(CNSNews.com) – Afghan leaders are looking to Russia for military assistance against Islamist terrorists “as a direct result of President Obama’s focus on limiting America’s involvement in Afghanistan,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Monday.
“As in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, and too many other places throughout the world, President Obama’s failed leadership is once again leaving a vacuum to be filled by our adversaries, especially a revisionist Russia and a theocratic Iran, and putting our national security at greater risk,” he said in a statement.
Afghanistan has requested military assistance, including helicopter gunships and heavy weaponry, from the Russians.
Afghanistan first vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum visited Moscow recently, and Russia’s ambassador to Kabul, Alexander Mantytskiy, confirmed this week that his government was considering a military “wish list.”
Last week Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah said Afghanistan would welcome help from any quarter as it battles terrorism, and noted that terrorists have been entering the country from many other places.
“If any country wants to assist Afghanistan in war on terror, Afghanistan welcomes the offer,” he told a press briefing at the presidential palace. Russia has provided military aid over the years since U.S. intervention toppled the Taliban in 2011, but that looks set to expand.
On October 15 President Obama announced a slowdown in the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, keeping a force of 9,800 through most of 2016, and then drawing down to 5,500 starting sometime in 2017. (The original plan was for around 5,000 by the end of this year, with all troops to be out by the end of 2016, bar a small security assistance component attached to the U.S. Embassy.)
The move was welcomed by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and others, but some Republican critics – including McCain – said the proposed number would be insufficient for the task, arguing Obama should instead have halted all withdrawals and left his successor to decide what was needed going forward.
As it has done in seeking to justify its military intervention in Syria – which the U.S. says is designed primarily to strengthen the Assad regime – Moscow is highlighting the growing danger posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) as the reason for its increasing engagement with Afghanistan.
In recent weeks Russian officials have signaled a growing concern about the spread of ISIS and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan, warning that resulting instability could spread to neighboring Central Asia and on to Russia.
Addressing leaders from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led security alliance of former Soviet states, last month, President Vladimir Putin warned of “a growing threat that terrorist and extremist groups can penetrate into the territories that border Afghanistan,” citing ISIS in particular.
He repeated the warning at another summit this month, telling leaders of the loose grouping of former Soviet republics known as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) that the situation in Afghanistan was nearing “critical.”
“Terrorists of all kinds are gaining influence and do not hide their plans for further expansion,” Putin told the gathering in Kazakhstan. “One of their goals is to break through into the Central Asian region. It is important that we be ready for coordinated action to respond to any such attempts.”
A Russian military document early this month estimated that some 3,500 Afghans have now pledged loyalty to ISIS.
“The rise of [ISIS] in Afghanistan is a high-priority threat,” the pro-Kremlin RT network quoted Putin’s special representative for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, as telling a security conference in Moscow. “Just think about it: [ISIS] showed up in Afghanistan for real just a year ago, and now it has 3,500 fighters plus supporters who may be recruited into the ranks of the militants.”
A U.N. report in late September referred to a core of some 70 ISIS fighters who had come to the country from Iraq or Syria, but said the group has been recruiting followers in 25 of the Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
According to U.S. and U.N. evaluations, ISIS draws much of its support in the country from disaffected former members of the Taliban or al-Qaeda affiliates such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
ISIS and Taliban fighters regularly clash, over ideological differences as well as control over lucrative drug smuggling routes, the U.N. says.