The Troop Surge in Afghanistan: Goals and the Russian Factor

“The troop surge will help in pacifying the country and regaining a lot, if not all, of the ground lost in recent years to Taliban fighters—at least in the short term. “

Define “Win”

Concrete details have begun to emerge on the impending US troop surge into Afghanistan announced by president Trump on August 21. The speech by the president was relatively vague on details, as were subsequent statements made by Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Pentagon during the following days.

We are now learning that the planned surge will indeed be a significant ramp up for American military power in the country. In addition to the deployment of some 4,000 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne, weapons systems that will be introduced to the field will include A-10 “tank buster” ground attack jets, B-52 heavy bombers, and several wings of F-16s.

All of this indicates that the US is dead serious about increasing its military efforts in the country.

So what are the goals in this high-handed revving up of the American stance on Afghanistan? In his August speech, Trump spoke repeatedly about preventing a “vacuum” in the country.

What is the nature of this “vacuum”?

As Trump explained, he wants to prevent a second post-war Iraq situation from ensuing in Afghanistan: “The vacuum we created by leaving [Iraq] too soon gave safe haven for ISIS to spread, to grow, recruit, and launch attacks; we cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistake our leaders made in Iraq.”

Countering Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan in the form of support for Afghan Taliban insurgents was also emphasized, and indeed Pakistani support for US enemies in the country has become an increasingly serious issue within the administration. Recent reports indicated that White House officials notified Congress that it was putting $255 million of the military assistance earmarked for Pakistan into a type of “escrow account” that Islamabad can only access if it does more to crack down on the support of militant groups.

The troop surge will help in pacifying the country and regaining a lot, if not all, of the ground lost in recent years to Taliban fighters—at least in the short term. Consider the 2010 troop surge ordered by President Obama. Even the most skeptical voices objecting to that surge were quelled when 30,000 Marines and Army soldiers during a campaign that lasted through 2012 succeeded in subduing Taliban forces in Helmand and Kandahar, provinces considered to be bulwarks of the militant group. Following the surge, the capital cities of those provinces are more peaceful than they have been in years. The Taliban was limited to operating, largely in secret, in rural areas.

Can the administration implement a plan that will keep militants from rebounding as they did following Obama’s surge?

This depends largely on keeping other state actors from continuing to contribute, either monetarily or logistically, to the Taliban’s war fighting efforts. One of those state actors is definitely Pakistan. A second might very well be Russia.

Russia’s Stake

Recently, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson came out with the almost “shocking” claim that the Kremlin has been orchestrating the funneling of Russian weapons to Taliban militants. Although Russian officials have vehemently denied this, it is highly unlikely that the US would advance such a claim without some supporting evidence, albeit difficult to independently verify.

From a more macro-strategic perspective, Russia is very suspicious of the American presence in Afghanistan.

The truth is, Russia has been slowly stepping up its efforts to exert influence in Afghanistan in recent years—and increasingly so since the end of 2016. Last December, Russian, Pakistani, and Chinese officials arranged a meeting in Moscow to discuss Afghanistan. The meeting was interestingly marked by the absence of any representatives from the Afghan government. The joint statement released by the meeting’s participants expressed strong support for negotiations with the Taliban and the need to suppress the spread of the Islamic State. It is not all that surprising that Russia is now suspected of providing weapons to fighters on the ground.

Russia’s interests in Afghanistan vary and include a wide spectrum of interests not necessarily tied to physical security. For instance, opium production in Afghanistan continues at near-record levels, which severely impacts Russia, which is both an important route to Europe and also a major consumer of opiate-based drugs.

Two considerations, however, top the list.

First is Russia’s interest in blocking the expansion of ISIS and its proxies. Russia and other regional players do not see the Islamic State in the same way the US and many of its western allies do. While America is mostly concerned with ISIS-sympathetic Twitter accounts, spewing hate and anti-West vitriol, triggering the next San-Bernardino, Russia sees the group as an actual regional threat.

Similar to China and Pakistan, Russia is very worried about cells of militant fighters forming close to home through the efforts of the Islamic State’s “provinces” located in their backyard in countries like Uzbekistan, where the Islamic movement located there remains allegiant to ISIS.

From a more macro-strategic perspective, Russia is very suspicious of the American presence in Afghanistan. Although Russia supported the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and even provided logistical support to the effort, in recent years, the Kremlin began to openly voice its concerns regarding a permanent US troop presence in the country.

In December 2016, for instance, Ambassador Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s top Afghanistan official, told Turkish media that there is no “clear-cut answer” as to why the United States “want[s] land bases in Afghanistan.” Kabulov claimed that the present US military structure in Afghanistan gives it “two to four weeks to redeploy up to 100,000 soldiers on the same bases.” This number is not far off from the 98,000 US personnel who were deployed in Afghanistan at the peak of its presence there in 2010.

These considerations on Russia’s part strongly underscore why Russia wants to maintain a presence in the country and solidify partnerships with other regional players on beneficial policies. It also gives insight into an important interest America has for preventing the power “vacuum” Trump so adamantly warned against in his August speech.

As an ending note, all of this is unfolding as the United States is becoming increasingly aware that it lacks proper deterrent against Russian aggression in key regional areas. Zooming out from Afghanistan, on September 2, a report was released by the Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade—the quick response force for maintaining European security and a bulwark of the NATO alliance. The report decried the lack of preparedness the force has in addressing a potential threat from the Russian Federation. The report stated that the Brigade lacks “essential capabilities needed to accomplish its mission effectively and with decisive speed.”

The report comes to light as Russia gears up for one of the largest military exercises in recent history—a week-long war game called “Zapad.” Zapad is expected to involve as many as 100,000 troops and will be held later this month in Belarus.

All things considered, the troop surge plan, the gears of which have now begun to lurch forward, may very well be the latest in the persistent strategic contest between the US and Russia checking and balancing each other for regional influence. One can only be hopefully optimistic that the two powers may perhaps come to a working relationship based on many of the joint interests they share in the war-torn country that is Afghanistan.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Samuel Siskind

Samuel Siskind studied intelligence research at the American Military University in West Virginia. He served as a squad commander in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) Corp of Combat Engineers, in the Corps' ground battalions and later in its Intelligence Wing at regional and divisional stations. For the past five years, Samuel has worked as a consultant and researcher on physical and information security issues for private and governmental institutions, in the US, Africa, India, and Israel. He currently lives in Jerusalem.

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