Russian authorities have more than a few questions to face, including where U.S. forces may relocate after exiting the troubled, central-Asian republic.
MOSCOW — The May 8 terrorist attack in Kabul that left more than 80 people dead, many of them school girls between the ages of 11 and 15, is a gruesome reminder of the dangers ahead as the United States moves forward with its plan to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11.
It's a scenario, furthermore, that also has direct implications for Russia, which shares a 1,300-kilometer border with the war-torn nation. Russian leader Vladimir Putin has promised to support Afghanistan. Washington, in the meantime, is considering relocating its bases to former Soviet republics, an area of strategic interest to Russia.
The wave of terror sweeping through Afghanistan flies in the face of recent diplomatic efforts.
In Afghanistan itself, right now is a time for mourning — for the many lives lost when a girls' school in a Shiite neighborhood in Kabul was attacked by terrorists on May 8th. As students were leaving the school after class, a car bomb parked next to them exploded and two rockets were launched in quick succession, killing dozens and injuring many more.
The Taliban chose not to claim responsibility for the attack, prompting Afghan society to call on the authorities to step up their fight against the terrorists, who will stop at nothing. The group's statements sound very ambiguous, nevertheless, and contain an implicit threat to the United States, which failed to withdraw its contingent from the country by May 1, as promised by the previous U.S. president, Donald Trump.
A source close to the Taliban told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti on the eve of the attack that its members would cease combat operations in Afghanistan — but only for three days, to coincide with the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr, celebrated last week at the end of the month of Ramadan.
Just after the Kabul attack, Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada, in his Eid al-Fitr message, accused Washington of failing to implement agreements reached last February at peace talks between the United States and the Taliban in Doha.
"The U.S. side repeatedly violated the signed agreement and caused enormous human and material damage to civilians," the Taliban leader said, warning of "responsibility for the consequences' if "America fails to fulfill its obligations again."
A teacher placing flowers on the desks of the students killed in the terrorist attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, May 13, 2021. — Photo: Fatmah Ahmed
Last month, on April 14, Joe Biden provided a new date for the supposed final withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan: Sept. 11. The Taliban see it as proof that the U.S. broke its agreement, and it no longer feels bound by the Doha obligations to stop the violence.
The wave of terror sweeping through Afghanistan flies in the face of recent diplomatic efforts that were supposed to have culminated in a repeatedly postponed peace conference, in Istanbul. Clearly, attempts to placate the Taliban and discourage them from taking radical action were unsuccessful.
A game changer for the CSTO
The rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan was the primary focus of a May 9 visit to Moscow by the president of Tajikistan, Emomali Rakhmon, who just took over the presidency of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance of selected post-USSR republics in Eurasia.
"This is now the number one regional issue in view of the U.S. announcement of the withdrawal of troops: They have so far withdrawn roughly half of their soldiers, and immediately after the announcement, the situation inside Afghanistan sharply deteriorated," Rakhmon said. "We have the longest border with Afghanistan, which is almost 60% of the total border of the former Soviet Union."
Vladimir Putin, for his part, called security issues related to the events in Afghanistan "very important" and said that Rakhmon's concerns were justified. Recalling that the 201st Russian military base operates in Tajikistan, Putin said: "We are working on strengthening the base, on strengthening the Tajik armed forces."
The Wall Street Journal, quoting sources in the White House, reported on Monday that after withdrawaing from Afghanistan, the United States might deploy its forces in the Central Asian republics, specifying that no agreement on this matter had been reached yet. Those sources suggest that the best option for Washington would be a military presence in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which both neighbor Afghanistan and from which the U.S. military could react quickly should things further escalate.
The paper's sources agree that these plans would be difficult to implement because of Russia's "large military presence" in the region and China's growing influence. The Wall Street Journal drew attention, however, to a recent trip to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan by U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, calling the visits an attempt to test the ground for further dealings with the two governments.
The Taliban do not intend to give up their plans to seize power in the country by armed force.
Summing up the situation, Andrei Serenko, director of the Analytical Center of the Russian Society of Political Scientists, says that efforts "to turn the "cannibals of jihad" into political vegetarians have failed."
"The Taliban do not intend to give up their plans to seize power in the country by armed force," Serenko adds. "In this situation, the changes in Afghanistan and the region will be a strong test for the CSTO, one of Moscow's chief integration instruments."
The expert explains that during the two decades that U.S. and NATO troops have been stationed in Afghanistan, the CSTO allies were free to engage in training exercises without much fear of attacks by militants. The U.S. withdrawal changes the dynamics, however, and could leave the CSTO as much more of a frontline structure, with unknown consequences.
"For Russia, the change in the situation in Afghanistan due to the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces will be a serious challenge," Serenko says. "First, it will have to fill the geopolitical void that has appeared after the departure of the U.S. military. Second, the elites of post-Soviet Central Asian republics, accustomed for 20 years to living under a Western umbrella that protected the region from terrorist groups, will need to be reassured. Third, it is necessary to respond to the possible appearance of a U.S. military base in Central Asia."
"The United States and Natao have their closest relations with Uzbekistan, which is not a member of the CSTO," he adds. "That is why it is conceivable that an American base may appear there, for instance, under the brand of an international center for combating terrorism."
Conceivable, perhaps, but also illegal, according to the Uzbek Defense Ministry, which points out that the laws of the country prohibit any foreign military bases from being located on its territory.