In the Demise of the Taliban Peace Talks, Russia Is the Winner

Even as it paints itself as an ally in Afghanistan, the Kremlin is busy undercutting Washington.

Representatives of the Taliban attend international talks on Afghanistan in Moscow on Nov. 9, 2018.
Representatives of the Taliban attend international talks on Afghanistan in Moscow on Nov. 9, 2018. Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images

Over the weekend, the prospects of a peace deal between the United States and the Taliban seemed to fall apart. That is a major setback, since it will likely delay a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and could lead to an escalated Taliban offensive on Afghan government-held territories. But one player—Russia—might benefit.

In an otherwise dark period for U.S.-Russian relations, Afghanistan seemed to have recently emerged as a rare bright spot for bilateral cooperation. After a visit to Moscow in May, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described achieving a “reduction in violence” in Afghanistan as a shared interest of the United States and Russia. Dialogue between U.S. and Russian officials on Afghanistan, which was largely frozen after the collapse of the Northern Distribution Network—a rail network passing through Russia that supplied U.S. forces—in 2015 is now commonplace. Russia had even offered to act as a guarantor for any future U.S.-Taliban peace agreement. Although such a deal now seems to be off the table, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, stated that he believes U.S.-Taliban peace talks are “suspended” but not “dead,” and he announced Moscow’s plans to consult with the United States on the future of the negotiations.

Although the de-escalation of tensions between the United States and Russia, which had risen last year due to Moscow’s alleged arms transfers to the Taliban, is a positive development, Russia should not be trusted as a partner in Afghanistan. The collapse of the U.S.-Taliban peace talks provides an opening for Russia to reassert its diplomatic presence in the country, and this prospect should concern U.S. policymakers. Russia’s subversion of the authority of Afghanistan’s internationally recognized government and propagation of disinformation about U.S. intentions in Afghanistan reveal that Moscow remains a dangerous adversary in the region.

Ever since Russia overruled strenuous objections from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and invited a Taliban delegation to Moscow in November 2018, Russia’s relationship with the Afghan government has deteriorated. Kabul’s frustrations with Moscow have boiled over into public statements. For example, in February, Afghan foreign ministry spokesman Sebghat Ahmadi openly described Kremlin-backed negotiations as unhelpful to the peace process. As Russia fears that its poor relationship with the Afghan government could lead to its diplomatic isolation, Moscow has subverted Ghani’s authority by throwing its weight behind opposition figures and strengthening its relationship with the Taliban.

As long as the United States still wants some kind of settlement between Kabul and the Taliban, Russia’s overt support for opposition figures is counterproductive, because it risks undermining Afghan public trust in an eventual peace agreement. Russia’s efforts to bolster the influence of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai should be viewed with particular concern. Through his participation in Kremlin-hosted peace negotiations and regular interviews with Russian state media outlets, Karzai has repeatedly raised doubts about Washington’s ability to constructively contribute to Afghan security. As Karzai retains popular support among Afghanistan’s Pashtun community, his anti-American rhetoric could turn this group against any residual presence of U.S. intelligence personnel after the United States leaves the conflict.

Meanwhile, the Moscow-based Council of Afghan Society’s efforts to facilitate dialogue between Afghan opposition figures and the Taliban also undercut the peace process, as they sowed discord among supporters of Afghanistan’s U.N.-recognized government. In February, Ghani accused Afghan opposition figures who participated in these Moscow-hosted talks of placing their political ambitions ahead of peace, and in May, Amrullah Saleh, who is campaigning to be Ghani’s vice president in upcoming presidential elections, accused opposition participants of betraying the Afghan public. By polarizing representatives of the Afghan government along pro- and anti-Ghani lines, Russia has inadvertently facilitated the Taliban’s efforts to frame the Afghan government as a divided, illegitimate authority that does not represent the Afghan people.

Russia’s efforts to strengthen its diplomatic partnership with the Taliban might also have fueled the militant group’s expansionist ambitions, at a time when the United States had urged the Taliban to abandon its goal of recreating an Islamic emirate in exchange for a U.S. withdrawal. Although Russia officially labels the Taliban as a terrorist organization, influential Russian experts, such Oleg Barabanov from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, are increasingly inclined to view “moderate” Taliban members as trustworthy partners. This perception could cause Russia to lobby for expanded Taliban influence over Afghanistan’s future and indirectly reward the Taliban’s expansionist activities, as Moscow routinely invokes the Taliban’s territorial reach as a justification for deepening the group’s diplomatic representation.

In addition to complicating the path to a lasting peace between the Afghan government and the Taliban, Russia continues to spread disinformation about U.S. objectives in Afghanistan that is aimed at eroding Afghan public trust in U.S. security guarantees. Russia’s state media outlet Sputnik is a leading agent of such disinformation, as it operates a Dari-language website, but Sputnik’s efforts are frequently complemented by statements from the Russian foreign ministry.

Russian state media outlets and officials have frequently floated the conspiracy theory that the United States is covertly supporting the Islamic State of Khorasan Province in Afghanistan. The Russian foreign ministry has alleged that unidentified helicopters use Afghanistan’s NATO-controlled airspace to supply weapons to the Islamic State branch and that U.S. special forces seized prison documents to obfuscate Washington’s covert alignment with the group. Russia has cast similar negative aspersions about the U.S. government’s support for the postponement of Afghanistan’s elections. In an official statement in January, the Russian foreign ministry accused the United States of trying to assume control over Afghanistan’s electoral process and said that Ghani’s government was placing U.S. interests ahead of the demands of Afghan society.

Even as the United States and the Taliban seemed close to a deal. Russia’s disinformation machinery continued operating in full gear. Sputnik framed U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposed retention of intelligence personnel in Afghanistan as a facade for the preservation of an eternal U.S. presence in the country. Russian state media outlets also circulated the narrative that the United States was deceiving the Taliban with false promises of a military withdrawal. These messages aligned closely with long-standing Russian fears of a U.S. desire to maintain a permanent base in Afghanistan from which to plunder Central Asia’s mineral resources and encircle Iran. Since the U.S.-Taliban peace negotiations broke down, pro-Kremlin news organizations have accused Trump of using the death of a U.S. soldier at the hands of the Taliban as an excuse to abandon the peace talks and argued that the United States backed out of the negotiations so it could blame the Afghan government if the Taliban recaptured Kabul.

As U.S. policymakers figure out how to reboot or replace the recently collapsed peace process, Washington should view Moscow as a potential spoiler of, rather than a partner for, its plans in Afghanistan. Russia’s willingness to engage with the United States in the country is principally aimed at highlighting its great power status and should not be viewed as real support. Although Russia is genuinely concerned about the spillover of terrorism from an unstable Afghanistan to Central Asia, it principally seeks to counter that threat by consolidating its hegemony over Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and strengthening its influence in Afghanistan by backing pro-Kremlin political figures.

The collapse of the U.S.-Taliban peace negotiations is likely to lead to a revival of alternative diplomatic processes on Afghanistan, and Russia’s Moscow-format talks will undoubtedly benefit from this trend. As Russia’s diplomatic clout grows, the United States should formulate a strategy to combat its subversion of Ghani’s government, counter Kremlin disinformation tactics, and restrict Moscow’s ability to undermine Washington’s interests in Afghanistan.

Samuel Ramani is a nonresident fellow at the Gulf International Forum and a doctoral candidate in Politics and International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy. Twitter: @samramani2