The situation in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly grave, at least from the perspective of the Western alliance. The Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan, Tajikistan being a prime example, seem increasingly alarmed, implying that they may put their hopes to Russia for security guarantees. Tajikistan nevertheless recently demonstrated that its elite does not trust anyone, Russia included, and is possibly looking for other ways of dealing with the Taliban threat.
BACKGROUND: Even if the U.S. and its allies would increase their numbers in Afghanistan, these numbers would still be smaller than that of the Soviet troops in the Soviet-Afghan War; and even these numbers were not enough to exercise efficient control over the entire territory. The attempt to replace the Western forces with the Afghan national army does not seem very promising either. The problem is not so much the numbers involved but the Afghan troops’ sense of identity, as most of the soldiers do not yet fully perceive themselves as citizens of Afghanistan primarily, with regional or ethnic identities often paramount.
Those who point to Iraq as an example should remember that even that national army plays quite a limited role; moreover, Afghanistan is much more ethnically divided than Iraq. All of this implies that Western forces cannot just be replaced by Afghan forces with a few Western advisors. At best, the Afghan army could be an auxiliary force and Western forces would still need to stay in Afghanistan for many years, if not indefinitely. Neither the U.S. public, nor the Congress appear inclined to accept such arrangements. This is certainly the reason why the request by Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to send “more U.S. troops” and engage in a “rapid increase in the size and capability of the Afghan army” faces increasing opposition in Congress. Both Democrats and Republicans increasingly wish to see American troops out of Afghanistan.
The prospect of a Taliban victory has also clearly alarmed members of the Russian elite who saw problems not only in Central Asia but also in the Caucasus, which has undergone what one observer termed “Talibanization.” This has pushed Russia to build forces in Central Asia; engage in military exercises with China; and, recently, provide the U.S. with the ability to transfer military cargo through Russian territory. The Central Asian states, and especially those that border Afghanistan such as Tajikistan, could be expected to cling together and request Russian protection in order to brace for a possibly quite dangerous future. Still, in a recent move Tajikistan demonstrated that its elite does not trust anyone, Russia included, and is possibly looking for other ways of dealing with the Taliban threat.
President Imomali Rakhmon has engaged in tense negotiations with Russia regarding a Russian military base in Tajikistan. Judging by available information, Rakhmon has clearly expressed doubts that the base, and implicitly the entire Russian contingent in the country, would protect the country in case of a crisis. Not only has he demanded a drastic increase in payments for the base but also increased control for Dushanbe over “the weapons and military hardware,” which are under Russian control. He demanded Russian reassurances that in the case of political strife similar to that which occurred in the Tajik Civil War, Russian forces would come to his aid. It is clear that Rakhmon is unsure that the Russian forces would be of value as defense forces and, if they were to depart, it would not be of much concern to him. Such efforts to reduce Russian influence have been accompanied with recent legislation making the Tajik language the only official language of the country.IMPLICATIONS: Why is Rakhmon skeptical about Russia’s potential role in defending Tajikistan against possible Taliban attacks and general instability? One could possibly understand Rakhmon through comparing with the position of Afghan President Hamid Karzai who has a cultural outlook quite similar to that of Rakhmon.
Since the middle of George W. Bush’s presidency, Karzai had taken steps that hardly increased his popularity among the U.S. public and Congress. With the advent of the Obama administration, Karzai stepped up his criticism of the Allied forces for air strikes that led to numerous civilian casualties; he does not seem overly concerned either with U.S. accusations of regime corruption and rigged elections, or the possibility that the U.S. could withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.
Karzai may well conclude that the U.S. will eventually depart anyway, and the West’s ability to subdue the Taliban is increasingly questionable in spite of its military preponderance. In this situation, he needs to increase his support base elsewhere, including among Afghans or at least large segments of them. And he appears to believe he has a chance to do this only if he positions himself as appearing to be more than a Western puppet.
Rakhmon might well follow the same line of thought. Watching events in the North Caucasus, he may have concluded that while Russia could easily defeat Georgia in a regular war, Russia has not been able to sustain long anti-guerilla warfare in the North Caucasus where Kadyrov-style Chechenization is increasingly challenged by the rebels. Russia was also unable to handle insurgency in Afghanistan in the past. Rakhmon knows that Russian isolationist nationalism is quite strong in the country and that a considerable part of the Russian public assumes that Russia should not be engaged in protracted guerilla conflict either in the Caucasus or in Central Asia. He is also aware that some Russians believe that Russia could well build new borders and insulate itself from these regions completely. In addition, he likely believes that the Taliban will stay concerned with the Americans and would hardly turn to the North.
Finally, Rakhmonov also believes that Russia could play a double game and might seek to utilize its military presence to replace him. He likely expects the use of Islamic opposition against him, which would explain recent Tajik press reports of “Russian citizens” being killed by Tajik law enforcement in some regions of Tajikistan. Thus, Rakhmon seems to calculate that distancing himself from Russia would not be a great loss, while it could bring to him the benefits of consolidating his position both as a national leader and as a “good Muslim”. This would be helpful both in managing domestic politics and in the case of a Taliban victory.CONCLUSIONS: While the situation in Afghanistan has become increasingly ominous neither the American public, nor its Western allies, have demonstrated any intention to close ranks. Even the elites of the Central Asian states are becoming increasingly skeptical about the ability of the U.S. and Russia to stand against the Taliban threat. They are afraid – and this fear is apparently shared by Rakhmon’s government – that both the U.S. and Russia could well strike a deal with the insurgents behind their backs and at their expense. Increasingly, they either ask for assurance that they will not be left in the cold, or demonstrate their independence from both Russia and the West as to ensure their support domestically and possibly among the very same Islamists against whom they supposedly engage in the war. All of this hardly bodes well for Afghan war, which above all needs solidarity and understanding that success could be achieved only after a very long stay in the country.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dmitry Shlapentokh is Associate Professor of History, Indiana University at South Bend.