Russia, Afghanistan, and the Taliban

It is difficult to imagine a case where Europeans, Americans and Russians can so easily agree on Afghanistan. At least as much, if not more, than the West, the Kremlin is concerned about the weakness of the Afghan state and the terrorist threat that could re-emerge from the territory. This explains the strengthening of cooperation between Russia and some Central Asian countries. We think, for example Uzbekistan, with which the approximation is strongly related to the presence of Daech and the Uzbekistan Islamic Movement in Afghanistan. But also in Kyrgyzstan This country is the most fragile of the region, the Russians do not hesitate to directly reset the Kyrgyz security forces to better address the incursions, as in the past, could come from the south. Paragraph 2 of the Russian Ministry of Defense, Anatoly Antonov also said that strengthening the Tajik army was of great importance to fight against possible infiltration of Daech in Central Asia, in March 2015. These positions are, at first glance, a godsend for Europeans, who also have an interest in the Central Asian stability. Afghans themselves want Russian support: we have seen with the visits of the first Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, Moscow and Grozny. The latter is gone for seeking help, including weapons and other military support in the Central Asian countries, where it has very important links. It always came back empty handed. This is not the case with the Kremlin, which becomes a supplier of increasingly important military equipment. While remaining cautious in its commitment, and insisting that Russian soldiers would never be sent to Afghanistan. It makes sense when we remember the Soviet trauma, and also reassuring an Afghan perspective as Western: Russians thus avoid, wisely, a situation that could inflame tensions with the Americans.

One can understand that the Kremlin does not let up in the game of geopolitical competition with the West on the Afghan issue: Beyond the risk of terrorism, drug trafficking from this region of the world is poisoning the post-Soviet Eurasia as well as Europe and Iran. This explains the implication that Moscow has shown in the fight against drugs until today. Thus, the Federation of funds for the year 2017 was allocated to programs helping Afghan and Pakistani authorities combating drug trafficking. It was generally understood in Moscow that an unstable Afghanistan where extremists and criminals also thrive is a real problem for Russian national interests.

But it seems that the search for partners, by Russia, does not end the legal government in Kabul. At year end 2015, we learned from the spokesman of the Russian Foreign Ministry Maria Zakharova, a dialogue was established between his country and the Taliban. It would be at least an episodic cooperation, exchange information about the presence of Daech in Afghanistan.

Some Taliban deny information exchange against the jihadists Daech, others speak of exchanges at a very high level. The Russians, meanwhile, now minimize their relations with the Afghan rebels. Nevertheless, information from different sources, Western and others confirm what is said openly since late 2015: Russia has many contacts in Afghanistan with the Kabul government but also with the Taliban.

Yet, would it be really honest talk, this time to Russia to blame for double game? We have already criticized elsewhere this type of analysis, necessarily simplistic, and caricaturing a complex geopolitical situation. In fact, in the case of Russia or any other country against which this charge is started, there is no ‘double game’, because no country has necessarily aim to defend the interests of other states. This type of policy is rather associated with a classic defense of national interests, at least as conceived by the elites of the countries concerned. This may mean talking to opposing protagonists in a given conflict, as in the case of Russians here.

In fact, Russia follows the same logic diplomatic as China, the USA, Iran, or Pakistan. The Middle Kingdom is seeking to help bring peace to Afghanistan by talking to the legal government and the Taliban, to better protect Xinjiang and its economic interests in the region. Pakistani politicians has always emphasized the fact that the Taliban are part of the political expression of the Pashtuns of Afghanistan, we could not just disappear by denying their existence. And since 2010, the US administration, but also the legal power in Kabul, and the Iranians have also agreed to this approach, and were open to discussion with the Taliban, or at least some of them. Moscow’s priorities are clear: to fight against Daech; and make every effort to prevent a terrorist threat, starting from Afghanistan that could destabilize Central Asia. Despite what has been said by some analysts, it is only the propaganda of local authoritarian regimes. It can even be seen as entirely legitimate. As for Daech, this entity is considered by Moscow as a direct priority enemy: as in the Middle East as on its own territory. In a video in September 2015, the group has vowed to ‘liberate’ the entire North Caucasus. President Putin has himself acknowledged during a speech a few months ago: at least 7,000 Russian and Central Asian citizens would fight for Daech in Syria. In fact, among the foreign fighter for EI, the Russians are the most numerous. The return of a portion of them necessarily mean attacks in Russia: the jihadists ‘Caliphate’ have made it clear that they would avenge the Russians. In comparison, the neo-Taliban, post-2001, have never uttered such threats against Moscow. On the contrary, especially with the arrival of Daech, they even insist that their fight is limited to the national arena.

In short, in its Afghan policy, the Kremlin seeks to prevent destabilizing forces which already destroyed Iraq and Syria, thrive in Afghanistan and spread in Eurasia to Russia. And in this, the Russians would have done … that all influential players already do, namely to establish a limited dialogue with some Taliban. These could not be eradicated despite a war of fourteen years between them and the first world power. They remain key political players in much of Afghanistan. Their military capabilities, but also their local roots (a mixture of propaganda, ethnic nationalism, and terror) have made them key players for now. We may regret in environments that have no governmental responsibility. But in Moscow, as in Tehran, Islamabad, Washington, Beijing, the statesmen cannot afford to deny the facts in the name of good feelings. And their responsibility is to fight against terrorism that may affect their country and destabilize their territory or that of their neighbors. This is the direction of Russian policy in Afghanistan. A policy which, hopefully, will not be caricatured, during this year 2016, by those that reduce the Kremlin’s diplomacy in a vision of the type of world ‘Cold War’ .

Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the writer and are not necessarily reflective of IPRI policy.

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