Putin’s calculated play in Afghanistan


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Robert DunnenbergFormer CIA officer

coding brief expert Rob Danenberg He is a 24-year veteran of the CIA, having held several senior leadership positions, including Chief of Operations for the Counterterrorism Center, Chief of the Central Eurasia Division and Chief of the CIA’s Information Operations Center. Dannenberg is a member of the Board of Advisors for the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center and a Senior Fellow at the GWU Center for Cyber ​​and Homeland Security. He is now an independent consultant on geopolitical and security risks, having served as Managing Director and Head of Global Security at Goldman Sachs, and Director of International Security at BP.

Expert Perspective – The images from Kabul are depressing and demoralizing – unless you are sitting in the Kremlin, where it is definitely viewed from a completely different perspective. Perhaps something close to dizziness and exhilaration.

From Russian President Vladimir Putin’s perspective, this likely reinforces his view that President Joe Biden and his national security team are weak and naive. This is Obama’s third termPutin must be thinking. And, of course, the images of American helicopters desperately trying to evacuate thousands from Kabul also reverberate in Kiev, Tbilisi, and possibly Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius and beyond — think Taipei. The horrific mismanagement of the withdrawal from Afghanistan will have consequences that will affect US credibility globally and will continue beyond the end of the Biden presidency.

The first result concerns Russia.

It is very likely that there was practical cooperation between the Kremlin and the Taliban in preparation for the US withdrawal, and this may have included direct support for Taliban forces. We need not reconsider the narrative of Russian rewards for American soldiers killed in Afghanistan, but the evidence of Russia’s active engagement with the Taliban in recent months is clear and the fact that the Russian Embassy in Kabul is currently protected by Taliban fighters is significant. .

For both Russia and the Taliban, there was a clear common strategic goal: to get the Americans and their allies out of Afghanistan, ideally in the most humiliating way possible. The honeymoon between Russia and the Taliban may not last long, but it is serving both sides well for now.

For more than a decade and a half of his tenure as Russia’s president, Putin has been preaching that you can’t trust Americans to support you long-term or when the chips are off, but you can count on Russia. (Think about Russian intervention in Syria and support for Assad or his intervention – whether recognized or not – in Libya alongside Khalifa Haftar, among other examples). These messages are important in today’s times and reinforce Putin’s narrative about the decline of the West and the waning importance of Western liberal systems of government.

In recent years, Chinese President Xi Jinping has picked up the trumpet to echo this message that American power is in decline and that American security guarantees in East Asia and beyond cannot be relied upon.

Putin has been Russia’s czar for more than two decades without meaningful boycotts and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. He saw US presidents come and go and was quick to scale them and adjust his moves accordingly. He was truly afraid of what George W. Bush might do in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and the speed and effectiveness of the American response made a deep impression on him. He modified his approach to the United States as a partner and ally against Islamic extremism (Putin was also busy consolidating his control of the Russian Federation in the immediate post-Yeltsin period).

Putin also underestimated then-President Barack Obama after Obama failed to act when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crossed the red line of “not using chemical weapons.” This opened the door to the annexation of Crimea as well as Russian military intervention in Syria (and later Libya). Joe Biden was Vice President at the time. Putin probably had a very good book on Joe Biden and was quite confident what the end result of the United States would look like in Afghanistan. Putin may feel better about Joe Biden than many realize, if any of Hunter Biden’s material is true. One leader’s evaluation of the other is important in geopolitical relations. Putin has a high level of confidence in his ability to read his international opposition.

Most recently, in July 2021, President Biden said, “There will never be a circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of the US Embassy in Afghanistan.” He went on to add, “It is possible that the Taliban will overrun everything and owning the entire country is highly unlikely.” President Biden made these statements knowing full well or should have known – from intelligence reports and expert commentary – as well as historical precedent – that when the United States announces a troop withdrawal with a strict deadline, in this case 9/11, our adversaries use it’s time to prepare for their military action. offensive. Our Afghan allies knew this, too, and prepared accordingly. Now the Taliban will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks at the US Embassy in Kabul, possibly with their friends from ISIS and Al Qaeda as guests of honor. If you thought the videos from Afghanistan were disturbing up to this point, just wait for the anniversary celebrations.

Perhaps of near-term geopolitical significance, Putin will use the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan to support the narrative that Russia needs to defend its interests from the spread of Islamic extremism from Afghanistan by strengthening “security and counterterrorism” cooperation with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Does anyone want an excuse to get those pesky Americans out – and keep them – out of Central Asia and start rebuilding that corner of the Soviet Union?

Putin’s use of the threat of terrorism as a justification for military action is well-rehearsed, going back to the Moscow bombings (almost certainly orchestrated by the FSB) in September 1999, which Putin used to consolidate his political power and justify a brutal military campaign in Chechnya. Putin is fully aware of the dangers of Islamic extremism spreading from Afghanistan to Central Asia and the Caucasus and to the Russian Federation. Indeed, Russian, Uzbek and Tajik forces conducted exercises in July, apparently designed to prepare to respond to cross-border incursions from Afghanistan. This is only the first step in his plan to consolidate Russian power and influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus.


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Some might ask – given the risk of Islamic extremism spreading from Afghanistan to the Russian Federation – why would Putin want to partner with the Taliban? Those who ask this question misunderstand the depth of Putin’s hostility to the United States, the West, and everything we stand for. Putin views the world as a zero-sum game. What hurts the United States must serve Russia’s interests. Clearly, the disaster in Afghanistan qualifies. A short-term deal with the Taliban is a risk in Putin’s mind. Putin is playing the superpower’s chessboard using the only tools he has—military might, the capacity for cyber disinformation and disinformation, and the incompetence and lack of strategic thinking of the United States. He has cleverly made use of President Trump’s four years of reckless estrangement from US allies around the world.

Besides the propaganda value and regional influence that our withdrawal gave to adversaries like Russia and China, there is the impact of our withdrawal on many of the countries among our allies who contributed to the Afghanistan mission. Images of Afghans clutching a US Air Force C-17 to their deaths will not easily fade. How easy will it be to rally their support when we must inevitably have to turn again to deal with a rising al-Qaeda, the globally ambitious Taliban, or even the more dangerously entrenched ISIS in the hills of Afghanistan?

We must also consider the impact on Pakistan. Pakistan has sponsored Islamic extremism in Afghanistan for decades. While one part of the Pakistani security establishment effectively partnered with the United States after 9/11, other parts were at the same time nurturing ties with extremists including the Taliban. The “Great Game” is still played in that part of the world, and neither the Pakistanis nor the Indians nor the Chinese have forgotten it.

Pakistan certainly still resents the US raid to kill bin Laden in Abbottabad just over ten years ago. One wonders if the decline of American influence in Islamabad has opened the door for Islamic extremists to enter the security establishment there. Pakistan is a nuclear power, and in recent years it has increased its development of tactical nuclear weapons. Does the Taliban now have a path to nuclear weapons? This is an important question and the answer to it casts a shadow over our withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The Biden administration, for all its vaunted claims of a “return to efficiency” in Washington, has failed in its first serious challenge. One could argue that Biden’s capitulation over Nord Stream 2 and Putin’s cynical rejection in Geneva of accusations of meddling in US elections and cyberattacks on the United States predicted disaster in Afghanistan. The challenge for the United States now will be to manage the airlift of those Afghans who have been willing to partner with the United States and carefully seek opportunities to rebuild the credibility of American security guarantees around the world.

Taiwan and South Korea seem to be good places to start.

At the same time, we need to acknowledge that Afghanistan will once again become a training ground for those hoping to repeat the 9/11 attacks on the United States. A strong and robust intelligence capability will be essential in mitigating this threat.

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