The situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated over the past few years, which naturally alarms Russia.
First, Moscow fears that this zone of instability could spread northwards into the Central Asian countries that border Russia. Second, over the past 20 years Russia has changed from a transit route into a market for Afghan heroin, which claims up to 25,000 Russian lives every year. And the third concern is the development of Daesh (ISIS) infrastructure in Afghanistan that can be used to export terrorist activity to the North Caucasus and the Volga region.
This is fuelling the debate as to whether Russia should interfere in the internal Afghan conflict or limit itself to attempts to reduce or localize the threats coming from Afghanistan.
Experts agree that the Afghan conflict is unlikely to be settled anytime soon. Moreover, they believe that in 2016 events will transpire that could seriously affect the situation in the region. This October, parliamentary elections will be held under new election legislation, and a loya jirga (assembly of elders) will meet for the first time in years. Foreign financial assistance remains a major variable in terms of stability in Afghanistan. The next Afghanistan Donor Conference is also scheduled for October, and the outlook for the extension of financial assistance from large donors such as Japan, Germany and Britain is not bright.
There are serious grounds to expect that the situation in Afghanistan will rapidly deteriorate including the disunity of the Kabul authorities, the government legitimacy crisis, and increasing ethnic tensions. Daesh terrorists have recently become more active in Afghanistan, and the Taliban, which has been split, has announced the start of a new fighting season against the US-backed government. The Taliban includes several rival groups whose activity is largely guided by external sponsors.
Against this backdrop, instability is shifting from the southeastern Afghan provinces to the country’s northern regions. Fighting is ongoing in 24 of the 34 provinces, and the government has little chance of remaining in power. The possibility of creating a coalition government with the Taliban appears remote.
Pakistan remains a leading foreign party to developments in Afghanistan, supplying weapons, money and medicines to the opposition. However, it is not the Pakistani government but its armed forces and the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence that are responsible for relations with Kabul. Various groups of the Pakistani military establishment cannot hammer out a common strategy on Afghanistan. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the Pakistani army does not control the Tribal Areas on the border with Afghanistan.
Russian experts agree that the situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating, but they do not agree on a Russia response.
Some experts say that Moscow should interfere in the Afghan conflict to protect its security and the security of its allies by providing significant military, technical, economic and humanitarian assistance to Kabul. They also suggest that Russia should continue to assist international humanitarian organizations in Afghanistan and increase its contribution to the budget of the UN Development Program. Overall, they believe that Russia will have to pay a lot for its security. Under a worst case scenario, Russia would launch a military operation in Afghanistan similar to the Aerospace Forces’ operation in Syria, they say.
Other experts argue that the Afghan threat has been overestimated and point to the risk of getting bogged down in an unsolvable conflict. The pro-isolation experts suggest that involvement in any project in Afghanistan would amount to supporting one of the parties in a new civil war there. They claim that Central Asia’s problems are not directly connected to Afghanistan but have been caused primarily by economic challenges due to falling oil prices and the economic crisis in Russia, which has resulted in the return of migrant workers to their home countries. These experts suggest that a barrier be erected to prevent the spread of instability northwards and that the Afghan threat be localized without interfering in the internal affairs of Afghanistan.
Either way, Russia will be forced to increase its contribution to the maintenance of Afghan-related regional security.