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Message of Kunduz Developments for Russia

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi
Expert on Indian Subcontinent & Middle East Issues

What is going on in Kunduz province, which is located in northern Afghanistan and along the country’s common border with Tajikistan? Perhaps, this is the most complicated, and at the same time, the most ambiguous question that occurs to one’s mind with regard to developments in Kunduz. The fall of the city, which took place without much hype and almost without any serious resistance from the Afghan army and government forces, followed by its later liberation, which came with extensive, and at times misguiding, hue and cry, have surrounded Kunduz developments with many questions. This is especially true because after an American warplane bombarded a clinic, which was run by Physicians Without Borders in the city, the force of propaganda was directed in that way and, in practice, it was not clear what had actually happened in Kunduz. To say the least, the public opinion was not informed of facts related to this development.

However, the question that still exists is why Kunduz fell and why it was rapidly taken back, and more importantly, what message is embedded in the developments that took place in this city and what groups and factions have been possible addressees of that message? To understand the message of Kunduz, first its possible addressees must be found on the basis of an educated guess. In the absence of any reliable and convincing information, this is the only way to somehow find out about at least part of the behind-the-scenes realties of this incident. In doing so, the addressees of the Kunduz message can be considered as such: the national unity government inside the country, and the Russian Federation outside Afghanistan.

The reality that radical Islamist forces had converged on Kunduz region since a long time ago is open to no argument. Uzbeks, Chechens, Uyghurs, and Tajiks, who had left the ranks of al-Qaeda to joint ISIS’ so-called Islamic caliphate, put up strong presence in Kunduz Province. Even before the aggression of the Taliban terrorists on Kunduz and capturing the city, ISIS had once tried to capture the city. Of course, ISIS failed in its attempt and its terrorist members were forced to retreat into surrounding mountains. At that time, the central government was so sensitive about this issue that General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the then vice president, took personal command of Uzbek forces and went to war with ISIS. However, when the Taliban attacked the city, neither the central government showed any specific reaction to prevent the fall of the city, nor government forces put up serious resistance against the Taliban. Some sources have even claimed that the Taliban found garrisons devoid of military forces that had apparently left behind a large quantity of arms, and entered the city without facing serious conflict.

If such reports are really true and information provided in this regard is assumed unbiased, then one could claim that silent fall of Kunduz followed by its boisterous recapture were both part of a plan, which has its own specific message and addressees. From domestic viewpoint, the Taliban put up a remarkable show of force. The group has had no such remarkable achievement for the past 13 years since it lost its grasp on power in Kabul. This comes at a time that following announcement about the death of the group’s former leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, there were rumors about an ongoing power struggle over determination of the group’s next leader and some even alleged that prominent commanders of the Taliban had refused to accept the leadership of the group’s new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. However, the capture of Kunduz and the Taliban’s show of power proved that even if in discord over new leadership among themselves, the Taliban are still unanimous about fighting against the government in Kabul and the United States forces. Therefore, the message of Kunduz for the national unity government was that the Taliban are still powerful and if they are expected to enter any kind of negotiations and reconciliation, they would have their own conditions and would not suffice to being given a minimum share of power.

Russia must be considered as the second addressee of the Kunduz message. The concentration of Islamist radical forces, including forces loyal to al-Qaeda or those loyal to ISIS and the Taliban, in northern part of Afghanistan despite possible internal differences and rivalries among them, means that they are planning to enter Central Asia in the near future and northern Afghanistan is not their ultimate destination. For them, Kunduz is just a springboard for entry into Fergana valley and Central Asia. The fact that Russia took rapid action and deployed its forces along border with Tajikistan and Afghanistan has not been unrelated to the message of Kunduz. The concurrence between the Kunduz operations by the Taliban and the serious entry into Syrian war by Russia can be only a coincidence. Russians were very concerned that ISIS has been able to attract 7,000 of highly trained combat forces from Chechnya, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and enter them into the Syrian war at command level. This situation posed a clear threat to Russia because the return of these forces to Central Asia and South Caucasus, in view of their combat experiences in Syria, would mean entanglement of Russia in a war with the Islamist radicals within its security sphere. Therefore, through a more accurate calculation, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his aides in Moscow reached the conclusion that before being forced to face extremist Islamist groups in Caucasus or Central Asia, it was better to defeat them in Syria and probably Iraq.

Nonetheless, Russia’s military intervention in Syria, which is limited to the Russian Air Force, can be hardly able to meet Moscow’s strategic goals. Most probably, defeating ISIS in a decisive manner would need boots on the ground, which if happened, it is not clear to what extent it would get Russians involved in the Middle East crisis. Rivalries between Russia and the United States are another factor that should be taken into consideration here. The fact that the United States President Barack Obama has described Syria as Russia’s Vietnam, is revealing enough and shows that Syria and Iraq will be new arenas for confrontation between the United States and Russia. On the other hand, it shows that the United States is not unwilling to drag Russia into the Middle East war and prevent Russia’s operations from remaining limited to air strikes. Calculations by the US allies, that is, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, must be also taken into consideration. After Russia’s military intervention in Syria and its continuation on the ground followed by its possible extension to Iraq, the existing conditions will, willingly or unwillingly, shift toward some sort of grouping in which Russia, Iraq, Syria and Iran in addition to the Lebanese Hezbollah movement would stand on one side, while the United State as well as the coalition among Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and Jordan plus Sunni radicals would form the opposite side. Since the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has taken on an ideological dimension, further rivalries between the two possible blocs will sooner or later revolve around the axis of ideology and will relatively focus on Shia-Sunni discourse. This comes despite the fact that from the viewpoint of Russia and the United States, rivalries in the Middle East are of political nature and the main dispute is over gaining international power. Under the leadership of Putin, Russia wants to revive the power and influence that the former Soviet Union swayed in the Middle East, while the United States is trying to keep Syria and Iraq out of the sphere of Russians’ influence and power for good and ever.

The truth, however, is that from the viewpoint of regional powers, the war in the Middle East enjoys ideological dimensions and has been focused around the pivot of the Islamic Revolution discourse as opposed to the Sunni radical discourse. Although ISIS is not the sole group active in Syria and Iraq, and although the United States and its regional allies are allegedly fighting against ISIS by supporting the so-called moderate opposition groups, their final goal at any rate is to undermine what has come to be known as the resistance axis. This axis is of an ideological nature and has made fighting against excessive demands of Israel its ultimate goal.

At any rate, Russia has entered the war in the Middle East in order that it would not have to see Caucasus and Central Asia become safe havens for the separatist Islamic radical current, which can use the developments of Kunduz as a springboard for this purpose. However, it must be noted that there are more subtle equations at work, which may prevent Russians from achieving their goals in full. Even the possibility should not be ignored that if ISIS is definitely defeated in the Middle East and its caliphate collapses in this region, the so-called Khorasan branch of the Islamic caliphate may gain more prominence. In this case, ISIS members would pour into Afghanistan and would have the capacity to attract the West’s support in a bid to head toward Central Asia and Caucasus region, thus making Russian’s worst fears come true.

Key Words: Afghanistan, Kunduz Developments, Russia, Uzbeks, Chechens, Uyghurs, Tajiks, Al-Qaeda, ISIS, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, Mullah Mohammed Omar, Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, Central Asia, Caucasus, Mollazehi

More By Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi:

*Recent Developments in Afghanistan Prelude to Rise of Extremism in Neighboring Regions: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Recent-Developments-in-Afghanistan-Prelude-to-Rise-of-Extremism-in-Neighboring-Regions.htm

*Middle East Facing an Ambiguous Future: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Middle-East-Facing-an-Ambiguous-Future.htm

*ISIS Turning into a Threat to Saudi Arabia: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/ISIS-Turning-into-a-Threat-to-Saudi-Arabia.htm 

*Photo Credit: wlwt.com

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