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Russia’s Engagement with the Taliban

Parth Sarthi Suhag is Research Intern with Europe and Eurasia Centre at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.
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  • June 21, 2017

    In December 2015, the Russian Foreign Ministry revealed that Russia was engaging in intelligence sharing with the Taliban to counter the growing presence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. The announcement, which coincided with US moves to reduce troop presence in the country and transfer security control to Afghan forces, caught the world by surprise.1 2016 saw a sudden increase in the Taliban’s offensive attacks and its establishment of control over more territory than during the past decade and a half.2

    Subsequently, in April 2017, the commander of the US forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, accused Russia of providing weapons to the Taliban.3 This was the first time a senior US commander made such allegations regarding Russian support to the Taliban. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov termed the allegations ‘unprofessional and groundless’ and charged that it was an attempt to ‘put the blame for Washington’s failures in Afghanistan [on Russia]’.4 Russia, in turn, accused the US of supporting Islamic State operatives in Afghanistan.5 Even earlier, in 2016, the head of the Asia and West Asian department of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Zamir Kabulov, had stated, ‘It is some miracle that Taliban leaders who wouldn’t cooperate with Islamic State in Afghanistan tend to be hit by American airstrikes. And those who do are being left alone’.6

    While these accusations and counter-accusations reflect Cold-War rhetoric, it is important to understand why Russia has begun to engage with the Taliban and what its aims in Afghanistan are in the foreseeable future. Even though Russia’s links with the Taliban are purported to have begun around 2007, renewed attention was focused on such links from 2014 onwards after the West, led by the US, imposed sanctions on Russia in the wake of Crimea voting to become a part of Russia. The counter-pressure from the Russian side was bound to be generated. The open declaration of Russian assistance to the Taliban can be read as an effort to gain a bargaining position vis-à-vis Washington to extract concessions on the Crimean issue.7

    Moreover, many in Russia consider the US presence in its neighbourhood as a latent threat.8 They view the US ‘war on terror’ as a smokescreen and allege that the major American objective is to maintain a significant military presence in Afghanistan in order to keep a check on Russia, Pakistan, China and Iran at the same time. Many analysts and officials see the US intentionally trying to prolong the conflict for its own strategic interests and using the Islamic State as a proxy to counter these countries.9 The Russians therefore might be very keen to lend assistance to the Taliban in order to increase US casualties and thus force a US withdrawal. This would pave the way for a resurgent Moscow to increase its influence beyond Central Asia in Afghanistan and Pakistan, besides being involved in West Asia.10

    Another factor for the Russian involvement could be the need to tackle the growing menace of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Moscow takes very seriously Islamic State statements threatening attacks against its interests, especially in the aftermath of the downing of the Russian airliner in Egypt and the more recent St. Petersburg metro bombings which have been attributed to the group. Further, Russia’s support to the Assad government in Syria is also bound to attract the wrath of the Islamic State.

    Russia is therefore worried that if there is a growth of Islamic State influence in Afghanistan, there is a possibility of radicalisation taking place on a larger scale in the former Soviet Central Asian states. This would then make the Russian underbelly vulnerable to increased cross border terrorist attacks. Another major worry for Moscow is that many ex-Taliban combatants have switched allegiance to the Islamic State and moreover many Islamic State recruits are Central Asians as well as Russians. Given all this, the Taliban is naturally seen as an emerging ally for Russia.

    Many analysts further note that Russia is aligning with the Taliban to control the menace of drugs, specifically opium. These drugs are consumed in Russia on a large scale and they are transported through the country for further consumption in Europe.11 It is also a fact, however, that proceeds from the drug trade are a major source of funding for the Taliban. Finally, the most important reason for the Russian engagement with the Taliban could be not to miss the chance of shaping the political scenario in Afghanistan if and when the Americans leave.12 Moscow may possibly be hoping that the Taliban, which is seen as more of a nationalist movement in contrast to the radical Islamist character of the Islamic State, would help secure the Central Asian borders with Afghanistan, as reiterated by one ex-Taliban leader, Syed Mohammad Akbar Agha.13

    Notwithstanding all this, it may be better for Russia to consolidate its links with the Taliban only after the latter enters the political mainstream and severs connections with all terrorist organisations. Otherwise, Russia would stand guilty of supporting a terrorist group, akin to what the US did in the 1980s to counter the Soviets in Afghanistan. It remains to be seen as to what extent the ‘red-line’ approach accepted in the Moscow six-party talks in February 2017 would be followed by the Kremlin. That approach indicated that the Taliban must give up violence, abide by Afghanistan’s constitution and break links with other terrorist organisations.14 The Russian engagement with the Taliban has created new dynamics, the repercussions of which will be felt in the region and beyond.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.