What does Russia want in Afghanistan and what does it have to do with Islamic State?
Between Kabul and the Taliban
Russia had stepped up its efforts on Afghanistan by late 2015. Thus, General Abdul Rashid Dostum – the Afghan vice president and, at the same time, an old friend of Moscow, was received in Chechnya. At that time, Russia started negotiations with Kabul on the sale of three attack helicopters, which could be seen as a somewhat ostentatious move, since today, Afghanistan only receives Russian transport helicopters purchased by the United States and transferred to the country as part of the assistance program. And it was then that the official representative of the Russian MFA compared the Afghan Taliban to the national liberation movement, fighting both against local supporters of Islamic State and foreign presence (that is, the USA), and thus sharing common interests with Russia. All this raises questions about the motives and objectives of such moves and about the way they fit into the context of relations between Moscow and Central Asian countries, the military campaign in Syria and Russian foreign policy in general.
The landscape of Afghan radicalism
The Taliban movement has long been perceived by Moscow as a major threat to the region. Officials, experts and journalists warned that following the withdrawal of NATO troops in December 2014, Afghanistan would inevitably sink into chaos and the advancing Taliban would invade countries of Central Asia. However, nothing of the sort happened.
The Taliban emerged as a movement of the Pashtuns – a people living on the territories of Afghanistan and Pakistan. In recent decades, Pashtuns have experienced the collapse of their tribal organization, which led to radical reaction amidst them. The Taliban has become the epitome of this reaction. It advocates the supplanting of brutal tribal rule by the equally brutal rule of political Islam. The movement was formed and gathered momentum during the civil war, after the withdrawal of the USSR from Afghanistan. However, it incorporated many of the Pashtuns who gained experience in clashes with Soviet troops, not without the help of US instructors.
The golden age of the Taliban was in the late 1990s when it established its rule in most parts of Afghanistan, including Kabul. The Taliban’s dark hour struck after the beginning of the NATO operation in 2001. As a result, the movement had in fact split into the Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan) and Afghan Taliban by late 2014, the latter far from being united. The fact of the matter is that the Afghan Taliban have regional specificity based on socio-economic differences.
In the south, the Taliban have a strong presence in the Helmand province (and a number of districts in the neighboring Kandahar and Farah provinces) where the lion’s share of opium poppies are grown. Local farmers have a better standard of living compared to the rest of the country, and they support those who guarantee their source of income.
Several years ago, the second major region with Taliban presence was the region encompassing the poorest provinces in eastern Afghanistan bordering on Pakistan (Kunar, Logar, Nangarhar, Nuristan, Paktika, Paktia and Khost). In this region, the Taliban attracted support from among a large number of young men who were finding it difficult to earn a living. However, poverty has markedly improved in these provinces of late, and Taliban activity has moved northward. Today, Afghan poverty is concentrated in the Badakhshan, Balkh, Jowzjan, Kunduz and Takhar provinces inhabited mostly by Tajiks and Uzbeks and, incidentally, not Pashtuns. In Kunduz, the Taliban are forced to interact with another radical militant group – the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan – which uses Kunduz as a base for its struggle for power in the neighboring state.
And the struggles between the leaders of the movement do not serve to aid Taliban unity, either: until fall 2015, Akhtar Mansour and Mullah Yacoub aspired to replace Mullah Omar who had died back in 2013. Ultimately, Yacoub swore his allegiance to Mansour. Besides, many Taliban are prepared to sit down at the negotiation table with official authorities from Kabul and join the Afghan legal political process. This would constitute an important step towards turning an interethnic compromise – the fundamentals of any stable government in this country – into a national consensus.
The radicals who are still to be found in the east – such as Taliban allies, militants from the Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar networks – took a moderate stance and moved towards legalization, or became even more radicalized, as a result of their political failure. The radicalized militants declared themselves to be Afghan supporters of Islamic State, having settled in Nangarhar. But they number no more than 3 thousand of out of 1.5 million people. For comparison, the total number of Taliban is estimated at 60 thousand whereas the total population of Afghanistan exceeds 30 million.
Thus, radicalism remains the main political problem in Afghanistan, but stabilization is slowly approaching, and negotiations on reconciliation are on the agenda. In any case, under the current circumstances, none of the militant groups can aspire to seize power in the country. Thus, Russia’s fears are, at the very least, exaggerated. Why then has the Kremlin become more active in the Afghan arena?
Playing at two tables
Having formally announced its policy to combat ISIS, a threat to its own security, and having started a military operation in Syria, Russia should take into account the Afghan allies of this quasi-state. However, as we know, the overwhelming majority of Russian air strikes in Syria do not reach ISIS at all. All in all, it seems that Moscow’s main goal in the Syrian campaign is to try and fob off negotiations to the West, or at least recoup ‘diplomatic capital’ squandered in Ukraine. Therefore the notion that Islamic State’s actions in Afghanistan do really bother Russia is somewhat difficult to believe.
What should, most definitely, bother Moscow is the sustainability of the political regime in Tajikistan, the non-violent evolution of which having become near impossible, as well as keeping levers of influence on the situation in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan with whom Russia has thorny relations. For instance, Tashkent left the Collective Security Treaty Organization back in 2012, and its economic ties with Moscow are likely to have a corrupt undercurrent. In parallel, Ashgabat and Moscow have been at loggerheads over gas since 2014.
With that in mind, northern provinces of Afghanistan are the key to resolving these issues. While building its policy in the region around the threat of Islamic radicalism, the Kremlin touts its ‘services’ as a defender of Central Asia, and thereby has a pretext to actively interfere in the region’s affairs. In this regard, the increased likelihood of contacts with the Taliban and/or its allies in the north of Afghanistan, constitutes a window of opportunity for controlling armed opponents of Tashkent, and keeping Ashgabat on its toes.
This approach is also determined by the fact that, objectively speaking, Russia isn’t able to offer an agenda of economic development either to Afghanistan or to Central Asia. Thus, military-and-political tools are all that the Kremlin has left for maintaining its international status. And, by coincidence, ISIS is a good justification for renewed Russian activity as part of the CSTO and SCO.
There is yet another reason why Russia has revived its activity in the Afghan arena – confrontation with the United States, and the West as a whole. Russia never balks at an opportunity to accuse the Americans of destructive actions or even assisting Afghan radicals. Only one rational interest can underpin this rhetoric in the context of which words about the national liberation nature of the Taliban movement can be heard: by any means possible, Russia wants to become a party to negotiations on reconciliation within Afghanistan. At the same time, it feels clear discomfort since it is not involved in the preparation of such negotiations unlike Pakistan, the USA and China.
That being said, it is vital to understand that the Kremlin is hardly interested in true reconciliation in Afghanistan, since that would zero out all of its foreign policy line in the region. A a minimum, this may include Russia’s ability to destabilize northern Afghan provinces. This can be achieved by supplying local combatants with arms under the pretext of fighting ISIS or through pinpoint strikes targeted at them by the aviation forces of the 201st Russian military base in Tajikistan and through the involvement of special task forces under the pretext of the very same fight but following the Syrian scenario this time.
In other words, the revival of Russia’s activity in the Afghan arena is aimed at pursuing two key objectives: 1) to cement its role in Central Asia due to the security agenda; and 2) to participate in international negotiations on Afghanistan and ISIS across the table from the United States, effectively ensuring the recognition of Moscow’s ‘special interests’ and its role in this area of the post-Soviet space, along with all the possible foreign policy excesses this may entail.
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