As U.S. Mulls Withdrawal From Afghanistan, Russia Wants Back in

By holding its own peace talks, Moscow is laying the groundwork to play kingmaker.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and representatives of both the Afghan government and the Taliban pose for a photo prior to international talks on Afghanistan in Moscow on Nov. 9, 2018. (Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and representatives of both the Afghan government and the Taliban pose for a photo prior to international talks on Afghanistan in Moscow on Nov. 9, 2018. (Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images)

As Washington mulls a full withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, Moscow is angling to take a leading role in the country’s future as part of a broader effort to counter the United States and NATO in the region.

While U.S. officials tout progress in peace talks with the Taliban, Russia has been quietly conducting a parallel effort, hosting a landmark diplomatic conference in Moscow in November 2018 that was attended by a Taliban delegation and several members of the Afghan government’s High Peace Council, as well as representatives from major players in the region including Pakistan, Iran, and China. A representative from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow also attended as an observer.

More recently, Zamir Kabolov, Russia’s Afghanistan envoy, arrived in Islamabad on Jan. 29 to hold talks with senior Pakistani diplomats that will focus on both countries’ efforts to forge a political solution to the Afghan conflict.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday Russia will reportedly host talks between the Taliban and Afghan politicians opposed to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

Though the November conference ended in failure—the two sides refused to negotiate with each other—Russia’s attempts at mediation reflect Moscow’s desire to reclaim its role as regional power broker. If the United States decides to withdraw its forces before a deal between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed government in Kabul can be reached, observers believe Russia will likely try to fill the vacuum.

“In the case of a U.S. withdrawal, Russia will desire and aspire to take the lead role in Afghanistan affairs,” one foreign official told Foreign Policy, calling the November conference in Moscow “a significant event” where “Russia was able to assert its relevance as a major stakeholder/broker in the Afghan conflict.”

The former Soviet Union has a long and sordid history in Afghanistan, invading the country in 1979 as part of an effort to prop up the failing communist regime in Kabul. The decadelong war devastated Afghanistan, killing an estimated 1 million Afghans and destroying the country’s infrastructure. Given the history, experts say any overt attempt by Moscow to intervene in the conflict will be fraught.

But lately, Russia has been trying to reclaim its influence quietly, cultivating closer relationships with the Taliban and Pakistan, another key regional player, said Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In addition to supplying weapons and cash to the Taliban, Moscow is also running a propaganda war against the United States, spreading disinformation in Russian press that Washington is providing support to the Islamic State, Jones said.

Experts say Russia views involvement in the Afghan conflict as another way to undermine the United States and NATO on the world stage—and in particular in regions that Moscow sees part of its sphere of influence. Several former Soviet republics border Afghanistan to the north.

“I think in general in the last few years Russia has seen in Afghanistan an opportunity to, in a much more muted way, open up more of an assertive or contentious front against the United States and NATO, which they see as adversaries,” said Jason Campbell, an expert at the Rand Corp. who until September 2018 served as country director for Afghanistan at the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy.

The U.S. presence just south of Russia’s borders, as well as its perceived “meddling” in Ukraine and the Baltic States, has long grated on Moscow, Jones said. Russia would no doubt welcome a U.S. withdrawal of all its forces from Afghanistan.

Moscow also believes the Taliban are a serious power to be reckoned with, Jones said.

“I see this as a sort of sphere of influence problem,” he said.

Campbell said Moscow’s peace efforts have “largely been underwhelming,” noting that the Afghans sent “a very junior delegation” to the November conference, and the Taliban “used the stage to restate demands on the United States.” Russia, like Pakistan, is learning that the Taliban are very difficult to control, he noted.

The Jan. 29 meeting in Pakistan, meanwhile, was “less about the substance and more just pointing out” that Russia is a major stakeholder, Campbell added.

But despite Russia’s limited progress thus far, observers worry that if that United States pulls out of Afghanistan without cementing a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, Moscow’s outsize influence will strengthen the Taliban’s hand.

“If the United States does just [start negotiations] and then pulls away, then Russia steps in to play kingmaker,” said one former U.S. defense official.

Experts worry that without U.S. support, the Afghan government will have difficulty preventing the Taliban from taking control of key territory. In a new report to Congress released Jan. 31, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction noted that the Afghan government’s influence over the population declined in the last quarter. As of Oct. 31, 2018, the Kabul government controlled 53.8 percent of the total number of districts, a decrease of seven government-controlled districts compared to the last quarter and eight since the same period in 2017. According to the report, 12.3 percent of Afghanistan’s districts are now reportedly under insurgent control or influence, and 33.9 percent are contested.

Meanwhile, the strength of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces appears to be waning, down by 3,635 personnel since last quarter to the lowest it has been since NATO’s “Resolute Support” train, advise, and assist mission began in January 2015, according to the report.

Still, American commanders on the ground see some small signs of progress. Col. Dave Zinn, the commanding officer for the 2nd infantry brigade combat team, 4th infantry division, whose unit was deployed to Afghanistan from March to November of 2018, told reporters at the Pentagon on Jan. 30 that Afghan forces took the lead in providing local security and demonstrated new and improved capabilities—Afghan soldiers successfully deployed unmanned aerial sensors to seek out targets that could then be destroyed by artillery strikes, while the fledgling Afghan Air Force operated close air support aircraft, attack helicopters, and transportation helicopters.

While Zinn “would certainly hesitate to use the word dramatic improvement,” he said he observed “an Afghan army that was evolving and improving, and it was very promising to me.”

As U.S. peace efforts continue, Russia already appears to be trying to downplay their significance. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova expressed skepticism about the discussions.

“We welcome the U.S. resolve to launch a peace process in Afghanistan, but so far Zalmay Khalilzad’s attempts to convince the Taliban to sit down at the negotiating table with the official delegation from Kabul have failed despite the strong pressure exerted on the Taliban Movement by the Americans, several Gulf States and Pakistan,” she said. “Therefore, it is clearly premature to talk about the results of the U.S. unilateral effort to launch the peace process in Afghanistan.”

Ultimately, Russia is just one of many players in the region. The Gulf states, Iran, India, and Pakistan will also try to assert themselves in the future of the country, Campbell said. It will be difficult for Russia to complete with Pakistan to be “the champion of the Taliban,” he noted.

Still, Moscow will not give up easily.

“Russia considers Afghanistan as its near-abroad and desires to assert its influence,” the foreign official said.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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