The events in Ukraine and around it quite understandably attract everyone’s attention. It is the most serious crisis of our times, whose outcome will shape the future of European and global security and may allow for the relice of the Cold War to be buried once and for all.

The crisis dwarfed the problems of Afghanistan and the entire Southeast Asian region in the aftermath of the U.S.-led International Coalition troop withdrawal. The Islamist offensive in Iraq, which was liberated and democratized by the American Coalition of the Willing, also gets scant public recognition. Meanwhile, these problems call for serious reflection and cannot be dealt with at a later date—after the resolution of the Ukrainian crisis.

Alexey Arbatov
Alexey Arbatov is the head of the Center for International Security at the Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations.
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These issues vividly demonstrate that Russia and the West share vital mutual interests, since they share a common enemy—militant radical Islam. It is bent on destroying the 21st century European civilization, which Russia, all caveats notwithstanding, is undeniably part of, despite all the criticism from abroad and metaphysical babble about its “special path” and “unique spiritual values” from inside the country.

The Iraqi events foreshadow what may be in store for Afghanistan; they threaten to transform a huge swath of land from the Maghreb to Hindu Kush into a cesspool of violence, endless political turmoil, terrorism, national and religious extremism, as well as drugs, arms and illegal migrants.

While I do not claim the mantle of an expert on this issue, I would venture to say that many specialists that are presently discussing every little aspect fail to see the forest through the trees.

First of all, they underestimate the moral and political consequences of Afghan Islamists’ effective victory and future revanche. Their triumph will bring about an unprecedented rise of political Islam around the world: after its victory over the Soviet nuclear superpower in 1989, radical Islam scored another victory—this time over NATO, the most powerful military and political alliance in history and even over the UN, which sanctioned the counterterrorist operation in 2001.

Besides, all the major political differences between Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s military campaigns aside, these two wars and occupation regimes have demonstrated how strong and dangerous of an adversary militant Islamism is. It should not be underestimated. Paradoxically, this adversary has a number of advantages over the strongest armies of the most advanced modern powers. It is not accidental that these powers—USSR, Russia, Israel, the United States, and NATO—have lost such wars or, at least, failed to secure a decisive and ultimate victory.

First of all, most Islamists are fanatical; they are not afraid of death, while regular troops do not at all wish to die while carrying out their military or peace-keeping missions far away from home. Second, mujahidin have accumulated an enormous experience of combat operations; in Afghanistan, in particular, people have been living in a state of permanent war for a few generations now. Regular troops do not have as much combat experience, to say nothing of the army conscripts. Even the career soldiers have more limited experience.

Third, Islamists have access to a virtually infinite well of manpower. Their numbers are constrained only by logistical considerations. A regular army clearly does not have an unlimited number of troops at its disposal. Fourth, the extremists are not concerned about their own or civilian casualties. Moreover, it is often their tactic to inflict the maximum damage and civilian casualties. A regular army, on the other hand, cannot afford to ignore its losses. Besides, the collateral damage that comes with civilian casualties appearing live on TV screens is a serious moral and political issue which undermines support for such operations.

Fifth, militants can engage in endless fighting, but a regular army cannot do that, as the current Afghan experience bears out. The cases of Iraq and Afghanistan in the 1980’s testify to the same effect. Sixth, Islamists rely on an unending stream of financial support, while a regular army does not have this luxury—the governments that sponsor it have other obligations, making supporting an overseas contingent a heated political issue.

Seventh, the extremists are perfectly equipped for the combat operations that they engage in. They have an opportunity to choose the time and place of engagement. In contrast, a regular army is generally burdened by an enormous amount of standard weapons and equipment, as well as complex logistic support structures that are not used in the counterterrorist operations. Eighth, unlike regular foreign troops, guerrilla fighters, as a rule, know the local terrain better and are able to seek refuge with the locals (who know that the foreign troops will leave and the mujahedin are there to stay); besides, their movement is unconstrained by states’ borders.

The list can be continued, but it is abundantly clear that the Coalition troop withdrawal will become a turning point in global history and politics, which is not sufficiently appreciated in Washington, Brussels, Beijing, New York, Geneva, and other influential world capitals. However serious the current disputes on the issue of Ukraine may be, the great powers, their alliances and international organizations should start preparing for the problems that lie ahead in other parts of the world and cooperate in solving them.

Finally, some in Russia believe that the Taliban’s revanche will not affect our country. They think that we can reach an understanding with the “moderate” factions of the Taliban, ensuring that their leaders focus on Afghanistan’s internal problems without sticking their nose in the Central Asian region to their north. I am certain that this is just an act of self-delusion. Whatever the Taliban promises now in order to hasten the Coalition troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and split the great powers, it is not going to stop at its revanche. After all, it has no vision for the country’s peaceful existence, nor any practical skills in organizing people’s daily lives. It can hold on to power only by way of expanding its ideology. This can be accomplished through the Taliban fighters’ incursions to the north and south of the Afghan borders or their support of their brothers in arms in the neighboring countries and the terrorist cells across the globe. Riding the victory tide, they will exact revenge on everyone who contributed to their 2001 defeat.

The Taliban will remember Russia’s vote in favor of the UN resolution on the use of force in Afghanistan. Subsequently, Russia has played an enormous role in facilitating the military phase of this operation, as well as in organizing and supplying weapons to the Tajik and Uzbek-run Northern Alliance. In addition, Russia was involved in organizing the Afghan transit, which was indispensable to conducting this operation. On can safely say Russia, which did not commit its troops to the operation, played a greater role in it than any other allies whose troops were deployed on the ground.

Given the extent of this involvement, Russia should take initiative in working on political, military, and economic plans in a variety of international formats in order to ensure that the consequences of the Coalition troop withdrawal from Afghanistan do not catch the international community by surprise, as has often been the case.

  • Alexey Arbatov