Russian President Dmitri Medvedev played host last week to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the leaders of Pakistan and Tajikistan at the Black Sea resort of Sochi. The group's second meeting in a year was a low-key affair, but the subtext was significant. Mounting Russian concerns that Islamist militancy and cheap drugs emanating from Afghanistan are a threat to its national security have made Moscow refocus on the region even as the U.S. and its NATO allies maneuver to draw down. Two decades after the Soviet army left Afghanistan in humiliating defeat, Russia is poised to spend billions in the war-wracked country to develop infrastructure, mineral and energy reserves, with new plans taking shape to boost military capability. This time around, it has America's blessing.
Mutual interests intersect in the former Cold War battleground. Nearly nine years on, the Taliban-led insurgency is costing the U.S. more lives and money than ever before. With a July 2011 deadline looming for troops to begin their withdrawal, the Obama Administration has been angling for regional partners to step in and shoulder a greater share of the burden. Russia kept a safe distance in the years following the Taliban's ouster, but it has been stirred to action by two issues: deadly Islamist terror attacks within its borders inspired in no small part by the ideologies spreading from the war zone on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani frontier and a spike in drug-related crime and deaths more than 130,000 each year from heroin alone, most of which originates in Afghanistan.
Over the past year, a series of contact groups from the U.S. and Russia have ramped up intelligence-sharing to combat the flow of narcotics from Afghanistan, the source of about 90% of the world's heroin. In a June 9 op-ed in the Moscow newspaper Izvestia, Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, highlighted Russian contributions at length, hailing them as a major step forward in bilateral relations. But while Russia's intelligence assets in ex-Soviet republics may have a modest impact on combating the trade, myriad other transit routes through Iran and Pakistan will complicate the efforts to curtail the supply line.
With more of the drug passing through its borders than any other country, Russian officials are convinced the scourge must be confronted at its source. Viktor Ivanov, the national drug czar, has in the past complained about what he sees as America's reluctance to wage a drug war that could drive farmers into the Taliban ranks. And he's right: under the current counterinsurgency strategy, drug eradication has become a lesser priority. "Of course the struggle against terrorism should take precedence, but what about liquidating drug production?" Ivanov said in May, wondering aloud why Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium and hashish despite NATO's continued presence. In his latest meeting with his Afghan counterpart on Wednesday, President Medvedev stressed the nexus between drug trafficking and violent extremism, asserting that opium-poppy crops must be eradicated by any means necessary, including military strikes.
So far, Russian support of NATO operations has largely been limited to allowing ground shipments of nonlethal supplies to cross its territory and airplanes delivering weapons to fly through its airspace. Private Russian companies have been involved in transport logistics for years, of course. But Moscow may now actively complement NATO's work in Afghanistan. At NATO's behest, Russia is now negotiating the sale of at least 20 Mi-17 helicopters to the Afghan military an interesting development given that the medium-sized craft were designed to fight the mujahedin during the 1980s. Defense Minister Sergei Lavrov has also confirmed they will help train the Afghan air force and police, with a free shipment of weapons to kick things off.
Large-scale investment may also enter Afghanistan to help shore up the embattled Karzai regime and to make money. Russian companies are currently trying to secure deals to upgrade dozens of Soviet-era installations, among them a $500 million plan to reconstruct hydroelectric plants and a similarly ambitious bid to build wells and irrigation systems in the Afghan countryside. Rosneft, the state-owned oil and gas giant, is exploring potentially lucrative gas fields in the north, while other companies are said to be hunting for minerals such as iron and aluminum. With big bucks to be made in a war economy, Russian officials and business leaders make no secret that they are out to help themselves to the spoils.
Moscow's decade-long occupation of Afghanistan from 1980 to 1989 may have left the Russians with advantages. Many Soviet-educated Afghans who fled the country under the Taliban have since returned, adding a degree of competence to a fledgling government with perhaps more affinity for Moscow than for Washington. And, according to Haroun Mir, director of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies, ex-communists heavily represented in the upper ranks of the national police and army remain the backbone of the security establishment. "They are knowledgeable and well-trained and we have to rely on them until a new corps can fill the vacuum," he says.
Faced with bigger worries and less reliable neighbors, the U.S. and NATO appear willing to accept growing Russian influence. "At this point, we can't afford to be too selective in terms of where we get help," says one Western diplomat in Kabul. Indeed, the gathering flurry of activity in Afghanistan is a sign: Russia is back.