This Time, Russia Is in Afghanistan to Win
Putin is replicating his success in Syria in a new theater of conflict—and part of his plan is to hurt American interests once again.
The recent revelations in the New York Times and other media that U.S. intelligence officials believed a Russian military intelligence unit had offered secret bounties to the Taliban for killing U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan renew deep concerns about the nefarious agenda Vladimir Putin’s Russia has not only in Afghanistan but also to destabilize the West.
The timing of the revelations—the findings were briefed to U.S. President Donald Trump in late February—is significant as it coincided with the signing of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal in Doha, Qatar, at the end of February. It is likely that the Taliban’s murky dealings with Russia were taking place while they were negotiating with the United States throughout 2019 and 2020, calling into question the insurgent group’s commitment to any peace deal.
The agreement provided for a phased withdrawal of NATO forces, with the United States pulling out 5,000 of its 13,000 troops over the next few months. In return, the Taliban claim they would not enable Afghan soil to be used for terrorism. But the obstacles to peace are so profound and numerous that the chances of the deal being honored are slim. A United Nations report stated that the Taliban retained close links to al Qaeda and sought its counsel during the negotiations with U.S. officials. And the Haqqani network, the biggest faction of the Taliban, has been accused by the Afghan government of collaborating with an ISIS affiliate—Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP)—to carry out numerous attacks in Afghanistan in 2020. (The most horrific examples were the suicide and gun attack on a Sikh gurdwara and the storming of the Dasht-e-Barchi hospital’s maternity ward in Kabul, killing nurses, women in labor, and newly born babies.)
Amid the peace talks brokered by the United States, one angle that most observers of Afghanistan have ignored is the role of Russia, which has enthusiastically supported the agreement. Along with Pakistan, Russia stands to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of any NATO withdrawal. Over the past several years, it has been quietly working in the background to enhance its ties with the Taliban, with the purpose of expanding its strategic interests in Afghanistan—and in the process exorcising the failings of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Once NATO and U.S. forces leave, Russia will once again have an opportunity to step in. And in that sense, the recent revelations about Moscow’s sordid arrangement with the Taliban should come as no surprise.
On Feb. 15, 1989, a column of armored personnel carriers rolled across the then-named Friendship Bridge, the last of a Soviet military contingent that fought a 10-year war in Afghanistan. After losing more than 13,000 troops in the conflict, the Soviet Union withdrew, beaten and humiliated. Later that year, the Congress of People’s Deputies passed a resolution that denounced the war. Consensus developed over decades that the Afghan occupation and war were costly mistakes.
However, during Vladimir Putin’s third term as president, the Russian government began reevaluating the intervention as one that took place within the bounds of international law and in the interests of the Soviet Union. While remaining critical of the excesses of the Soviet past, Putin legitimized the strong state and powerful security forces created during the Soviet era that somehow compensated for its brutalities. Putin’s focus on Afghanistan is an essential aspect of how Russia seeks to reevaluate its past while furthering its future strategic interests. As Syria demonstrates, the Kremlin is rewriting history to retrospectively justify intervention abroad as it seeks to regain its status as a global power.
Putin may have intervened in Syria because of legitimate security concerns, a legacy of friendship with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and because of the opportunity it represented to oppose U.S. interests. Russia was able to avoid the perception that its incursion into Syria was similar to the Soviet Afghan experience while also ensuring there was no blowback to Russia from its nationals from the Caucuses who joined jihadi groups like the Islamic State. Russia is now using its successful Syria experience to leverage its interests in Afghanistan.
2014 signaled an important shift in Russian foreign policy after the Kremlin moved to involve itself more centrally in Afghan affairs. In doing so, Moscow adopted several different roles: It simultaneously styled itself as peacemaker, military enforcer, and, most concerning from Washington’s perspective, funder of terrorist insurgents. On a surface level, Russia increased its presence in Afghanistan because of the threat of ISKP. For Moscow, ISKP poses three main challenges to its strategic interests: the potential of Russian citizens travelling to Afghanistan as foreign terrorist fighters; pledges of loyalty by North Caucasian militant groups establishing informal and formal ties; and the potential spillover of violent extremism into Central Asia, which in turn directly affects Russian interests. The Kremlin admitted to its strategic relationship with the Taliban in 2015, when Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova announced that Russia was sharing intelligence with the Taliban pertaining to ISKP movements. However, this is just one factor in its decision to reinfiltrate Afghanistan.
In a surprise step, following the U.S.-Taliban agreement in Doha, the United States and Russia issued a joint statement on mutually agreeable issues pertaining to Afghanistan. Both sides concurred that the preferred Taliban designation as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan would not be recognized by the international community. However, Russia’s prior interactions with the Taliban indicate a different story especially as the group is treated by Moscow with much reverence and courted just like a recognized state actor.
The joint U.S.-Russia statement also calls on the Taliban “to take concrete steps to ensure that the territory of Afghanistan should not be used by al-Qa-ida, Daesh [ISIS], or other international terrorist groups” against others. But the Taliban are not obliged to provide any concrete steps on how this will be achieved, nor are there any verification mechanisms. For Russia, this disconnect can be ignored if it can achieve its broader strategic goals in Afghanistan. But it’s harder for the West to reconcile these problems.
Much as it did during the Cold War, Russia has once again identified Afghanistan as a theater in which to challenge the United States. At both the foreign relations and security levels, Russian activities in Afghanistan are products of strategies designed to counter American influence. One of the most important lessons Russian policymakers have learned from the Soviet experience in Afghanistan is to refrain from forging local allies in their own image and to instead seek to galvanize partners wherever mutual interests intersect. A case in point is the nexus with the Taliban.
While the Kremlin maintains that its relationship with the Taliban is limited only to fighting ISKP and reconciliation within Afghanistan, its activities go much deeper. Russia has been accused of funding and arming the Taliban. Russian night vision sniper scopes have been discovered in the hands of the Taliban. In 2017, Gen. John Nicholson, then-commander of the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan, revealed in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that Russia was actively funding the Taliban and therefore, by proxy, al Qaeda. In 2018, Nicholson followed that up by stating, “We’ve had weapons brought to this headquarters and given to us by Afghan leaders and [they] said, ‘This was given by the Russians to the Taliban.’”
There is also evidence that Russia has set up supply networks to deliver weapons across the border between Iran and Afghanistan. In 2017, Abdul Jabar Qahraman, who then oversaw the security situation in Helmand province for the Afghan government, said Russia had collaborated with Iran to create training camps for Taliban fighters in Iran, who in turn would then deliver Russian weapons throughout western and southern Afghanistan.
Perhaps more alarming are reports that Russia is funneling resources into Afghanistan that can be sold for profit by the Taliban. This includes shipping fuel tankers from Uzbekistan through the Hairatan border crossing, where they are delivered to Taliban front companies that sell fuel worth $2.5 million per month. The Taliban distribute the money directly to their commanders to use and launch attacks against the Afghan government, forces, and civilians.
While Russian intelligence services smuggle weapons and resources to the Taliban, the Russian government continues to present itself as a suitable alternative to the United States in terms of political guidance and aid for Afghanistan. Russia has attained short-term benefits by presenting a narrative that it stands by its allies, like the Taliban, no matter how ruthless. Simultaneously, it has denounced the United States as an untrustworthy ally that will abandon its friends.
In May 2019, the Putin administration invited senior members of the Afghan government and the Taliban to Moscow to celebrate what it called “100 years of Russo-Afghan friendship.” At this meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for a “total pullout of foreign forces” from Afghanistan. It is ironic that Russia continually calls for an end to foreign military in Afghanistan despite maintaining its own presence in the area. The implication is obvious: Russia is engaging in a diplomatic and military relationship with the Taliban in order to counter the United States.
For Russia to succeed in Afghanistan, it also needs to rectify a relationship with an old adversary: Pakistan was essential to the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan in the 1980s by supplying weapons and providing logistics to the Afghan-Arab mujahideen. Converging interests in Afghanistan have been a key factor in warming relations between Russia and Pakistan, and both have voiced affirmations of cooperation and support to bring the Taliban into the mainstream.
The commencement of U.S.-Taliban peace talks in October 2018 was a political success for both Russia and Pakistan, which share a mutual recognition that the Taliban are a key stakeholder in Afghanistan’s future. Russia arranged Moscow-based talks to augment the U.S.-Taliban negotiations, which included regional nations, Afghan opposition leaders, and the Taliban, although the Kabul government did not attend. Pakistan actively participated in meetings in Russia and also hosted a separate trilateral mechanism with China and the Afghan government to advocate greater Taliban involvement.
Russia and Pakistan’s interests continued to align following the breakdown of the U.S.-Taliban peace talks. This was underscored in September 2019, when Russia again invited Taliban members to Moscow. At this meeting, Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, announced: “We are convinced that the complete end to foreign military presence is an inalienable condition of durable peace in Afghanistan.” Meanwhile, Pakistan hosted Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghan reconciliation, and the Taliban leadership for meetings in Islamabad.
For Russia, the Afghanistan issue can help Moscow achieve its goal of splintering the U.S. foreign-policy establishment ahead of the 2020 presidential election. But the sacrifices of NATO troops, who have given blood and treasure for an honorable outcome in Afghanistan, demand that the West negotiate an outcome that does not amount to abandoning Afghanistan or lead to endorsing Russia’s goals. There should also be an assurance of protection of women’s rights and civil society, which the Taliban historically and continually neglect.
Russia has made serious progress toward fulfilling both its Syrian and Afghan strategic objectives by maintaining a decisive hand in the respective region’s politics. Equally, there should be no doubt that the Taliban will forcibly extend their control within Afghanistan, fueled by opium cultivation. This would restart a civil war and consequently result in substantial civilian deaths and exacerbate the number of refugees fleeing Afghanistan. With Western troops leaving, it will have devastating consequences for the civilian population, who rely and depend on them for their own safety. Furthermore, any guarantees that the Taliban offer to prevent al Qaeda or its affiliates returning to Afghanistan will not be worth the paper they are written on. Russia will assume an advantageous position, having nurtured both the Taliban and the Afghan civilian government while taking a back seat to the insecurity that will grip the country. Russia’s physical footprint will help Moscow ensure its strategic interests.
How can the West still justify withdrawing from Afghanistan when it clearly has the potential of returning to being a hotbed for terrorism, which will have direct and consequential ramifications for the West itself? The temporary relief in leaving the region will eventually give way to the stark reality that Western nationals will be traveling to Afghanistan for terrorist training. This will mirror the situation in Syria and Iraq with the Islamic State. However, this time the West will find it much harder to go back into Afghanistan with the crowded field of Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and China, all of which will be very reluctant to let in anyone else. There is an emerging Great Game Redux in Afghanistan—and Russia is in it this time to win it.
Sajjan M. Gohel is the international security director at the Asia-Pacific Foundation.