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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Is Moscow successfully avoiding Washington's pitfalls in Afghanistan?

While the Russians have so far taken a prudent approach, they may eventually meet the same dilemmas as their American foes

Pakistanis recently rallied against Donald Trump in Karachi. Fareed Khan / AP
Pakistanis recently rallied against Donald Trump in Karachi. Fareed Khan / AP

The announcement that Washington is to send almost 4,000 more troops to Afghanistan has highlighted the very different ways that America and Russia are handling the crises they have inherited in the greater Middle East.

Coming from president Donald Trump – no supporter of expensive foreign military adventures – the injection of more soldiers after almost 16 years of war was a sign that he has been persuaded by his military advisers that there is no simple way to walk away from the conflict. He had previously wanted to sack the US commander in Afghanistan for not “winning”.

For the US and its allies that deployed troops to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, the US announcement came as a cold shower. A casual observer might have thought that the war was over. Three years ago, the Nato alliance announced the end of combat operations, with only some training of the Afghan security forces to continue.

The media have largely cut back their reporting. Meanwhile, a 570-page book on Britain’s role in the war, brutally titled Unwinnable, has just been published, recounting in detail how the generals consistently overpromised and under-delivered. Over on Netflix, Brad Pitt stars in the satirical movie, War Machine, playing an arrogant US general who cannot learn from his own mistakes or those of his predecessors.

In fact, despite the US spending a trillion dollars and losing more than 2,400 of its soldiers in Afghanistan, the Taliban now controls 40 per cent of the territory. But “winning” is a word that does not apply to the graveyard of empires. Indeed, so distant is victory that Gen David Petraeus, a veteran of Iraq and the former head of the CIA, is predicting that US troops will be there for decades. He told The Times of London that this was a “generational struggle” that might require troops to stay as long as they have in South Korea (since 1950) or western Europe (since 1944).

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The decision has been widely criticised as “feeding failure”, though it has a couple of plus points for the military: there is no time limit on the deployment, in contrast to the past when the Taliban knew they only had to outwait the impatient Americans with their two-yearly cycle of elections. The second is that there is no pretence of defeating the Taliban, even after 15 years of training the Afghan National Army. The goal is more modest: to stop the Taliban overthrowing the Kabul government.

But why is the US military so determined to stay? There is the fear of a repetition of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington that were planned in Afghanistan, though the Taliban would be dumb to make that mistake again. Just as likely is the question of honour. The US armed forces have not much to show for the blood they shed in the so-called war on terror; to mention nothing of a fractured Iraq that was handed over to Iran, a far more serious opponent than Saddam Hussein ever was.

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The US navy’s attempts to contain Chinese expansion have been ridiculed after its ships were involved in two collisions with merchant vessels. As for the looming crisis over North Korea’s planned acquisition of nuclear missiles, the US military is hamstrung by the huge death toll that may mount in South Korea should any military intervention occur.

It is worth looking at what the Russians are doing in Syria. Despite Vladimir Putin’s twice announcing withdrawals, he is quietly raising troop levels, and there are now more Russians serving in Syria than before. But the situation is very different from Afghanistan. While the Americans are scrambling to avert catastrophe, the Russians are overseeing what they hope will be the endgame in Syria or at least a new phase where Moscow is the diplomatic hub.

An Afghan vendor waits for customers at a livestock market ahead Eid Al Adha. Shah Marai / AFP
An Afghan vendor waits for customers at a livestock market ahead Eid Al Adha. Shah Marai / AFP

The soldiers Mr Putin is sending are serving in the guise of military police to supervise the borders of the four “disengagement zones” established under the Moscow-led peace process. These zones, where regime and rebel forces confront each other, are intended to consolidate the Assad regime, which was saved from collapse by Iran and Russia in 2015.

No figures are available for the number of Russian soldiers, but it is clear that many are from Sunni Muslim parts of Russia. In addition, there are ex-soldiers working for Russian military contractors who guard oil and gas installations. Even Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed warlord who is president of the Russian republic of Chechnya, has been mobilised to rebuild one of Syria’s historic mosques destroyed in the war.

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More on Afghanistan from Opinion

Afghanistan is the US's new Vietnam

Trump's ultimatum puts Pakistan firmly in his crosshairs

Trump was right to go after Pakistan, but his decision deepens regional faultlines

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While the Americans have a horror of endless military commitments in Afghanistan, Mr Putin can take a strategic view of Syria, a country that has been in the Moscow orbit for decades. Far from wanting to cut and run, his goal is to retain naval and air bases in Syria.

This does not mean that Russia is destined to succeed in pacifying Syria and preserving the Assad regime. The diplomatic task is huge: most publicly, he is caught between the clashing objectives of Iran and Israel, while needing to accommodate the interests of the Arab states, Turkey and of course the US, which currently sees Syria only as a terrorism issue.

At one level, the US and Russia face the same issue: the two conflicts can only be resolved through a process that coordinates internal politics with a regional settlement.

This is brutally clear in Afghanistan. Pakistan sees its neighbour to the north as its “strategic depth” in a contest with India, and therefore it must be either a client state – not an enticing prospect – or in chaos. As long as this situation continues, it is hard to see peace coming to Afghanistan, particularly given the weakness of the Kabul government.

For the moment, the Russians are making some progress in Syria. The big question is whether they can avoid the quagmire that the Americans have been sunk in for the past decade and a half in Afghanistan.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs. On Twitter @aphilps

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