Russia has formally revealed that it is in contact with the Taliban fighting the Afghan government. General Nicholson, the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, recently mentioned Russia as one of the countries involved with the Taliban. This is the first time NATO has announced Russia’s ill intention regarding the Afghan conflict. Hitherto, Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia were the only countries with unabashed support for the Taliban, though Pakistan’s backing of the Taliban dwarfs the others. Not only does Pakistan provide safe havens for the Taliban leadership, it provides money, technical knowhow and materiel sustaining their assault against Afghanistan.
Some in the Taliban leadership circles are remnants of the so-called Mujahidin, who bitterly fought the Red Army for a decade in the 1980’s. There is no love lost between Russia and the Taliban, so what are the reasons for this rapprochement? How Russia could benefit and what’s in it for the Taliban?
Russia is worried about the influence of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS). ISIS has established a beachhead in eastern Afghanistan, too close for comfort as far as Russia is concerned. Russia has long been concerned about jihadists from Central Asian countries and the Caucuses region joining ISIS and coming back trained in the use of arms and other knowledge. Russia sees such a scenario as a threat to its interests in the region. ISIS’ branch in Afghanistan is called the Islamic State in Khorasan. Arabs referred to the region comprising Iran and Afghanistan as Khorasan dating back to the 7th century. This branch of ISIS is mostly made up of disaffected former Taliban and other fringe groups. The classic Taliban see them as competition and furthermore do not pledge allegiance to Abubakr Al Baghdadi, ISIS leader. The two groups have fought each other in Afghanistan. Therefore, Russia sees the Taliban as a force against the proliferation of ISIS in Central Asia and in the Caucuses.
Following Russia’s adventurism into Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, the US led coalition of NATO allies decided to isolate Russia by imposing sanctions. The Russian president Putin saw this as the beginning of a new cold war with the west. He is, therefore, intent to make life difficult for the Americans. Supporting Taliban who are fighting the US backed government of Afghanistan and the NATO forces accomplishes such a desire. Putin may change course when Donald Trump takes office later this month as the two leaders are already on friendly terms.
Russia is increasingly acting as the now defunct U.S.S.R and as such believes its sphere of influence extends all the way to Afghanistan. As a result of the new cold war mentality, Russia does not want the US and its NATO allies to have a presence in Afghanistan. Geographically, Afghanistan shares borders with the former central Asian republics of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, but not Russia. So, it is a stretch for Russia to be concerned about American presence at its doorstep.
Russia has also begun a certain rapprochement with Pakistan, historically a US ally and the supporter and protector of the Taliban and other extremist groups. This is another indication of Russia’s intention to play a more active geopolitical role in south and south central Asia to the detriment of the US and its allies, including Afghanistan.
The Taliban are eager to embrace their new bedfellows with enthusiasm despite the past bitter history. They benefit from any military or other support they can get from Russia. But more importantly, they gain political recognition from a major world power active in the region. Russia has already toned down its narrative relative to the Taliban’s description. Russia now defines the Taliban as fractured with some radical, but also more moderate elements. The Taliban welcome this rehabilitation of their image by an old enemy.
Given the Taliban’s military advances and brazen attacks in Afghanistan against the Afghan government and NATO forces in 2016, any support from Russia is cause for concern. The Afghan security forces continue to be challenged by the Taliban insurgency. The Afghan Government of National Unity is politically fractured; rampant corruption and the culture of impunity is continuing unabated. As long as the US and NATO maintain a presence in the country, the status quo is sustainable. But if the incoming Trump administration decides otherwise, the Taliban will be in a very strong position to take power in, at least, most of Afghanistan. This scenario will severely undermine the US capability to fight terrorism and Afghanistan will relapse into chaos and reemerge as a failed state. Two very worrisome prospects!