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25 April 2017

A Dangerous Flirtation: Russia and the Taliban

By seeking a larger role in Afghanistan, the Kremlin is playing with fire. Any miscalculation could bring a greater influx of drugs and jihad into Russia

The Kremlin has recently been courting the Taliban — a violent, Sunni Islamic fundamentalist movement that is battling for control of Afghanistan. The reason: Taliban fighters are seen by the Kremlin as a counterbalance against the Islamic State (IS), which has gained a foothold in the country.

On April 14, international consultations on Afghanistan were held in Moscow. The Kremlin invited the United States to take part, but the Americans rejected the invitation. Whether representatives of the Taliban would participate was uncertain until the last minute, but in the end the Taliban also shied away. No peace talks, the Taliban representatives claimed, were possible while US and allied troops remained in Afghanistan.

On the same day of Moscow’s talks, the US military in Afghanistan dropped a GBU-43, “the Mother Of All Bombs,” the largest in the US arsenal short of nuclear warheads. This was targeting IS positions in Nangarhar, which, according to the US military, destroyed a total of 36 IS fighters. Stability in Afghanistan looks like a remote prospect.

The Turkmen Connection

As IS fighters are pushed back in Syria and Iraq, the terror group sees an ever greater strategic importance in holding onto its gains in Afghanistan. The political chaos, the lack of economic growth, and declining foreign military presence in Afghanistan offer fertile ground for IS. Ideologically, IS has claimed Afghanistan as part of a revived “Khorasan caliphate”, which, to give a sense of the worldview of IS, covers almost the whole of Central Asia.

Some Pakistani and Afghan Taliban fighters have already sworn allegiance to this “caliphate”, while others regard IS as direct competitors for influence in the region and have declared a jihad against them.

“Exporting” IS activities to Central Asia will also be facilitated by the thousands from the region who have already gone to fight alongside IS in Syria and Iraq. Of the ex-Soviet Central Asian republics, most of these fighters are from Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and are expected to return home in the next few years. We should also consider that ethnic extremist groups, such as the Uzbek Islamic movement, which swore allegiance to the IS in 2015, are still actively involved in internal strife in northern Afghanistan.

At the same time, if the “Syrian scenario” comes to Kabul, the countries bordering Afghanistan will simply become entry points for Islamic extremism to spread further into Kazakhstan and Russia. Additionally, control of Afghanistan’s northern borders also guarantees the extremists control over drug-trafficking, especially opiates. Afghanistan currently supplies 90 percent of heroin on the world market, a third of which is exported to Russia and on to Western European countries via the Tajik, Turkmen and Uzbek borders.

In Soviet times, the 1344-km Tajik–Afghan border was secured by approximately 25,000 border guards. Currently, the number of Tajik border guards on patrol is 16,000. Russians bequeathed Tajikistan all the necessary weapons and technical equipment, and a group of about 300 Russian advisors and instructors continues to work in Dushanbe.

However, while the Tajik border guards have managed to avoid major armed conflicts on the border – mostly thanks to the fact that most Taliban and other extremist forces were busy fighting the NATO coalition (Operation Enduring Freedom, replaced by Operation Resolute Support in 2015) – the volume of drug production and subsequent transit fluctuated according to the yields of Afghan poppy fields, not the presence of border guards. According to Afghan government data, apart from the south – the traditional realm of drug-producers (Kandahar, Helmand, Nimruz) – an increased opiate production has also been registered in provinces bordering with Turkmenistan (Badghis, Faryab), Tajikistan (Badakhshan) and Uzbekistan (Balkh).

Starting from 2015, the Turkmen–Afghan border (which raised no particular concerns with observers in the past) has seen regular armed clashes between various extremist groups (including Taliban units that joined the Islamic State). In June 2015, 12 Turkmen soldiers died in battles with Taliban fighters. These were Ashgabat’s first losses in the war against the Islamists, and no one can guarantee that they will be the last.

Maintaining Bases and Borders

Securing the border with Afghanistan was one of the key issues the Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov discussed with Vladimir Putin last November. The two countries’ leaders will most likely continue discussing the topic during Putin’s next visit to Turkmenistan. Although the exact dates of his visit are unclear, Putin has already expressed his intention to make a trip to the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat — part of a Central Asia tour that will include Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well.

Those latter three countries host Russian military bases. If Moscow is truly aiming to increase its presence in the region in order to play a leading role in settling the Afghan problem, these bases will vital part of that strategy. During Putin’s meeting with the Tajik president, Emomali Rahmon, it was agreed that the capacity of Russian military base No.201 will also be used to secure the border with Afghanistan. The nature of that “capacity” was unspecified, but the fact that Russian soldiers will be able to return to the banks of the Panj after more than a decade says a lot in itself. By all accounts, base No.201 was prepared for such a turn of events – during the entire period when the border was guarded by Tajik forces alone, Russian military units were relocated to all main positions leading up to the Afghan border.

Others might follow the Tajik example – after all, at one point, Turkmenistan also rejected Russian military assistance in guarding its borders and, as was already mentioned, it now faces certain problems. After proclaiming full neutrality back in the days of Saparmurat Niyazov, the country now simply lacks qualified personnel to defend its borders.

Kyrgyzstan will also continue to host the Russian air base in Kant, near Bishkek, its capital. Speaking about whether a Russian military contingent might be stationed in the country, Putin stated that it will depend directly on “guaranteeing the security of Kyrgyzstan itself”. The Russian president hinted at sources of possible threats to Kyrgyz stability by recalling how the Russian military base came to be in the country: according to Putin, it was “set up at the request of the Kyrgyz authorities in 1999–2000, when Kyrgyzstan faced an attack by international terrorists who had crossed the border from Afghanistan”.

As for Uzbekistan – which, in contrast to its neighbours, has a relatively functional army and is protected from Afghanistan by a fortified border barrier – it is unlikely to request that foreign military bases be located on its soil. However, during Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s rule, the country is likely to increase its military ties with the Russian Federation, also in the context of warding off Islamist threats from the south.

Recognising the Taliban?

At any rate, the progress of peace talks between the warring sides in Afghanistan, excluding the common enemy – in this case, the Islamic State – is obviously a much more effective way of solving the Afghan problem than surrounding it with military bases. The decision as to whether the Taliban, which currently controls 10–15% of Afghan territory, can ever participate in such talks lies primarily with the Afghan government, and any negotiations behind the government’s back would only destabilise the situation further.

After all, apart from the Taliban and IS, Al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network, the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan, Jamaat Ansarullah and other lesser-known groups are also operating in the country, and each has its own share of the drug traffic.

According to a statement made in March by the Afghan president’s national security advisor, Hanif Atmar, having Taliban representatives take part in the April consultations in Moscow might be premature, as Russia should first initiate negotiations with the government in Kabul. The Russian MFA is justifying what it calls its “limited” contacts with the Taliban by contending that while Russia defines the group as a terrorist organisation, it has been legitimised by a series of meetings with Kabul officials in Qatar, China, the UAE and Pakistan. At the same time, the Russian MFA vigorously denies supplying Russian weapons to the Taliban.

The outcome of the April consultations – involving representatives of Afghanistan, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – was a proposal for the Taliban to launch peace talks with Kabul (the dates of the next round of consultations scheduled to take place in the Afghan capital are still unknown but, unlike US and EU representatives, no Taliban representatives will be invited). In turn, Russia has expressed its readiness to provide a platform for such negotiations. In addition, the Afghan authorities have requested assistance in training, maintenance and supplies for the country’s army and police.

Caution Required

Whatever Russia decides on this issue, it should exercise more caution in engaging actively to resolve the Afghan problem – and especially in choosing its allies – than it has in similar cases in Syria.

Unlike Middle Eastern countries, Afghanistan and Russia are separated by countries which are integrated into the Russian economic space and have had close social ties since Soviet times. This is why any mistakes here would not just damage Russia’s image as a geopolitical player of the “great game,” but also the personal safety of Russian citizens.

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