Karzai visits Moscow as Russia eyes greater role in Afghanistan

During President Karzai's visit, Afghanistan and Russia are likely to sign agreements on political, social, economic, and defense cooperation initiatives.

Denis Sinyakov/Reuters
Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai inspects the honor guard during a welcoming ceremony after arriving on an official visit at Moscow's Vnukovo airport on Jan. 20.

President Hamid Karzai is in Moscow this week for the first bilateral summit between the two countries in two decades. The last Afghan president to visit Moscow on a state visit was Mohammad Najibullah, the final Soviet-backed president during whose term in office the Soviet Union withdrew forces.

The Soviet Union disintegrated soon after. Russia then kept a safe distance from involvement in the messy politics of Afghanistan, although it kept a watchful eye on the country.

Now, Russia is keen to play an increasingly larger role in the country and is gradually expanding the range and intensity of its engagement.

During Karzai's Moscow visit, Afghanistan and Russia are likely to sign agreements on political, social, economic, and defense cooperation initiatives, including the possible revival of some key infrastructure projects that had been implemented by the Soviet Union. Russia is keen not to only provide aid and training to Afghans, but to secure a piece of the aid pie for its businessmen in exchange for technical expertise.

Rehabilitation of the Salang tunnel, the main artery connecting northern Afghanistan to the south, for example, could be done with Russian expertise and international aid, say Russian officials.

Russia sees opportunity

Last year, the Russian government donated 20,000 AK-47 rifles to the Afghan government and trained some 250 Afghan police. This year it hopes to deepen its involvement and expand the number of military officers it trains in Moscow, says Andrey Avetisyan, the Russian ambassador to Afghanistan.

“The general situation during the past year has not developed in the way I could call safe and secure," he told the Monitor in an interview at the new Russian embassy in Kabul. "We now see constant fighting in the north, which worries us a lot because it is almost on our borders, [and] since our borders with the central Asian republics are absolutely open"

Two main threats emanating from Afghanistan are drugs and terrorism, and it's clear, he says, that they must be dealt at least at the Afghan border. "We are willing to support [Afghanistan] in any possible way, except direct military involvement in Afghanistan. No Russian soldier will ever be on Afghan soil."

Making the increased role of Russia possible

Russia has shed its concern about the presence of NATO and US troops in its backyard, and sees the threat of terrorism from Afghanistan as a top priority. It also now sees an opportunity to maximize its leverage with the US and NATO by using its influence on Central Asian countries.

Fahim Dashty, the editor of Kabul Weekly, points out that NATO itself changed its tune on a Russian role in Afghanistan because of its “need for a northern route into Afghanistan and the growing threat of the Taliban in the north.” The southern supply route of NATO that runs through Pakistan has been severely compromised by the growing number of attacks by insurgent and criminal groups. If NATO were to fail in Afghanistan, it would cost both Russia and NATO, he said.

“Military assistance from Russia will be welcome,” says Mr. Dashty, a former close associate of Ahmed Shah Masood, who led the armed resistance against the Soviet troops.

“The goals of the Russian Federation are quite different from that of the Soviet Union,” he says, although he was quick to reject the possibility of any Russian troops on Afghan soil.

A recent joint counternarcotics raid with Russian counternarcotics officials highlighted both the possibilities as well as limitation of a Russian role.

The raid last fall led to the recovery of a large quantity of heroin, but was criticized by President Karzai, who lashed out at Russian interference. Observers say Karzai was possibly preempting any political fallout.

However, senior government official and political analyst Najib Manalai says that while “there was a strong response from the government, there was no apparent reaction from the public. There have been many changes since the departure of the Russians. The emotional baggage of the past has been swept away by the misdeeds of the mujahideen.”

While Karzai’s anger was in keeping with his frequent outbursts against the international community, the subsequent conciliatory overtures were unusual.

Less than a week later, Karzai called Russian President Medvedev, and the two emphasized Russia’s role in Afghanistan including counternarcotics cooperation. As Western powers ready themselves for an exit, “the relationship with Russia is going to be key in the future,” says Candace Rondeaux of the International Crisis Group.

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