Afghanistan remains one of the most complex problems of the global geopolitics while U.S. decision to withdraw its troops from the country caused numerous geopolitical questions. Once again Washington has thrilled the world with another decision. It considers pulling out its entire military contingent after 2014. What would the processes be in the event of the pullout?
Obama and Karzai: failing dialogue
Only handful of people would believe in changes in the Afghanistan policy of the U.S., but the world accustomed to sudden geopolitical moves witnessed shattering of such a prediction. During a telephone conversation between Obama and Karzai on June, the 27th, leaders failed to reach an agreement. According to “New York Times”, official Kabul is concerned with American initiatives to engage Taliban. Karzai went as far as accusing Washington of “clandestine activity” as he believed that process was not conducive to the establishment of peace in the country. In the meantime, Obama reminded him that American soldiers are sacrificing their lives on a daily basis in Afghanistan and expressed his commitment to end this (See: США рассматривают вариант полного вывода войск из Афганистана (U.S. considers complete troop withdrawal from Afghanistan) // www.rosbalt.ru, 10 July 2013).
Intriguing piece of information later came from Washington. U.S. administration announced possible complete withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, whereas prior arrangement envisaged eight thousand American troops to remain on the ground. This decision implies leaving fledgling and inexperienced Afghan army to face the Taliban. Experts believe that upon the pullout, several months or even days would be sufficed to topple the Karzai government (See: Максим Юсин. Хамида Карзая оставят наедине с талибами (Hamid Karzai to be abandoned to face the Taliban) // www.kommersant.ru, 10 July 2013). This is the scenario that official Kabul fears.
Karzai’s reaction to full military pullout from Afghanistan is understandable as he takes into account imminent loss of power and Taliban retribution. If the security concerns are not comprehensively addressed, the country may gradually descend into political chaos. It is no secret that the task is extremely difficult for Afghan security forces to achieve singlehandedly. Therefore, the major challenge is to ensure security upon the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
In this respect, NATO’s departure from Afghanistan is closely linked with the issues of ensuring the security in the wider geopolitical space and preventing terrorism. Apparently, in this case, the “Afghan cake” is to be divided, and there are quite a few who want a piece – U.S., Russia, China, India and Pakistan.
Indeed, Americans’ withdrawal from Afghanistan may entail geopolitical problems for the neighborhood and its immediate vicinity. General definition of the neighborhood includes Pakistan, Central Asian countries and Russia. For starters, a wave of terrorism may rise in the Central Asian countries. As to Pakistan, it has been engulfed with turmoil and perturbation of Afghanistan since the 1990s. Now Hamid Karzai often articulates the terror threat emanating from this country. Taliban strongholds are located in the Pakistani provinces. Official Islamabad is either reluctant or incapable of eliminating them. U.S. has been involved in military operations in those territories, but President Obama already said that his country would cease this “hidden war”. This has sent shivers down the spine of the official Kabul. Karzai is convinced that Taliban will intensify its offensives using Pakistani territory. Most sensitive aspect of the problem lies far beyond Afghanistan and has to with many factors encompassing wider geopolitical space.
Acceptance of reality or “calculated geopolitical trick”?
We believe that the essence of the Afghanistan issue lies within the answer to the question as to why the U.S. troops are to be pulled out of the country. By doing so Washington not only drastically alters the balance of power in the region but also paves the way for many problems to arise. First, the Central Asia turns into a playground for radical religious groups and not even Russia can solely confront the threat. For that very reason, Moscow had allowed the transit of NATO troops via its territory. Ulyanovsk was a transit point where most Afghanistan bound cargo was accumulated. Moreover, without Kremlin’s consent NATO would have never been able to use Manas and Termez for a long time. That is to say that Russia willingly facilitated the matters for the U.S. to combat religious radicalism in Afghanistan. For Russia, this opportunity appears to be slipping away which requires the latter to produce a new plan.
Second, western media report that Moscow is gearing up to return to Afghanistan (See: Анджей Талага. Россия возвращается в Афганистан. (Russia is to return to Afghanistan) // “Nowa Europa Wschodnia”, Poland, 4 July, 2013). In what capacity can a country that fled Afghanistan after a disgraceful defeat years ago, return there? Kremlin uses a skillful trick and chooses to gain leverage by not leading the pack but rather through shared responsibility with China, India and the U.S.
Moscow employs “soft power” – and penetrates the Northern provinces of Afghanistan through culture, language and business. And it is doing so together with Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Tajiks. Nevertheless, according to analysts after 2014 Russia will be compelled to use more military and security assets. In this context, talks conducted by President Putin in Beijing and New Delhi are noteworthy (See: A.Taraga’s abovementioned article). Russian leader offered those countries to deploy joint military contingent to Afghanistan. The idea has not been embraced just yet, but there are no guarantees that this initiative would not be a must.
Third, large powers are attempting to exploit the terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan for geopolitical interests. For example, they are trying to attract Central Asian countries. Russia is engaging Uzbekistan to that end. In the past, some Kremlin was rumored to facilitate access of radical religious groups to Central Asia (See: A.Talaga’s same article). The situation is totally different now. Moscow has to introduce changes into the rules of the game and talks held with Pakistan, India, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and China only attest to the fact. Russia openly seeks allies in the region to tackle religious radicalism.
Fourth, Eurasian space may turn into a drug trade center. According to statistics, over 2 million Russians suffer from this evil. This is a grave threat for a country that already is embattled by the demographic crisis which makes combating illicit drug trafficking imperative. Thus, Kremlin is in need of allies.
Finally, U.S. talks with Taliban held in Qatar are a serious signal. This can be Washington’s “next calculated move”. Should America be withdrawing troops from the region in exchange for peace with Taliban, wave of terrorism is shifted towards its regional rivals. Therefore, it is not accidental that Afghanistan’s leadership harshly reacted to talks held in the Qatari capital. Apparently, Washington is establishing dreadful terror source embodied by Taliban at the doorsteps of China, India, Russia and Pakistan. It implies that events resembling current developments around Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Iran may occur in the Central Asia and the Far East. Admittedly, such a scenario is quite perilous. However, one geopolitical reality is that big players dislike compromises even if the standoff costs lives of millions…