Why Russia is Worried About “Zero Option” in Afghanistan

August 9, 2013
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Beijing, June 7, 2012. (Xinhua/Huang Jingwen)

With America’s decade long entanglement in Afghanistan coming to a close, the debate over the size and scale of any remaining American involvement in the country has come to the forefront of Washington’s policy making circuit. From the Department of Defense and the State Department, to USAID and the White House, discussions are being held over not only how many U.S. troops should remain in the country after 2014, but also on the potential scenario of the U.S. retaining no troops in the country, the so called “Zero Option.” Afghanistan, Pakistan, the U.S., and to a lesser degree India and China, are all involved in or are carefully watching the debates, as vital national interests would be altered, depending on the nature of U.S. commitment after 2014.

But the one country that is watching the debates as closely as Afghanistan and Pakistan is Russia; not only because of its own history of intervention in the country, but because of the potential for instability to spill over into the Central Asian republics.

Russia watched first-hand as the country descended into chaos and anarchy following its withdrawal in February 1989, enacting its own “Zero Option.” The decay of Afghanistan’s institutions and ruling mechanisms led to not only the eventual takeover of the country by the Taliban, but the growth in drug production and the spread of radical Islamist ideologies to Central Asia—particularly Tajikistan, which waged a civil war throughout most of the 1990’s.

To contain the spread of instability, Russia had to support not only the economies and political structures of many of the Central Asian states, but it also had to contribute significant military support as well.  Tajikistan, one of the poorest countries in the region, whose own military numbers some paltry 16,300 troops, has relied on Russia’s 201st Motor Rifle Division to help maintain security, especially in securing its 1,344-kilometer border with Afghanistan, since the fall of the Soviet Union. And due to the fear of a spillover of violence following the pullout of foreign troops, Putin and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon recently announced that they had reached an agreement extending the presence of the 201st through 2042, and a $200 million support package for the diminutive Tajik military. Russia is also helping to build up Kyrgyzstan, another desperately poor country, which is set to receive a $1 billion support package to help modernize its military.

Steps such as these are aimed at preventing the spread of chaos that Russia witnessed following its own withdrawal. The fear is that Afghanistan’s institutions, both political and military, will be unable to operate without significant U.S. and ISAF support. President Putin has urged the Collective Security Treaty Organization (the CSTO is a collection of post-soviet states: Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) to create “an effective algorithm of practical action… to minimize possible risks for our countries” following the departure of foreign troops from Afghanistan.

The Secretary General of the CSTO, Nikolai Bordyuzha, was even more forward in stating the risks following the withdrawal. “According to our estimates, the forthcoming withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force will only make the situation worse: radical regional and nationalists will intensify their activities in [CSTO] member states.”

Furthermore, Russia is concerned over the spread of terrorism and the return of militants who have received training in Afghanistan. The return of Afghanistan as a safe haven for terrorists to train and organize would threaten not only the west but Russia itself, who has been waging a campaign against an Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus over the last two decades. Illustrating the threat is the fact that Russia recently foiled a plot by three Russian citizens who had received training in Afghanistan and were planning an attack in Moscow.

But beyond the spread of regional instability and terrorism is the threat of drug trafficking. With Afghanistan supplying some 90% of the world’s opium, Russia and the Central Asian republics have become a key export route. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime notes that some 95 tons of heroin is trafficked through the “Northern Route,” incorporating Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and to a lesser extent Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, to its destinations in Russia and Europe. This has led to Russia consuming an estimated 70 tons of heroin, worth $13 billion, creating an estimated 2-3 million heroin addicts and leading to 30,000 heroin linked deaths every year.

The amount of drugs trafficked to and through Russia makes this a prominent national security issue. And the reluctance of ISAF to tackle the issue has incensed Putin, “The international forces are doing practically nothing to eradicate drug production in Afghanistan.” Citing Russia’s drug control agency (FSKN) that drug production in Afghanistan has increased 40 fold in the last decade, Putin added, “a significant increase in drug production on Afghan territory and emerging sustainable drug trafficking routes to other countries, regretfully including Russia.”

However, Russia does not like or want America’s presence in Central Asia, and has been forceful in limiting the U.S.’s power in the region—like closing the Manas airbase in Kyrgystan, a major transshipment point for men and material entering Afghanistan. To put it bluntly, Russia just wants the U.S. to deal with the mess it started. Steps like re-negotiating the base deal with Tajikistan and the billion dollar aid package to Kyrgyzstan are aimed at ensuring the exclusion of America in Central Asia (In a recent visit to Central Asia, CENTCOM Commander General Lloyd Austin skipped Kyrgyzstan, ostensibly signaling that the U.S. has resigned its hope of renewing its lease of the Manas air base). But as Steven Pifer of Brookings noted, “Russian help in providing logistics routes will be welcome but not essential as it was in 2009.”

With much of Russia’s attention focused on the upcoming Sochi Olympics and its renewed interest in the Russian Far East and Pacific, the increasing realization that Russia will be forced to devote significant attention to Afghanistan is an unwelcome one.  Russia fears the anarchy that would follow a total U.S. withdrawal, and is determined to increase the political costs of doing so. Sergei Lavrov succinctly illustrates Russia’s position:

“We supported an operation to eradicate the terrorist threat in Afghanistan, and added that attention should also be paid to the drug threat. And we assume that if the international forces have decided to withdraw, then they apparently think that they are ready to report to the UN Security Council about accomplishing their mandate, issued by the UN Security Council in 2001. And we, of course, are expecting such a report.”