Russia’s recent involvement in an anti-drug operation in Afghanistan indicates that the exigencies of the present crisis outweigh the burdens of past actions for Moscow. While Russian leaders appear ready to take Kabul’s feelings into account, the Kremlin is no longer willing to let its past sins keep Russia on the sidelines in Afghanistan.
The participation of Russian forces in the October 28 raid on a drug lab in Nangarhar Province touched a raw nerve among Afghans, even though US and Afghan troops also participated. Shortly after the raid became public, President Hamid Karzai sharply criticized Russian involvement, describing it as a “blatant violation of Afghanistan's sovereignty." Observers saw Karzai’s reaction as politically expedient, given the fact that the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in late 1979 started the vicious cycle of civil strife that continues to spin. For Karzai, the reappearance of Russian forces on Afghan soil is fraught with political peril.
“The last thing President Karzai wants is for this incident itself to be seen as part of the occupation by foreign forces,” said Prakhar Sharma, who manages Yale University’s research projects in Afghanistan. Karzai was preempting a populist backlash because “the incident [raid] has symbolic value in that it says: ‘The Russians are back.’”
“There are some historical resonances,” concurred Candace Rondeaux, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst in Kabul, “that could let the insurgency turn this event into something big. But Karzai has done more damage by blowing up this event.”
Karzai’s response resonated among a sizable portion of the Afghan public. “As an Afghan, I cannot think of it [the Russian involvement] as a legitimate action,” said Waliullah Rahmani, the Executive Director of the Kabul Center of Strategic Studies. “The Afghan people do not have good memories of the Russian forces. It is expected of countries that have a history of animosity in Afghanistan that they should respect the legitimate concerns of Afghanistan and not undermine its sovereignty.”
Rahmani, however, acknowledged that Moscow has reason to be concerned: Russia has an estimated 2.5 million heroin addicts and most of the narcotics entering the country originate in Afghanistan. For that reason, over 20 years since withdrawing its combat forces after an almost decade-long occupation of Afghanistan, Moscow has felt compelled to return. “In a globalized world, every country has legitimate roles and interests. Today’s Russia is not the Russia of Yeltsin,” he said.
Afghan leaders seem to acknowledge that the Kremlin has a role to play in Afghanistan. On November 3, Afghan officials initiated a phone call between Karzai and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The two leaders discussed enhanced Afghan-Russian cooperation on a range of issues, including counter-narcotics initiatives. A Russian Embassy statement added that the two leaders discussed the October 28 raid and noted that it was the first instance of cooperation among US, Russian and Afghan anti-drug agencies. Moscow for its part seems aware of Karzai’s point of view. The Russian ambassador in Kabul, Andrey Avetsiyan, told the local news agency Pajhwok that the harsh initial reaction from Afghan authorities to the raid was due to a lack of information.
Though interested in assuaging Afghan concerns, Russian officials have indicated that they remain prepared to take all necessary action to defend Russia’s state interests in the future, in particular on issues concerning drug production and trafficking. Over the past few months, Russia has repeatedly expressed chagrin at ineffective efforts by the Afghan government, along with the United States and its NATO allies, to curb Afghanistan’s drug problem.
Moscow maintains that Kabul, Washington and Brussels have let the drugs trade grow out of control in the nine years since US-led forces toppled the Taliban. But while criticizing the international community’s ad hoc counter-narcotics efforts, Moscow is simultaneously expanding cooperation bilaterally and multilaterally.
“The reality is that Russia remains a very big player, and Afghanistan’s relationship with Russia is going to be key in the future,” says Rondeaux of ICG.
“NATO has seen that and seen the ways in which it [Russia] can be helpful.” So has Washington. A June summit between Medvedev and US President Barack Obama ended with a joint statement focused overwhelmingly on anti-narcotics cooperation. In July, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) got a new head, Yuri Fedotov, a Russian.
Fedotov – a former ambassador to London – is expected to invigorate Moscow’s counter-narcotics policy in Afghanistan. In its most recent report on opium production in Afghanistan, released on September 30, the UNODC called for a “comprehensive strategy to rein-in the Afghan opium threat, including by strengthening the rule of law and security and spurring development efforts in Afghanistan.” Fedotov’s invocation for “a broader strategy” that combines stability and security with alternative development is in tune with the Russian view that the complex problem of Afghan narcotics requires a complex approach.
While Russia has been raising these issues at multilateral arenas, it now is starting to play a more assertive public role. Moscow’s outspoken anti-narcotics chief, Victor Ivanov, who made public the recent raid, spelled out the Russian approach during a March visit to Kabul.
A former KGB officer in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, Ivanov wants poppy eradication to include controversial aerial spraying; alternative livelihoods for poppy farmers; an exchange of information on drug trafficking and drug labs; and UN sanctions against drug lords. Afghan officials have resisted taking on drug lords and have vigorously opposed spraying.
Pushing for alternative livelihoods, during his visit, Ivanov challenged the assumption that poppy farmers would suffer as a result of eradication. “Most of the money goes to the drug mafia which organizes drug production,” he said. “Those who cultivate poppy work like slaves.”
Given the stakes in pushing for a harder counter-narcotics strategy, Moscow is unlikely to back off, despite the recent diplomatic hiccup. Ivanov has said the raids will continue. But Moscow may need to modify its approach to service Afghan sensitivities.
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 19 years.