For almost a decade, Russia has stayed on the sidelines of the war in Afghanistan, in part because of its bad memories of the 1980s, when the Afghan mujahedin, with the help of Stinger missiles provided by the U.S., handed the Red Army a humiliating defeat. As Russia's NATO envoy Dmitri Rogozin put it this week in a stroke of understatement, "We've been to Afghanistan, and we didn't really like it over there." But on Friday, Oct. 29, Russia and the U.S. made a startling announcement: they had conducted their first-ever joint military mission in Afghanistan. It was a small one — a coalition-assisted drug bust — but it drove home the point that Russian boots are back on Afghan ground, and they appear ready to help fill a vacuum as the U.S. prepares to pull its troops out next year.
According to a Kremlin source familiar with the operation, the Russians had pushed the Americans for months to carry it out. "They kept brushing us off, saying their helicopters were busy elsewhere, or so-and-so had stepped out for a smoke," he tells TIME. But a week after Russia's drug czar, Viktor Ivanov, met in Washington with his U.S. counterpart, Gil Kerlikowske, the mission went ahead. On the morning of Oct. 28, nine coalition helicopters swept down over the Nangarhar province of northeastern Afghanistan, carrying 70 troops, including Afghan police, U.S. special forces and four Russian officers from Ivanov's agency. In the course of that day, they destroyed four drug labs and 200 million doses of heroin, Ivanov said at a press conference in Moscow on Friday. No one in the strike team was injured, he said; he did not know whether there had been any Afghan casualties.
(See why Moscow is headed back to Afghanistan with U.S. approval.)
"Afghanistan's drug barons will not be able to respond to the coalition and Afghan forces after the destruction of heroin and morphine laboratories," Ivanov said, in a rare bit of Russian back patting for the troops fighting in Afghanistan. Seated beside him at the press conference was Eric Rubin, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, who suggested there would be similar operations in the future. "We expect to continue to work with the Afghan government, and of course with our partners in the Russia Federation, as long as necessary to eradicate the Afghan drug trade."
(See how U.S. troops are resupplied by air in Afghanistan.)
For more than a year, Moscow has been using the subject of Afghan heroin (and the fact that Russia is its largest consumer) to crowbar its way back from the margins of the debate over Afghanistan. Top government officials have used their turns at conference podiums around the world this year to fume at NATO over its policy on poppy crops, which the coalition has refused to destroy for fear of pushing poppy farmers toward extremism. In June, Ivanov even compared NATO to Dr. Frankenstein, suggesting that its Afghan drug policy was "giving birth to a monster."
But with this week's joint strike, Russia's arguments appear to have gotten the coalition forces to move, although they still refuse to eradicate poppy fields. The success follows a series of other Russian inroads, particularly in terms of arms sales and energy deals with the Afghan government. The Foreign Ministry has said Russia will provide a free weapons shipment for Afghan forces and will help train the country's air force and police. Last month, Russia also agreed to sell the U.S. 21 Mi-17 helicopters for the Afghan air force, a deal estimated to be worth about $370 million. Russian companies are meanwhile pushing for the rights to upgrade Afghanistan's infrastructure, including a $500 million plan to rebuild a hydroelectric-power plant, while Russia's state-controlled oil firm has its eye on gas fields in the north.
(See pictures of the battle against the Taliban.)
"All of this underscores Russia's role in the Afghan question," says Omar Nessar, director of the Center for the Study of Modern Afghanistan in Moscow. "Especially after [Thursday's] operation, that role is direct, and it is growing." For Russia, defining its place on the issue of Afghanistan has become all the more important as relations with NATO improve. This month, President Dmitri Medvedev agreed to attend the NATO summit to be held in Lisbon in November, a decision hailed on both sides as a breakthrough in cooperation between the Cold War enemies.
But Nessar says that rather than joining with the coalition's agenda, Russia will try to balance it out if not provide an alternative to it. "On the ground in Afghanistan, the regular people still view Russia as an enemy of the West. This may no longer be an accurate perception, but that is the feeling left over from the Soviet campaign. And Moscow by no means wants to lose that, because it will allow them to be a counteracting force in many situations in the future."
Given the lingering resentment among many Afghans toward Western troops as well as their memory of Taliban repressions, Russia has an important advantage in becoming a kind of big brother for Afghanistan, a country that lies just at the edge of Russia's traditional sphere of influence. As a decade of war leaves the U.S. exhausted in Afghanistan, that sphere of influence appears to be edging back into the war-torn country. Conveniently, by the time Russian influence returns, the dirty work of dealing with the mujahedin and the Taliban may mostly be done.
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