Afghanistan at a Crossroads and Russia’s Interests

Many analysts on international politics agree that global wars seem to be a thing of the past. They have been replaced by seemingly never ending regional conflicts. The Near and Middle East and adjacent Central Asia are going through uneasy times. Struggle against international terrorism, unconstitutional transfers of power and economic stagnation worry the minds of intellectuals in these region’s countries. 

The Afghanistan issue has occupied a place on the list of current problems for some time now. The smoldering conflict is bound to affect a region that links centers of power. In the mid-1990s Afghanistan became an “incubator for international terrorism,” as Professor Viktor Korgun put it. After the Soviet Union withdrew its military, the country sunk into a bloody civil war that has done irreparable damage to Afghanistan’s infrastructure and people. As a result, by 1996 power ended up in the hands of the most fanatical and motivated force – the Taliban ethnic and religious extremist movement (banned in Russia). 

The deadliest acts of terrorism in human history took place on September 11, 2001in the United States. They were carried out by the terrorist organization al-Qaeda (banned in Russia). Its leaders found refuge in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Several weeks later the Taliban regime was overthrown with US and NATO armed intervention. A new state – the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan – was established. A democratic structure with a division of power, special role for Islam and elections became the foundation of the new statehood, which is currently in place.

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This scenario was supported by most regional and global powers. By the beginning of the 2000s the Taliban movement had obviously become a problem both for Afghanistan and the global security system as a whole. 

Nevertheless, this movement was not destroyed. It went deep underground and kept a low profile. With time it began a subversive and terrorist war against the foreign military presence in Afghanistan and the country’s authorities. It became obvious with time that neither the US nor NATO were achieving either military or humanitarian goals in Afghanistan. The policy of state building did not justify itself. The Afghani people in general, especially in rural areas, did not accept democracy, US style. The processes launched by the Americans and its allies began to evoke a reaction. The Taliban managed to regroup and make skillful use of the failures of Kabul’s mentors. 

The war in Afghanistan has been going on for almost 20 years. An impressive foreign troop contingent has remained in the country through these years. It exceeded 120,000 at its peak; today, there are about 8,000 NATO troops there. Despite this, the Taliban still controls over 40 percent of Afghan territory. In a number of provinces they have actually evolved into an informal government and enjoys considerable prestige. In parallel, Afghanistan’s authorities are going through a crisis of legitimacy and can barely deal with the basic responsibilities under the constitution. Strife accompanied by the struggle of different clans, is mounting within the Afghan elite. 

US strategy in Afghanistan saw a change with the new Trump administration in 2017. President Donald Trump does not support the endless wars in the Middle East that were started by his predecessors. He has lashed out at the Iraqi and Afghan campaigns more than once. 

Trump represents a stratum of the establishment that is convinced that all these wars in the Middle East taken together are unprofitable and pointless. US Professor Walter Russell Mead called them Jeffersonians (a tentative definition). He is referring to the current realists who are convinced that if America shows more restraint in the international arena, it will reduce its costs and risks. In brief, Trump does not want a war in Afghanistan. He wants to close this chapter and focus the resources and energy on things he considers more important.

The new administration began to send signals to the Afghan elite: “We will not stay here forever. Start coming to terms with the Taliban.” A political sensation took place in February 2018. At US prompting, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani took the role of peacemaker and offered a hand to the Taliban. He expressed a willingness to recognize the radical movement as a political party and release some Taliban members from prison. The radicals were offered a chance to take part in elections at different levels and become a full political party. This may have been the main political event for Afghanistan last year. The beginning of a new chapter in the war in Afghanistan was announced. It included three stages: negotiation, truce and integration. The ultimate goal is the signing of a peace agreement between the conflicting sides and the subsequent integration of the Taliban into Afghanistan’s political life.

But why would the Taliban, which has conducted a jihad since 1994, agree to talks with the “puppets” of the “evil West”? And will Kabul, which until recently enjoyed absolute US support, agree to contacts with a radical opposition group that doesn’t recognize its legitimacy? 

Aside from US pressure, there are fundamental factors that are prompting Kabul and the Taliban to seek a kind of rapprochement and a search for compromise. Both sides realize the impossibility of a military victory. Hence, the only way out of the existing military and political deadlock is to hold talks and gradually integrate the moderate and pragmatic wing of the Taliban into Afghanistan’s political reality.

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In turn, Russia has historical interests in Afghanistan and Middle East region as a whole. The problem of terrorism from the south has always worried Russia. Adjacent Central Asia is openly proclaimed a zone of Russian strategic interest. Many countries in the region are Moscow’s allies. Regional security is regulated by international treaties and represents a common problem. There is no single terrorist threat to just Tajikistan or Uzbekistan. This is a problem common to all CSTO countries. 

According to a June 2019 UN report, there are over 20 regional and international terrorist groups, including ISIS and al-Qaeda (both banned in Russia) which operate in Afghanistan. Many of them are based in Pakistan, where they cross the border and mount attacks in Afghanistan. The Haqqani network consists of about 1,800-2,000 militants that are permanently active, mostly in the provinces of Host, Paktia and Paktika. In addition, about 3,500 terrorists from Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan are active in Kunar and in the above provinces. 

Lashkar-e-Taiba  operates along the border. It plays a big role in recruiting young people and providing financial support to other radical groups in Afghanistan. About 500 members are active in the provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar. At one time its leaders tried to bring ISIS and the Taliban closer together. 

Groups of a Central Asian origin are of some concern, although they are relatively passive. In the past few years Russia has done much to substantially undermine the potential of the terrorist underground in Central Asia. Thus, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (banned in Russia) consists of no more than a hundred people that are still active in the northern provinces. Moreover, this figure includes members of their families.

So, what does Russia want from the Islamic Republic? The answer to this question is very simple. Moscow needs a stable, predictable and geopolitically neutral Kabul that will not be a safe haven for international terrorist groups.

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On May 28, 2019, a formal reception was held in Moscow to mark the centenary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Russia and Afghanistan. In 1919, Soviet Russia became the first state in the world to recognize Afghanistan's independence. The meeting was attended by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, representatives of the Afghan Embassy in Moscow, and also by a delegation of the Political Office of the Taliban Movement in Doha.
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Moscow and Kabul are linked by more than is obvious at first sight. Historically, Russia has allotted an important place to Afghanistan on its list of geopolitical priorities. This is linked with many factors: geographical proximity, history, geopolitical confrontation, the economy and trade routes from the south to the north. Probably, of all non-Muslim and non-regional countries, Russia has the closest ties with Afghanistan that can be traced back to the Middle Ages. There have been many ups and downs in bilateral relations: cooperation, trade, rapprochement, betrayal, mistrust and dislike. However, the tragic introduction of Soviet troops into Afghanistan and the subsequent war were the most momentous events in the history of the two countries. 

Today, Moscow is interested in a stable, prosperous and predictable Afghanistan and maintains an active policy in this vein. Afghanistan has a long common border with Central Asian countries that offer visa-free movement with Russia and that are bound by treaties in the SCO, the CIS, the EAEU and the CSTO.

In the 2000s Moscow’s policy consisted of curbing the potential threat of the terrorist groups located on Afghanistan’s territory. The policy was more than physical resistance, it also countered the export of extremist ideas and negative influences. However, in 2014-2016 Russia began to change its policy. This coincided with two factors: further destabilization in Afghanistan and the aggravation of US-Russian relations. Security was weakening and the potential threat increased. Moscow had to find ways to mitigate these risks.

The current negotiations are aimed at searching for compromise between the Taliban and Kabul. Success is not guaranteed, and the talks could fail at any time but there is hope. The ultimate goal is the signing of a peace agreement, a truce and integrating the moderate wing of the Taliban into the country’s political life. This is the only possible way out of this lengthy civil war. In this context, Russia is playing a positive role in bringing the positions of the conflicting sides closer.

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