Russia going back to Afghanistan? Kremlin confirms it could happen

Nearly 25 years after Soviet troops left Afghanistan in defeat, Russia may return – in order to service the Russian equipment that makes up the backbone of the Afghan military.

Estate of Alexander Sekretarev/AP/File
Soviet soldiers observe the highlands while fighting Islamic guerrillas at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan in late April 1988. Russia is reportedly considering returning to Afghanistan, but in a nonmilitary capacity to service Russian arms and vehicles owned by the Afghan Army.

Almost a quarter century after Soviet troops left Afghanistan in defeat, Russia may return to the country by establishing "maintenance bases" for Russian-made military equipment after NATO winds down its operations there next year, Defense Ministry officials have confirmed.

"It is important to maintain the weapon systems and military equipment of the Afghan armed forces in a serviceable state," Sergei Koshelev, head of the Russian Defense Ministry's international cooperation department, told journalists late last week.

Moscow is extremely worried "that any escalation of the situation in Afghanistan after NATO troops pull out in 2014 could have a negative impact on the security of both Russia and other European nations," he added.

Russian experts insist that it's not an attempt to overcome Russia's own version of the "Vietnam syndrome" – an agonized folk memory of the decade-long war in Afghanistan that arguably brought down the Soviet Union. Rather, they say the new engagement will be limited to commercial obligations, negotiated with NATO before it pulls most of its forces out, and will absolutely not involve any active military role.

"Someone has to help the Afghan people build a peaceful life. They've known nothing but weapons and war for so long," says Oleg Tikhonov, deputy head of the Injured Afghan War Veterans in Sverdlovsk region, western Siberia.

"But Russia must never repeat its past mistakes. There cannot again be any Russian troops in Afghanistan. After the past, it would be impossible to explain why Russian boys are dying there. You cannot do such things without the people's consent," he adds.

Twofold goals

Analysts say that, first, there is an objective need to maintain and repair generations of Soviet and Russian-made military hardware that constitute the main weaponry used by the Afghan security forces. Over the past decade, rather than reequip Afghan government troops with sophisticated Western-made arms, the United States has purchased hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of Russian weapons, including helicopters, from Russia's state arms exporter Rosoboronexport to fill their needs.

Second, Russia wants to establish forward posts in Afghanistan because it is increasingly alarmed about a possible resurgence of the cross-border militant Islamist incursions that sowed chaos in the post-Soviet republics of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan during the turbulent 1990s. Production of narcotics has exploded under NATO's watch in Afghanistan, and much of it moves via criminal pipelines through former Soviet Central Asia and Russia, feeding official corruption and the growth of mafia power throughout the region. Many Russians say they fear that the NATO withdrawal may soon leave them to face these challenges alone.

Over the past couple of years, Russia has become more active assisting the beleaguered NATO mission in Afghanistan, even granting the use of an important air base in central Russia to help with resupply efforts. Russian leaders have repeatedly urged NATO not to leave in 2014, and to stay in Afghanistan until "the job is done."

But most Russian experts say they are now resigned to the US pulling the plug in 2014 and, in a pattern familiar from previous wars from Vietnam to Iraq, abandoning the region to its own devices.

"Look at Iraq. The US lost interest in it, and nobody cares if it's becoming engulfed in civil war," says Vadim Kozyulin, a researcher with the PIR Center, a leading Moscow security think tank.

"The same process may happen in Afghanistan, and could develop much more quickly. The US effort in Afghanistan is about to end. It's time for Russia to design a new effort, which means we have to take a share of responsibility on ourselves. We're already playing the role of political and military leader in Central Asia.... Even though [President Vladimir] Putin previously said we won't send Russian specialists to Afghanistan, the Russian military now says we might create enterprises on Afghan territory to service military equipment. The situation is changing," he adds.

Russia's military-equipment foothold

The US has already purchased about 70 Russian Mi-17 helicopters for the Afghan Army, at around $17 million apiece, and wants to buy 30 more – an arrangement that's extremely controversial in the US.

"NATO buys Russian arms for the Afghan forces in part because they're very familiar with this equipment, and in part because they probably don't want to supply sophisticated Western arms that might wind up in the hands of the Taliban," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign-policy journal.

"As Russia tries to extend its economic presence, this edge in military equipment is about the only thing going for us. And it's guaranteed that Russia's own military-industrial lobbies will push hard for expanding it," he adds.

One of Mr. Putin's key policies is to knit together former Soviet lands in a new Eurasian Union that would be driven by economic synergies rather than political domination. As Russia pivots eastward, the resource-rich but politically unstable former Soviet republics of Central Asia – which abut Afghanistan – are taking on a whole new significance.

Some experts say that stability in Afghanistan, with which the USSR maintained good relations for most of its history, will be key to Russia's ability to achieve its other goals in the region.

"Russia is returning to Afghanistan. Indeed, according to some information, Russia is already doing that without waiting for the Americans to leave," says Anatoly Tsyganok, an analyst with the independent Center for Military Forecasting and a member of the Russian Defense Ministry's advisory public council.

"I think we should be investing right now. There are many proposals from the Afghan government on the table, including participation in geological surveys, developing oil production and water resources. There is an offer to build a metro in Kabul, and it is being considered in Moscow.... Consider that the Chinese are already very active. They are building roads in Taliban-held territory, using the Taliban for protection. We need to look ahead, and be practical about it," he says.

Gen. Makhmut Garayev, president of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences and a former adviser to the pro-Soviet regime of Mohammad Najibullah in Afghanistan, says Russia needs to step cautiously in any return to Afghanistan.

"There has been a lot of harm done to Afghanistan, and many countries participated in doing it," Garayev says.

"But Afghanistan needs to be restored. Several generations have known only war, weapons, and death. We have a history with that country, and not only a negative one. The USSR cooperated with Afghanistan since it had a king. There is a chance here to work creatively. Nobody's ever tried that before. We need to step carefully, but we should try," he says.

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