The reason behind Russia’s return to the Afghan scene through its openness to Taliban is because it believes that the Western military presence led by the United States in that country is no longer efficient, exposing the region to the consequences of the possible American withdrawal.
In mid-eighties, Afghanistan was considered as the “bleeding wound” of the Soviet Union. At the end of that decade, many said that it was the Russian Vietnam, from which it withdrew after its defeat.
Last month, Moscow hosted a conference on Afghanistan. The first was held in December, and with Iran, China, India and Afghanistan participating. The US was not invited.
The return of the Russian influence in Afghanistan overlaps now with the broader approach of Russian foreign policy, where Moscow is seeking to mediate agreements that allow Russia to expand on the geopolitical level at Washington’s expense. It is trying to broker an Afghan peace deal, hoping it would be able then to replace United States as the protector of Afghanistan.
Russia has presented itself as a main interlocutor in South Asia. It wants to use this influence to stop the expansion of terror to its territories and prevent the smuggling of drugs to its people.
Russia is asking the US to withdraw from Central Asia, but at the same time it fears that any rushed withdrawal would trigger a state of chaos in Afghanistan, endangering Russia and the neighboring countries.
Moscow is worried about two things: unstable Afghanistan becoming a fertile land for cross-border terrorism, and the resumption of opium flows towards Russia and Central Asia.
According to UN reports, Russia has the world’s highest number of opium consumers, leading to deaths through overdoses and the spread of AIDS.
The return of the Russian influence in Afghanistan overlaps now with the broader approach of Russian foreign policy, where Moscow is seeking to mediate agreements that allow Russia to expand on the geopolitical level at Washington’s expense.Huda al Husseini
In 2013, Moscow considered Taliban to be the main cause of these two problems. It expressed its reservations about the US efforts to conduct negotiations with Taliban representatives in Qatar. However, since 2013, Russian and Taliban representatives started to hold discussions in Tajikistan, along with envoys from several countries in Central Asia.
A Western diplomat says: “We must wait to understand the return of Russia to Afghanistan in the context of its continuous interventions in Syria and its geopolitical ambitions in the broader Middle East. Add to that, its role in Syria has made it a target for extremist Islamists who have established cells in Afghanistan.”
“It seems that Russia wants to use the rivalry between Taliban and ISIS, so that it can ensure that Afghanistan would not become another haven for ISIS, threatening Moscow,” he adds.
Filling the vacuum
During the presidency of former US President Barack Obama, the United States showed a desire to withdraw from the Middle East. This was clear because Obama refused to intervene in Syria. Russia then sought to fill the vacuum, so it strengthened its relations with Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Israel, and to some extent, some of the Gulf States.
As for Southern Asia, Russia has deepened its relations with Pakistan while maintaining good relations with India.
“Russia will not become the main foreign sponsor of these countries and replace the United States, but a broader presence in Afghanistan would allow Moscow to influence any development in the countries which previously represented by the former Soviet Union,” a source revealed to this writer.
In December of last year, Zamir Kabulov, the Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan, said that their concerns are that ISIS threatens Afghanistan and all Central Asian countries, namely Pakistan, China, Iran, India and even Russia. “We have good relations with Taliban to ensure the security of our political offices, consulates and the security of Central Asia,” he says.
On the other hand, Ahmad Murid Partaw, who is the former Afghan Senior National Representative to the US central command, states in February in an article that he wrote in the ‘Foreign Policy’ magazine under the title: ‘The delusion of the Islamic State in Afghanistan’ that “Russia, China and Iran are exaggerating when talking about the ISIS in Afghanistan. They are using this pretext to interfere in our internal affairs and counter the dominant US influence in the region”.
Moscow is surely aware that the international intervention led by the United States failed to put Afghanistan on the path of stability and progress.
The Russian Ambassador Kabulov says that the 1 trillion dollars spent by the United States during the past 15 years, went in vain. He described the ongoing US presence (with thousands of soldiers and a bilateral convention on security that was recently signed with Kabul) as a long-term US desire to maintain a foothold in the center of Eurasia, after it had lost in 1979 an Iranian regime that was loyal to the US, and after the expulsion of US troops from Central Asia.
Moscow believes that Taliban is less threatening to its interests in the long term, and is better than the chaotic Afghanistan, especially with the pro-US government in Kabul, and the presence of US forces all over the country.
Moscow says that Taliban with its Pashtun majority, has proved to be considerably flexible during the past two decades. It differs from those cross-border extremist groups, namely ISIS and al-Qaeda that are targeting Russia and the West, and accuses them of plotting against Islam.
Russia has also taken into account the branches of Taliban, like Haqqani’s network, but it believes that it is time to accept Taliban in an Afghan political frame!
Taliban has interacted with Moscow that wants to put an end to the US military presence in Afghanistan. It started to uncover its plan as Sayyed Mohammad Akbar Agha, a former commander of Taliban living in Kabul and endorsing the Islamic rule in Afghanistan, said that Taliban wants closer ties with Moscow to save Afghanistan from the US curse.
In an interview with the Moscow Time newspaper published on February 13, he said: “We are ready to work with Russia in order to liberate ourselves from the US; history has proven that we are closer to Russia and the republics of the former Soviet Union than those of the West.”
Neither the legitimate government of Afghanistan nor Washington was able to uproot Taliban or stabilize the region. This is why Moscow believes that the best way to protect its borders and its allies’ borders in Central Asia from the infiltration of terrorists is to strengthen Taliban’s calls seeking a new political framework.
Russia believes that financial and military aid might encourage Taliban to face the real threat, i.e. cross-border extremists. Moscow is convinced that Taliban’s reinforced influence at the expense of the Afghan government, leading to the withdrawal of the US troops, would be better for its interestd.
It is clear that Russia and Taliban have common interests in facing ISIS and the US military presence in Afghanistan. Iran and China share these interests at a time when the Afghan regular forces continue to confront Taliban’s terrorism, which has increased its operations in various areas, among which was the attack that killed the UAE Ambassador to Afghanistan and the Kandahar governor.
It is worth noting that further evidence have appeared in Afghanistan, showing that Chinese ground forces are operating in Afghanistan and conducting joint patrols with Afghan forces all over the 50 km joint borders between the two countries in order to stop Uighur fighters returning from Mosul and Raqqa. In addition to that, there are speculations that Beijing is getting ready to play a greater role in stabilizing the security in Afghanistan “when the United States and NATO withdraw from the country.”
The big role of China in Afghanistan is not clear yet. The US Department of Defense refuses to discuss this development. The US spokesman said on Monday: “We know that the Chinese troops are present there!”
According to a political analyst, Taliban is not interested in peace and security. It wants to win the war in Afghanistan and take advantage of the negotiations with the regional and international powers to improve its position. Thus, it is very unlikely that Taliban will stop their terrorist activities.
Consequently, Moscow will not be able to achieve reconciliation between Kabul and Taliban. Moreover, the memory of the Soviet invasion has not faded yet for Afghans, so Russia does not have good chances to succeed as long as the United States is military present in Afghanistan.
This feature first appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat.