In the context of Afghanistan, Russia’s diplomatic ties to the region could play an important role in establishing a secure and safe Afghanistan. Russia has also been ramping up its aid to the Afghan government in the form of military hardware and economic assistance while ISAF has continued to reduce its presence due to political fatigue. At the same time, Russia’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, has publicly stated an interest in working with the Taliban to counter the IS presence in Afghanistan. Any shared interest between Russia and the Taliban is temporary, but the US-Russia interest in a stable and secure Afghanistan is permanent.
Without a major change, outright defeating the Taliban is outside the capabilities of the Afghan government and ISAF. However, weakening the Taliban’s position, stopping their momentum, and building a situation more conducive to peace talks are possible. If feasible, the new US administration should pursue cooperation with Russia in the form of strengthening Central Asian borders, using Russian influence in Iran to diminish their support for the Taliban, and, if necessary, to assist in providing air support to the Afghan military.
While both the US and Russia are already attempting to bolster the efficacy of Central Asian borders, an expansion and coordination of those efforts would be far more effective at increasing the interdiction rate of Afghan drugs. Any meaningful increases in the ability of Central Asian states to stop the flow of drugs across their borders would have strategic effects on Kabul’s ongoing struggle against the Taliban.
The Taliban’s budget comes from a combination of foreign donors, local extortion, and the drug trade. Estimates vary from one another by the millions of dollars, but all agree that the drug trade is a multi-million dollar source of Taliban income. There is reason to believe that its share of the Taliban’s income is growing. Thanks to the emergence of a hostile competitor for jihadist funding and the crash in commodities prices, money from foreign donors has likely diminished. That means that the relative importance of local extortion and the drug trade have increased.
A joint US-Russian initiative to secure the borders of Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan through monitoring technologies, training, and intelligence support, among other forms of aid, could cut off available routes for Taliban drug smuggling and put more pressure on their funds. According to a 2014 Congressional Research Report, roughly 25% of the Taliban’s opium production is exported through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan, 35% goes through Iran, and the remaining 40% goes through Pakistan. Removing most Central Asian routes will force opium producers that rely on them to travel farther through Afghanistan, increasing the cost of their product and the chances to interdict it. Concerns by US officials about the ability of those states to prevent corruption from defeating counternarcotic efforts are valid, but Uzbekistan has managed to meaningfully increase border drug seizures over time.
This proposal’s primary risks can be mitigated
By providing monitoring and other non-lethal equipment, the US can cut down on the risk that American equipment gets used in unintended and damaging ways. Donated equipment might be sold to line the pockets of corrupt officials, but tracking technology and Russian pressure against that activity could reduce this risk (although it can’t be completely removed). Additionally, this approach will require time and sustained effort; dramatic results over the course of a short time horizon are unrealistic.
Russia’s influence with Iran, while far from absolute, could play a constructive role in reducing Iranian support for the Taliban and disrupting the flow of opium through Iran. The US should press Russia to work with Iran to counter the flow of drugs across the Iranian-Afghan border.
In the near-term it is not likely that Iran would abandon its support of the Taliban, but a Russian initiative to assist in strengthening Iran’s borders and improving its counternarcotic capability is not impossible. Drugs remain a major issue within Iranian society despite government efforts to crackdown on them. A joint effort to prevent drugs from reaching Iran is more politically palatable and likely to succeed; if successful, it would hamper Taliban finances by negatively affecting 35% of their opium exports.
The US does not bear risks in this plan, but it would require compromise on other issues
This proposal does not require US involvement in any public capacity, and would, at most, call for a limited intelligence sharing with Iran on drug routes, suppliers, etc. It would require Russia to devote diplomatic and potentially economic resources to pursuing this initiative in Iran and securing sufficient political will for it to succeed. Iran’s large land border with Afghanistan is difficult to secure, so the chances of border strengthening efforts to succeed without a concerted effort are not high. With that in mind, Russia will likely request American compromise on other issues that are almost certain to involve issues outside of Afghanistan. Policymakers should be aware of the difficulty in securing the Iranian border when they weigh whether pursuing this option is worth whatever compromise the Russians request.
The ISAF’s role has increasingly been to provide support in the form of transportation, training, intelligence, and air support to Afghan security forces as they undertake the majority of combat missions. Russia has the technology and expertise to supplement these efforts in the form of air support originating from the 201st Base in Tajikistan without committing troops to Afghan territory.
Russia’s military relationship with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan via the Collective Security Treaty Organization could be an asset in the Afghan government’s battles against the Taliban. Until 2014, the US used the Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan as an important logistics hub for coalition efforts. The Russian 201st Base in Tajikistan can host ground attack aircraft; the US and Russia could establish a joint-action center to coordinate the provision of air support to Afghan forces engaged in combat. Which aircraft would respond to air support requests could be determined by geographic location and the risk of collateral damage. Additionally, Russian intelligence support could increase the tempo of operations against high-value Taliban targets.
This proposal carries significant risks
If a Russian airstrike caused a large amount of collateral damage, the political blowback would affect the US as well. Even in the event that the US was seen as blameless in the strike, it would still provide strong propaganda material for the Taliban as well as global terrorist groups. This risk can potentially be mitigated by limiting Russian air support missions to areas with a low risk of collateral damage, but that also introduces the risk of coalition aircraft appearing to be more tolerant of collateral damage because they are the only ones flying mid-to-high risk missions. Additionally, due to the maximum range of Russian ground attack aircraft, they would only be able to effectively provide support to missions in Northern Afghanistan. Russian willingness to agree to this is questionable: Cooperation in this form would require Russia to forgo its current pursuit of a more constructive relationship with the Taliban. That willingness might be diminished further by bitter memories of combat during the Soviet occupation.