.S. goals in America’s “longest war.” Toward this end, the performance of the Obama administration’s counterinsurgency (COIN) operations will be explored through three scenarios.

The first (Plan A) involves current facts on the ground followed by two plausible alternative scenarios: Partition of Afghanistan (Plan B, popularized by the former U.S. Ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill), and the third or worst-case scenario I (Plan C), involves returning the Taliban to power.

It is against this backdrop that conclusions and recommendations bearing on the future of U.S. activities in Afghanistan will be considered. For example:

• The time has come to acknowledge that what has been mislabeled the “global war on terrorism” may better be labeled a “civil war within Islam.” The United States can influence that monumental historical development only at the margins.

• Given the changing international environment and profound economic challenges at home, U.S. authorities should advance existing efforts to reconcile with the Taliban. This undertaking will be a component of a larger diplomatic effort (Bonn II) that includes stakeholders in the region such as China, India, Pakistan, and perhaps even Iran along with the Central Asian states, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.

• As concern about personnel security surges, so will pressure from the American public to significantly reduce the military budget and reassess U.S. priorities in the Greater Middle East.

• Many strategists believe the current level of military operations is unsustainable and is not justified by the jihadist threat. It can be adequately met through counterterrorist operations that have proven to be successful in marginalizing the jihadists in Afghanistan.

• As the U.S. presidential election approaches, public concern about the duplicity of allies like Pakistan will compel U.S. leaders to demand that Islamabad deny sanctuary to jihadists who are killing Americans or face the consequences.

• The United States will be required to engage in multilateral security efforts with countries that may not share its values—such as Russia—but have common security problems. This enterprise has been characterized by some analysts as the “Obama Doctrine.”

• Russian cooperation in Afghanistan, although limited, has been significant as exemplified by the fact that by the end of 2011, more than 50 percent of the cargo required by our fighting forces there will transit through the Northern Distribution Network—made possible by Russia’s cooperation.

The U.S.-Russian reset will continue to face challenges; for example, it could be subverted by a new round of Russia-Georgia enmity, and differences over the U.S. missile defense system in Europe could result in a split between the two sides. But as long as security cooperation promotes U.S. national interests, it should continue. Finally, in considering what may be deemed controversial conclusions and recommendations, the words of Defense Secretary Gates come to mind. In his last policy speech before his counterparts at the June 2011 NATO Summit, he said, “. . . true friends occasionally must speak bluntly with one another for the sake of those greater interests and values that bind us together.”

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