US President Barack Obama’s June 24 meeting in Washington with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, focused mainly on trade and economics. They did not spend much time on security issues, such as Afghanistan. That means an opportunity to gain better mutual understanding about a crucial strategic matter may have been missed.It is important for American policy planners to understand that the Kremlin approach toward Afghanistan and Pakistan has undergone a dramatic shift in recent years.Back in 2001, in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist tragedy, the United States and its NATO allies established military bases in Central Asia and quickly drove the Taliban from power in Kabul. These developments were unsettling to Russian planners, who worried that Washington was gaining influence in the region at Moscow’s expense.In recent years, Russian thinking has adjusted to the reality that the United States and its allies could not easily contain the Islamic insurgency in Afghanistan. By 2009, Russian leaders even started to grow concerned that the Obama administration might suddenly withdraw American forces from Afghanistan, thus leaving Russia alone to deal with the threat that a resurgent Taliban would pose to Central Asia and Russia itself. Accordingly, Moscow helped the United States put together the Northern Distribution Network, a re-supply route that facilitates the overland transit of non-lethal goods from Europe to Afghanistan. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive]. While Moscow now supports the US/NATO position in Afghanistan, the Kremlin nevertheless is striving to differentiate Russia from the West in ways that Moscow hopes will boost its standing in the eyes of President Hamid Karzai’s administration in Kabul. US relations with Karzai have experienced a marked change in recent years. The Bush Administration strongly promoted Karzai, but the Afghan leader’s relations with President Obama have often been tense. Over the same period, Russian policy has sought to emphasize Moscow’s long-term interest in a stable Afghanistan. As Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Andrei Avetisyan, stated in December 2009; “Many of your friends will have to go sometimes because they came from far away to help you. But when they go, we stay—together with your neighbors, we stay.”There have been great changes in Russian-Pakistani relations in recent years too. Pakistan had long been a country that Moscow had antagonistic relations with. During the Cold War, sources of tension between the two countries included Pakistan’s close relations with both the United States and China; the Soviet Union’s close relations with Pakistan’s main rival, India; and Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Mujahedeen fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan.After most outside powers, including the United States and European nations, lost interest in Afghanistan following the Soviet troop withdrawal, Pakistan remained engaged in Afghanistan, eventually becoming the chief sponsor of the Taliban—something that Moscow found threatening. Indeed, Russia supported anti-Taliban forces in northern Afghanistan long before the United States and NATO did after the September 11 terrorist tragedy. More recently, Moscow—along with many others—grew agitated about the continued Taliban presence in Afghanistan. Russian leaders also worried about Pakistan’s seeming inability—or even unwillingness—to defeat Islamic militants.But over the past few years, Russian-Pakistani relations have improved, in part as a reaction to warming Indian-American relations. Another important factor is the fact that Russia has discovered Pakistan to be a lucrative market for arms exports.How long, though, is this friendly Russo-Pakistani relationship likely to last? There is reason to believe that the withdrawal of US/NATO forces from Afghanistan (now tentatively scheduled to begin in mid-2011) could lead to renewed tension between Russia and Pakistan over Afghanistan.Three decades of hostility cannot be easily ignored. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, Pakistan served as the conduit for external assistance to the Mujahedeen fighting against both Soviet forces and the Afghan Marxist regime. During this period, Moscow mainly supported the Uzbeks and Tajiks in the north of the country, while Pakistan mainly supported the Pashtuns in the south.After Soviet forces withdrew in 1989 and the Marxist regime they left behind fell in 1992, it was replaced by a self-proclaimed Islamic regime that was also dominated by northerners. Pakistan backed the predominantly Pashtun Taliban which overthrew this regime in 1996 and overran most of Afghanistan. From the early 1990s until just after 9/11, then, Russia tended to back Uzbek and Tajik forces in the North that resisted the advance of the Taliban.The US-led invasion in Afghanistan beginning in October 2001 sought to overcome Afghanistan’s North-South divide by creating a government that appealed to both. This effort was exemplified by the promotion of Karzai—a Pushtun with strong northern ties—as Afghanistan’s post-Taliban president. In time, though, the Karzai government came to be seen as not only corrupt and ineffective, but as serving the interests of northerners—who were especially prominent in its ranks. This increasingly led many Pashtuns to regard the Taliban as the defenders of Pashtun interests. While Pakistan has cooperated with the United States in Afghanistan to some extent, elements within its government in Islamabad have continued to support the Taliban. Russia, as noted above, has largely backed the Karzai government and the American-led effort to prop it up.The pattern, then, of Russia backing the northerners (Uzbeks and Tajiks) and Pakistan backing the southerners (Pashtuns) that existed both during the 1980’s and 1990’s is continuing today. Thus, a US withdrawal from Afghanistan could be expected to result in Russia and Pakistan both continuing—indeed, probably increasing—their support for their traditional Afghan allies. If this occurs, then the Russian-Pakistani relationship would most likely return to its accustomed mutual antagonism.The implications of this are that after an American departure from Afghanistan, Russia (probably along with India and Iran) can be expected to work to prevent the Pakistani-backed Taliban from reasserting control over all Afghanistan, just as they did in the 1990’s. How successful they can be in achieving this aim, though, may well depend on whether the United States abandons Afghanistan altogether as it did during the 1990s, or whether Washington actively works with Moscow and others to contain the Taliban and its Pakistani supporters.
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.