In December last year, Zamir Kabulov, Russian President Vladmir Putin’s special envoy to Afghanistan, told Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency that Russia was open to cooperating with certain factions in the Taliban. In the same month, Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova publicly accepted that Russia and the Taliban were in contact with each other for intelligence sharing and to fight ISIS.
The reasoning behind this is that Russia believes that it is the Taliban fighting ISIS in Afghanistan and not the Afghanistan government. Therefore it supports the Taliban as Moscow views ISIS as the bigger threat, and close cooperation with the Taliban would prevent an ISIS influence in Afghanistan.
Russia has also clarified that it is building contact with the Taliban to bring it to the negotiating table. In an interview in September 2016, Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov stated: “[i]t is essential to be absolutely clear on the Taliban movement. This is a terrorist group that is on the UN sanctions list. Therefore, we do not have any contacts with the Taliban. We only have a communication channel on humanitarian issues related to human rights and hostages. No more than that.”
Hashim Wahdatyar, a former spokesperson and programme officer for the United Nations in Afghanistan wrote: “Afghan opium is another headache for Moscow. Afghanistan supplies 90 per cent of the world’s illicit opiates, which are mostly being produced in territory controlled by the Taliban. The opiate producers target Russia as one of the largest markets in the world; each year illicit drug use kills 70,000 people in Russia. Policymakers in Moscow thus believe that in the fight against narcotics, the Taliban can be a better partner than Afghanistan’s National Unity Government.”
Afghanistan is rich in minerals and the presence of uranium is a lucrative temptation for countries like the United States, Russia and China, who have active nuclear power programs. Both the US and China have their eyes on the uranium reserves, and Russia will obviously not want to miss out. There are also deposits of lithium. However, while the Taliban has conducted heinous murders where these resource development programs have been planned, the Russians may feel comfortable befriending the Taliban to reap the benefits of this region.
Leaving out the US
Russia did not invite the United States or other NATO members who have played an active role to bring about peace and stability in Afghanistan to a major peace conference on Afghanistan held in Moscow in December 2016. What is even more surprising is that no Afghan officials were invited, with only Russia, China and Pakistan attending. Afghan officials were invited to a peace conference in February this year, together with major players like China, India, Pakistan, but again not the US and NATO countries.
In December last year, Russia also conducted a trilateral meeting with China and Pakistan to discuss peace and stability in Afghanistan. This was likely a reaction to the US led Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) organized in January 2016, where Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the US discussed peace and dialogue with Taliban. The QCG was, however, a failed attempt.
Moscow’s support for the Taliban is a threat as the Taliban’s agenda is to destabilize the democratically elected Afghan government, the National Unity Government (NUG). If the Taliban manages to destabilize the NUG and establish its own influence and governance, democracy as well as peace and stability in Afghanistan would be threatened. The top US commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, has stated that Russia’s cooperation with the Taliban is a “malign influence” in Afghanistan, along with the cooperation of the Taliban with Pakistan and Iran.
Afghan officials are also apprehensive that this cooperation between Russia and the Taliban could strengthen from mere intelligence gathering to the provision of cash and arms by Moscow. Many Taliban leaders have also stated that both Russia and the Taliban have one objective - to drive out the US and NATO from Afghanistan – as the two are promoting democracy to ensure economic development, and support the NUG.
Nicholson has said that it is the Afghan government and US counter terrorism efforts that are helping to defeat the Islamic State in Afghanistan and hence, the “public legitimacy that Russia lends to the Taliban is not based on fact, but it is used as a way to essentially undermine the Afghan government and the NATO effort to bolster the belligerents.”
The Afghan government also backs this argument, clarifying that it is fighting the Daesh, which is made up of ex members of the Pakistani Taliban.
In January 2017, Russia also opposed a request from the Afghan government to remove former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin from the United Nations Security Council’s sanctions list, saying it needed more time to decide. The NUG felt that Gulbuddin would play an active and positive role in the peace process in Afghanistan as he was one of its most influential leaders. The Russians then demanded “flexible approaches” that included the lifting of sanctions from selected Taliban leaders.
However, in February 2017, the Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent member and whose vote will count, removed Gulbuddin’s name from the sanctions list. For Russia, this was likely a bargaining chip to ensure that its demand for leniency to be meted out to selected Taliban leaders was also accepted by the council. For the Russians, Afghanistan is not a new zone of conflict to deal with. However, what is challenging for the Russians is the NUG and the Taliban.
If peace and stability are to be maintained in Afghanistan, it is crucial that Russia cooperates with the NUG rather than befriending those elements of society that are a threat to global security. It would also encourage Pakistan, who supports and funds the Taliban, by legitimizing its funding. This would have disastrous spill over effects in South Asia, including Kashmir.
While fighting the Daesh in Afghanistan is crucial for Russia, Moscow must avoid creating chaos by supporting the Taliban. It must join hands with the US and the NUG to combat terrorism - both Daesh and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Debalina Ghoshal is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Human Security Studies, Hyderabad.