Russia and Afghanistan
Afghanistan is overwhelmingly Muslim (99 percent), and Islam is the second largest religion in Russia, with around fifteen to twenty million adherents in the country, or ten to fifteen percent of the population. But these demographic details have minimum bearing on the relations between the two countries. Most Russian Muslims live in the North Caucasus and Middle Volga Regions. Russia and Afghanistan also share sizeable Turkic ethnic minorities, such as the Uzbeks and Turkmen.
In December 1979, in the midst of the Cold War, the Soviet 40th Army invaded Afghanistan in order to prop up the communist government of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) against a growing insurgency. At the time, the United States had been making headway in the Middle East at Moscow’s expense, successfully courting Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and others. The Soviet Union feared the loss of its communist proxy in Afghanistan.
Thus, over the course of the 1980's, the Soviet Union poured in billions of dollars (US) into the war in Afghanistan, and at its peak, more than 100,000 Soviet soldiers were fighting in the country. However, the Afghan resistance (the mujahideen) was heavily supported by a wide variety of international actors, including the US, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, and Egypt. In the end, the mujahideen prevailed and the Soviet Army was forced to withdraw from Afghanistan in February 1989, having lost tens of thousands killed and wounded. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow continued to supply and arm the communist regime of Dr. Najibullah, but this was not enough, and Kabul fell to the mujahideen in 1992.
The different mujahideen factions could not agree on how to share power, and the country quickly descended into a bloody civil war. In 1994, a movement of Pashtun fundamentalist students most of whom were trained in madrasas (religious schools) in the refugee camps in Pakistan seized Kandahar and started a campaign to wrest the country from the hands of the warlords. Known as the Taliban, this force marched into Kabul in 1996 and took control of most of the rest of the country by 1998. Many mujahideen warlords were forced to flee to the north, where they joined the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan or Northern Alliance, led by Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Massoud. Even though Rabbani and Massoud’s Jamiat-e Islami was one of the main mujahideen factions responsible for the defeat of the Soviet Army during the 1980s, Moscow decided to lend its support to the Northern Alliance, as did Iran, India, and others. Russia did not want to see a fundamentalist state emerge in Afghanistan. More importantly, the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies were providing training and sanctuary to Chechen rebels, Central Asian militants, and others whom Moscow deemed as a threat.
Russia did not take part in the U.S.-led invasion to overthrow the Taliban in 2001, but Moscow shared intelligence with Washington during the invasion. Russia has also allowed the U.S.-led coalition to send logistical and military supplies through Russian territory, and Moscow has been a major arms supplier to the Afghan government.
Ethnic Separatism, Islamism, and Terrorism
Moscow fears the rise of Islamic extremism among Russia’s substantial Muslim population, in addition to separatist movements among certain ethnic groups, particularly the Chechens. The Kremlin views these forces as a severe threat to the state, and thus it willingly supported the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban—a movement which had provided aid to these groups. Moscow has also used its participation in America’s “War on Terror” as an excuse for heavy-handedness in its crackdown on Islamist and separatist movements in Chechnya and elsewhere.
Outside its borders, Russia is concerned about the growth of Islamism and terrorism in its traditional sphere of influence or “near abroad”—the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Many militants from these areas have significant ties to the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or other groups in Afghanistan, and therefore Russia does not want to see a Taliban comeback in Kabul or a failed state emerge in Afghanistan. While the Kremlin may disapprove of NATO’s presence along its southern frontier, it does not want to see Afghanistan become a safe haven for a separatist, terrorist, or Islamist forces.
Russia has always been suspicious of the former anti-Soviet alliance, especially as many of its former satellite states in Eastern Europe and the Balkans accede to the North Atlantic Treaty. Unsurprisingly, Moscow is wary of the presence of so many NATO and US troops along its southern frontier. Russia supported the overthrow of the Taliban and wanted to see a stable government emerge in Kabul. It allowed the US and its partners to set up bases in its “near abroad” in Central Asia—Uzbekistan and later Kyrgyzstan—and allowed for the transport of supplies through Russian territory.
However, in recent years, Russia has shifted its policy towards its “near abroad,” seeking a more assertive role in the former Soviet territories, including the Central Asian states, Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic states. In February 2009, the Kyrgyz government announced that it would close the US airbase at Manas, a decision largely seen as a quid pro quo for the multi-billion dollar Russian aid package previously promised to Kyrgyzstan. It comes at a critical time for the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan, as growing unrest in Pakistan has put the eastern supply route—through which 75 percent of coalition supplies travel—in jeopardy. The coalition has therefore begun looking into alternate supply routes in Central Asia: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. (Iran refused to allow NATO supplies to be transported through its territory.) Moscow has seized the opportunity and has volunteered to transport more coalition supplies through Russia. This increased dependence on Russia would give Moscow more power in its dealings with NATO and greater leverage on issues such as the US’s proposed missile defense shield, the Iranian nuclear program, and the Kremlin’s increasingly aggressive moves in its “near abroad”—Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.
Economic Aid, Trade, and Investment
Moscow has not contributed much monetarily to Afghanistan’s reconstruction. However, Russia has delivered both military and humanitarian aid, and the Kremlin did decide to cancel 90 percent of Afghanistan’s debt (worth US$ ten billion), most of which consisted of military sales to the PDPA regime during the 1970's and 1980's. Russia continues to be a major arms supplier to Kabul, although most of the weapons and equipment is being purchased with U.S. money. Russian companies, including state-owned enterprises, have invested in Afghanistan, often winning lucrative contracts.