Kabul, Afghanistan, battered by worsening security, is reaching out to an old ally and patron—Russia—just as the Kremlin is seeking to reassert its position as a heavyweight on the world stage.
President Ashraf Ghani has asked Moscow for artillery, small arms and Mi-35 helicopter gunships for his country’s struggling military, Afghan and Russian officials say, after the U.S. and its allies pulled most of their troops from Afghanistan and reduced financial aid.
The outreach has created another opening for the Kremlin, stepping up the potential for confrontation with Washington. East-West relations are already strained over such issues as Ukraine and Middle Eastern policy.
“Russia is seizing the opportunity,” a U.S. official said.
Beyond such rivalries, however, the move also reflects Russian concerns that the deterioration of security in Afghanistan could destabilize Central Asia—and bring Islamic extremism closer to its own border.
At an Oct. 16 summit in Kazakhstan, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the situation “was becoming close to critical,” with militant groups looking to expand their reach across the region.
“It’s important for us to be ready to react in concert to just such a scenario,” he told other Central Asian leaders.
Russia launched an air war in Syria last month with the aim, it said, of combating the rise of Islamic State in the region by buttressing its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It also has forged a new alliance with Iran and Iraq with the same goals.
The Kremlin’s muscular new foreign policy has raised hopes among Afghan politicians that Russia will come back to their country as a friendlier ally in the wake of the Western drawdown, which has seen the U.S. troop level drop to about 10,000 this year, from a peak of about 100,000 in 2010-11.
On Oct. 15, President Barack Obama announced he was shelving plans to withdraw most of the remaining U.S. forces by the end of his second term. Washington now anticipates keeping around 5,500 troops after January 2017, in an acknowledgment of the disintegrating security situation.
The last Red Army troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. That war was a national trauma on both sides, ending in defeat for Moscow and the eventual collapse of Afghanistan’s communist government.
Because of that history, direct intervention in Afghanistan would be a very hard sell for the Russian public.
Alexander Mantytskiy, Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan, said his government is considering the Afghan requests for military assistance, which he said have increased this year following the withdrawal of most U.S. and allied North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces.
We will provide some assistance, but it doesn’t mean that any soldier from the Russian Federation will be here on Afghan soil,” he said. “Why should we carry the burden of a problem that was not solved by the Americans and NATO countries?”
The Pentagon in the past purchased Russian-made Mi-17 transport helicopters, and Russia trained Afghan technicians to maintain them. But Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine in early 2014 prompted the U.S. to end that cooperation.
Abdul Rashid Dostum, Afghanistan’s first vice president, has been at the forefront of efforts to reach out to Russia directly.
An ethnic Uzbek who rose to prominence as a military commander in Afghanistan’s pro-Soviet government, Mr. Dostum met with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and other defense officials in Moscow this month to discuss possible assistance.
“Gen. Dostum wanted Russia to pay attention to the situation in Afghanistan,” said his spokesman, Sultan Faizy, who described Russia’s response to the request as positive. “Northern Afghanistan and countries allied to Russia are under threat—that is why Russia is willing to help.”
The former warlord also met Ramzan Kadyrov, the pro-Kremlin leader of Russia’s Chechen Republic. Mr. Kadyrov, who is a major presence on Russian social media, posted photos of the two of them together, enthusing about Mr. Dostum’s military prowess.
“Kabul needs the support of Russia, just like Syria,” Mr. Kadyrov said on his Vkontakte page. “We expressed assurance that the leadership of Russia will take the appropriate response to this question.”
As Kabul seeks new sponsors following the withdrawal of most U.S. and allied troops, a renewed competition between Moscow and Washington is beginning to take shape.
In August, longtime U.S. ally Pakistan said it would buy four Mi-35 helicopters from Moscow in a sign of warming relations there.
The last batch of Mi-17s was delivered to Afghanistan a year ago, and U.S. lawmakers have prohibited contracting with Rosoboronexport, the Russian arms exporter, except to help maintain the Afghan fleet and supply spare parts.
Kabul now wants a separate deal with Rosoboronexport for Mi-35 helicopters.
Mr. Ghani’s spokesman, Zafar Hashemi, said Kabul hopes Moscow will donate the equipment. “Should the Russians ask for payment, the Afghan government will purchase limited equipment, but pay for it from its own, domestically generated revenues,” he said.
Afghanistan’s tax collections amount to less than $5 billion a year. It depends mostly on international largess to pay the salaries of its army and police and provide fuel and ammunition to keep insurgents at bay.
The U.S. is still Afghanistan’s biggest backer: Since the 2001 invasion that toppled the Taliban, Washington has committed more than $109 billion to the country’s reconstruction. The other major donors are Japan and European Union countries.
The U.S. is currently looking for other providers to supply Afghanistan with helicopters, according to the U.S. official and others.
Afghan forces badly need air support to reverse gains by the Taliban and other insurgent groups, who have put the government on the defensive and encircled major cities.
Last month, Taliban fighters briefly captured the northern city of Kunduz, their biggest victory in 14 years of war. There has been heavy fighting elsewhere in the north, including in Faryab, Jowzjan and Badakhshan provinces.
Afghanistan’s neighbors—Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan—have recently sent reinforcements to their southern borders in response to heavy fighting in bordering Afghan provinces, Afghan and Russian officials said. Military and diplomatic officials of all three countries declined to comment.
Mr. Mantytskiy, the Russian ambassador in Kabul, said Russia has sent additional military hardware to Tajikistan.
Some Afghan and foreign officials say Russia is cultivating Afghan power brokers in the north, such as warlords and local politicians, as part of their efforts to contain extremism along the border. Mr. Mantytskiy denied this.
During a trip to Russia earlier this month, Nazir Ahmadzai, an Afghan lawmaker, said he confronted Russian officials about their alleged support to individual power brokers.
“We consider it illegal,” said Mr. Ahmadzai, who said any outreach should go through the central government. “They defended themselves. They said: ‘We have no choice, because the rise of [Islamic State] in Afghanistan is a big threat to us.”
The Russian president said recently that between 5,000 and 7,000 people from former Soviet republics had joined the ranks of Islamic State in the Middle East. Signs of its appearance in Afghanistan are of particular concern.
Other militant groups include the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, whose fighters were pushed into Afghanistan as a result of a Pakistani army operation on the other side of the border.
Afghanistan has long been of strategic interest to Russia even after the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Moscow backed the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in the 1990s, providing weapons and support to jihadist commanders who once fought them.
The Russian military maintains a ground force in Tajikistan centered on the 6,000-strong 201st Motorized Rifle Division, which previously served as Tajikistan’s main border force along the frontier with Afghanistan.
Col. Yaroslav Roshchupkin, spokesman for that division, said the unit was being reinforced with an aviation element, primarily transport helicopters, at a base in Ayni, outside of Dushanbe. “It’s a return of assets once stationed at the base,” he said.
Source- Wall Street Journal