In a disturbing echo of its Syria intervention, Russia is stepping up its military and security involvement in following Nato’s withdrawal and subsequent, dramatic advances by the Taliban and Islamic State.
Moscow remains wary of the Afghan quagmire, with memories still fresh of the disastrous 1979-89 war that cost the lives of 15,000 Russian soldiers and uncounted Afghan civilians, and ultimately contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russian leaders are alarmed, however, at the rgrowing threat Isis poses. They say it has established international training camps in Afghanistan, and they are concerned at the prospect of jihadis infiltrating the former Soviet states of central Asia and Russia’s mainly Muslim Caucasus region.
The Kremlin was also unnerved by the Taliban’s recent, temporary capture of the strategically important city of Kunduz, which was seen as a direct threat to the northern border.
Addressing a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit in Kazakhstan last week, Vladimir Putin . Terrorist groups were gaining more influence and not hiding their plans for further expansion, the Russian president said.
Zamir Kabulov, Putin’s special envoy on Afghanistan, said there were 3,500 Isis militants in the country and that the number was rising rapidly. “There are several camps that train people from Central Asia and some regions of Russia,” . The instructors included Arabs, Pakistanis and US and British citizens, he added.
, Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s defence minister, said in Beijing that Isis and similar groups were targeting the predominantly Muslim autonomous region of Xinjiang in north-west China. “There are currently up to 50,000 militants in the country [Afghanistan], organised into over 4,000 different units and groups,” he said.
The CIS summit agreed to create a joint border task force following earlier warnings from Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rahmon, that fighting was going on along more than 60% of the Tajik border with Afghanistan. Moscow has , to its large Tajikistan military base, home to the Russian army’s 201st Motorised Rifle Division.
Moscow has also reportedly agreed to a plea from Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Russian-trainedveteran warlord who is now the first vice-president of Afghanistan, . Dostum visited Moscow this month, and also met the Putin ally and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov in Grozny.
“The Russian side is committed to support Afghanistan in terms of helping its air and military forces,” Dostum’s spokesman, Sultan Faizy, said. “We’re lacking air support, weapons, ammunition. We need a lot of backing and support to fight against terrorism.”
: “Dostum noted that Isis is trying to make Afghanistan into a bridgehead … In order to prevent this threat, Kabul needs Russia’s support, as in Syria.”
Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, says Moscow has not received a formal request for intervention from Kabul similar to that made by Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. Afghan officials are adamant that no such request will be made, but Russian military assistance including weapons sales and the training of Afghan air force pilots has continued, with western knowledge, since Nato’s intervention after 9/11. This now look set to expand.
In other respects, Russia’s motives in Afghanistan echo those of its Syrian intervention more closely. Alarm over the spreading terrorist menace aside, has a strategic interest in tackling instability along its southern flank and shoring up friendly regimes. As in Syria and parts of Iraq, Putin sees a developing power vacuum caused by US disengagement and western political aversion to military intervention.
In this lies another post-Crimea opportunity . Moscow mocked Barack Obama’s postponement last week of further US troop withdrawals from Afghanistan as proof that Washington’s policy in the country had failed. Although it was not appreciated at the time, Obama’s volte-face may in part be a response to concern that Russian geo-strategic encroachment is opening a new chapter in the Great Game.