The United States is winding down combat operations in Afghanistan and suddenly Russia and China — who thought the United States had no business there in the first place — don’t want U.S. troops to just turn off the lights behind them.
Senior Russian and Chinese officials have encouraged Afghanistan’s leaders to sign the so-called Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States, according to a senior Western diplomat who maintains contact with the Afghan leadership. If signed, the pact would keep U.S. forces playing at least a limited military role for the foreseeable future.
Russia’s top U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, meanwhile, told reporters at U.N. headquarters Tuesday that his government is concerned that the White House exit plan is not linked to an improvement of the situation on the ground. Churkin maintains that the United Nations and Western governments minimize the extent of Afghanistan’s problems, noting that opium production is soaring and Islamic extremism is leaking out the border and into Central Asia.
"Russia has a lot of worries about what it is going to come after the withdrawal," Churkin said. "We are critical of the work which has been done so far by the … NATO-led military presence in Afghanistan. In our view they have clearly not been able to fulfill their mandate [of tamping down terrorism] and [are] leaving the country in a situation of considerable military turmoil."
Western officials say that Russian criticism is patently hypocritical.
"Their timeline when they left Afghanistan [in the ’80s] is ‘we leave Afghanistan tomorrow — bye-bye,’" said a diplomat from a NATO country. "I would call that a double standard."
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the diplomat said Russia has routinely "played this game of bashing NATO" over everything from civilian casualties to setbacks in the fight against Afghanistan’s thriving opium market.
However, Russia quietly supported aspects of the operation, such as approving the military mission’s mandate and helping NATO transport material to Afghanistan. And Moscow even eased its long-standing objection to offering the Taliban concessions, approving U.S.-backed initiatives in the U.N. Security Council lifting the travel ban on former Taliban militants and thawing their assets if they demonstrated support for the Afghan government.
Russia’s "biggest interest is stability," the official said. "They are never easy but in the end they have always joined the consensus that it’s better to have us there than not. They have far too much interest in having security."
The handwringing comes less than two weeks after President Barack Obama declared at Bagram Airport in Afghanistan that the United States will limit its operation to equipping and training Afghan forces and pursuing its war on the al Qaeda terror network. If Afghanistan’s new government signs the Bilateral Security Agreement before combat operations formally cease at year’s end, the White House will leave fewer than 10,000 troops.
"The perception is that the United States intervened, created a mess, and is now leaving the region responsible for it," said Scott Smith, a former U.N official who served in Afghanistan and now heads the U.S. Institute for Peace’s Afghanistan and Central Asia program.
"I think everybody is in agreement that a premature and un-strategic withdrawal that leaves Afghanistan with greater risk of falling into greater chaos is in nobody’s interest.
"I’ve spoken to Chinese officials who say they don’t want us in the region forever but ‘we don’t want to be the cleaner of the mess you made in Afghanistan,’" Smith added.
In March, China’s ambassador to the U.N., Liu Jieyi, registered Beijing’s concerns.
"The security situation in Afghanistan remains fragile, as represented by the major increases in various types of security incidents since last year," Liu told the Security Council. "We express our concerns over rising civilians casualties and we support capacity-building for Afghanistan’s national security and police forces to enable them to effectively fulfill safety and security responsibilities. The parties concerned should fully take into account the need to protect the security and stability of Afghanistan and steadily and responsibly reduce their armed forces in order to ensure smooth progress in Afghanistan’s security transition."
Smith said that regional players are drawing parallels with the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989.
The Soviets continued to provide financial and military assistance to help prop up Afghanistan’s then-pro-Russian communist president, Mohammad Najibullah, who survived until the Soviet handouts stopped in 1992 and a coalition of armed mujahideen fighters took the capital.
"There is concern that the U.S.-backed government may collapse in similarly dramatic fashion," Smith said. Najibullah eventually was taken from his refuge on a U.N. compound and strung up by Taliban fighters.
"It is our belief that certain people continue to convince themselves that the situation is fine," Churkin told the council in March.
For Russia, the stakes are high in Afghanistan, which has been a source of heroin exports to Russia and a training ground for Islamic jihadists whom Moscow fears.
Kai Eide, a senior Norwegian diplomat who served as the U.N. special representative to Afghanistan and was in Kabul recently, said Russia’s anxiety is growing.
"The Russians today are very skeptical about the U.S. withdrawal plan," he told Foreign Policy. "They are worried about the political vacuum, and the Taliban and [the] drug trade becoming even stronger. I have a sense that the Russians have become more and more interested in seeing some troops remain."