Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited India to talk about the two countries' shared interest in Afghanistan. Moscow and New Delhi have a history of aligned interests in the country, which will move the two closer together as the United States prepares for an eventual withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited New Delhi on March 11 to discuss, among other things, Afghanistan. During his visit, he is working with the Indians to formulate a common strategy for dealing with that country. Ahead of Putin's visit, Russian Ambassador to India Alexander Kadakin said it was time for NATO forces to withdraw from Afghanistan. He added that though Russia understands that may not happen immediately, both Russia and India are preparing to cooperate with one another to lay the groundwork for their policies in Afghanistan in anticipation of an eventual U.S. withdrawal. With the United States turning its attention away from Iraq, Afghanistan is fast becoming — for the moment — a focal point of international attention. Washington is in the process of committing a total of nearly 100,000 troops to the campaign there for the next 12 to 18 months, and it remains the single most important focus of the NATO alliance. But while the U.S. focus has been in the process of shifting to Afghanistan for two years now, other countries such as India, Russia and Iran are beginning to focus their attention to the war-torn country for reasons of their own. The nature of this focus is twofold. First there are international players, such as Iran, that benefit from the fact that U.S. attention — particularly its ground combat capability — is being absorbed by Afghanistan. Keeping the U.S. bogged down there creates room for maneuver on other issues. Second, there are a number of countries that have an interest in the future of Afghanistan and that will need to position themselves to take advantage of the duration of the expected U.S. commitment, a pivotal time for Afghanistan in terms of shaping the long-term realities of the country. Enter the Russo-Indian alignment on Afghanistan. Much like Iran, Russia sees benefits in having the U.S. bogged down in Afghanistan. Russia's current drive to consolidate control over its periphery benefits greatly from the American distraction in the Middle East and South Asia. Logistical challenges for the United States in Afghanistan have created new levers for Moscow as Washington has sought supply routes through the former Soviet Union. But Russia also must consider the long-term perspective on Afghanistan, a tumultuous country that borders its near abroad. To ensure it does not face challenges in a post-withdrawal period, Russia will need to be prepared to deal with an American-Pakistani-Saudi-Turkish understanding and immense influence in the country. As Russia is seeking to counterbalance the United States in Afghanistan, India is seeking to counterbalance Pakistan. India has no border with Afghanistan, and it does not have many tools with which to challenge Pakistan's influence there head-on, so it — like Russia — has less influence in the country than it would prefer. A government in Kabul friendly to Islamabad emboldens Pakistan by giving it a secure border, allowing it to focus all its free attention to its east, whereas an Afghan government friendly to New Delhi weakens Pakistan. Alliances between countries have a way of recurring throughout history because of the fundamental geopolitical and geographic factors that define a region. Russo-Indian cooperation on Afghanistan is no exception. New Delhi supported the Marxist governments of Kabul that existed during the 1980s at a time when a U.S.-Pakistani-Saudi alliance was supporting Islamist insurgents in bleeding the Red Army. When the Taliban rose to power in the midst of the intra-Islamist civil war that erupted following the fall of the Marxist regime in 1992, both India and Russia, along with Iran supported the anti-Taliban forces — largely made up of Tajiks, Hazara and Uzbeks — that formed the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. The three countries' common interest in opposing the rise of a Pashtun-dominated government in Kabul led them to support the same groups: The enemy of their common enemy became their common proxy. And just as Russia, Iran and India found themselves seeking a common strategy in the 1990s in the wake of Afghanistan's descent into civil war, so, too, will these countries seek to set themselves up as partners in their current attempts to influence the situation in Afghanistan. Even together, Russia, Iran and India face a more powerful bloc with more influence than they could hope to achieve. But they are not without influence — not only among the ethnic minorities but also among the Pashtuns who were formerly affiliated with the Marxist regimes and through aid monies. (India is the largest regional donor to Afghanistan.) The U.S.-Pakistani-Saudi-Turkish alignment also is leaning heavily on Pakistan to use its immense influence to move forward with their plans for Afghanistan. Because this entails a deeper Islamist influence, both Russia and India will look to cooperate over doing what they can to limit that accommodation, which puts them on a potential collision course with American efforts there. At the heart of the issue is transnational Islamist militancy, which is the central thread of the common Russian, Iranian and Indian self-interest in Afghanistan. Pakistan has long cultivated militancy in the Pashtun regions on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border. Islamabad keeps these groups on hand as leverage against New Delhi — it was from these groups that the 2008 Mumbai attacks originated. Similarly, Moscow's painful — and recent — memories of Chechen militancy have given rise to deep-seated fears about militancy along its periphery (not to mention that it was the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that was the only "government" to recognize Chechen "independence"). More important though, the Russians are worried about the spillover of Islamist militancy from Afghanistan in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan – a more immediate threat given the shared borders. Now the U.S.-Pakistani-Saudi-Turkish axis is seeking, to one degree or another, to facilitate the political accommodation of Taliban and other Islamist groups into the regime in Kabul — the very groups over which Russia, Iran and India harbor the deepest concern.