On June 6, the Afghan government hosted the Kabul Process, a one-day meeting regarding peace in Afghanistan. The conference included representatives from 27 countries, the United Nations, the European Union, and NATO. In the conference, Moscow stated its commitment to promoting stability in Afghanistan. However, its policy has been the exact opposite. Russia supports the Taliban to undermine U.S. efforts in stabilizing Afghanistan.
Moscow’s policy has angered political circles in Kabul. At a gathering that marked the 25th anniversary of 8 Saur, Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf warned Russia not to interfere in Afghanistan’s affairs. Sayyaf’s remarks were directed at Moscow’s support for the Taliban. He told Moscow not to repeat past mistakes. The crowd cheered as he said, “It is enough that you fought this tough land once and you left bleeding with your head broken into pieces.” His message was clear to Moscow. Do not pick a fight with us by supporting the Taliban.
Russia’s support for the Taliban stems from its fear of the U.S., its traditional rival, exerting greater influence in the region. Moscow supports the Taliban to counter and challenge the United States’ influence and efforts in Afghanistan. For Moscow, the Taliban is simply an “Afghan movement” that has abandoned its international agenda. However, this notion is false. The Taliban actively recruits terrorists from neighboring countries. Siegfried O. Wolf, Director of Research at the South Asia Democratic Forum, told Deutsche Welle that “besides Arabs, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis (including Rohingya refugees from Myanmar recruited in Bangladesh), militants from Central Asia and China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region are joining the Taliban in northern Afghanistan.”
Last year, Russia announced its decision to not cooperate with the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Russia said it would not participate in any talks led by the United States. Zamir Kabulov, Putin’s special envoy to Afghanistan, said “Honestly speaking, we’re already tired of joining anything Washington starts…We won’t join the useless events, and we’ve already told the Americans.”
Kabulov also called the American bases in Afghanistan disturbing and intolerable. In an interview with a Turkish state-run news agency, Anadolu Agency, he said “Of course; why should it not be disturbing for anybody? Why in Afghanistan? Where is Afghanistan and where is America!? If we did something like that in Mexico, would it not be disturbing for America? In Cuba, we have already experienced and we know the outcome. I think it is old fashioned. Why are they doing that after all this 15-year-old anti-terror rhetoric in Afghanistan? They stupidly try to say that it is for training. Come on! You are not talking to stupid or foolish people. We know the reasons [for the ongoing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan]. Russia will never tolerate this.”
Moscow’s support for the Taliban is shortsighted. The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government long before foreign troops came to Afghanistan. In 1993, Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence Agency (ISI) orchestrated the Taliban movement. The Taliban is submitted to the will of Pakistan. Pakistan created the terrorist group as a proxy force to exert greater influence in the region. According to Peter Tomsen, former U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, Pakistan seeks to use the Taliban to, “forge a broader Islamist bloc of Pakistan, Kashmir, Afghanistan, and eventually Central Asia to balance India, Pakistan’s traditional rival.” The Taliban’s agenda is to use Afghanistan as a starting point to expand to the Central Asian republics. That agenda could threaten the pro-Russian governments in Central Asia and Russia’s influence in the region should they be successful in Afghanistan. While Moscow’s support for the Taliban will help it achieve its perceived interests in undermining the United States’ efforts in Afghanistan, in the long term it will be disastrous for both Russia and Afghanistan.
In 2015, Russia publically announced that it has ties with the Taliban. Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said that the contact between Moscow and the Taliban is for intelligence-sharing and information exchange regarding the fight against ISIS. Last year, Russian ambassador to Afghanistan, Alexander Mantytskiy, told the Afghan parliament that Russia and the Taliban have a shared interest in fighting ISIS. According to Mantytskiy, ISIS wants to use the Northern provinces of Afghanistan as a starting point to expand its influence to Russia. Although the U.S. backed Afghan government is a much larger force that is fighting ISIS, Moscow isn’t cooperating with Kabul to fight ISIS. Should Russia consider ISIS a threat, it would be more suitable to cooperate with a stronger force, the Afghan government, and not the Taliban. A senior Afghan official on the condition of anonymity told the New York Times, “Bilaterally, we have struggled to convince the Russians on certain issues because they increasingly see us only as part of this larger game with the United States.” Russia refuses to cooperate with the Afghan government’s counterterrorism efforts because it’s backed by Washington.
Furthermore, Moscow has given political legitimacy to the Taliban. Instead of referring to the Taliban as a terrorist group, Kabulov called the Taliban a “real political armed force.” In March, he also said that Russia shares the Taliban’s demand for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. He further stated that the Taliban’s demands are legitimate and suggested that no neighboring countries in the region want the United States’ presence in Afghanistan.
Moscow views the Taliban as a legitimate security provider instead of Kabul, the host government of its political offices. Last year, Mantytskiy said, “ we have ties to the Taliban to ensure the security of our political offices, consulates, and the security of Central Asia.” His statement suggests that Moscow made an agreement with the Taliban to ensure the security of its offices.
Although Moscow denies arming the Taliban, there is mounting evidence that proves otherwise. Moscow has been supporting the Taliban in contested provinces. Ghulam Farooq Sangari, the police chief of Uruzgan province, told Voice of America that, “Eleven Russians, including two women, dressed in doctor’s uniforms and guarded by four armed Taliban, along with an Afghan translator, have been spotted in various parts of the province… they have been enticing people against the government, providing training and teaching how to assemble land mines.” Similarly, in Kunduz, another highly contested province, Afghan security officials told 1tvnews, that “Russia provides weapons and military equipment for Taliban fighters in Dasht-e-Archi, Imam Sahib, Qalai Zal and Kalbat districts of Kunduz province via Tajikistan.” In Helmand, another volatile province, Moscow provided the Taliban with a mobile clinic to treat its injured fighters. In Farah province, security officials said that Russian weapons and night vision binoculars contributed to the fall of 13 security posts to the Taliban.
Moscow’s lack of a grand strategy in Central Asia is apparent in its policy of supporting the Taliban. Mikhail Zygar, a Russian journalist and author of All the Kremlin’s Men, notes that “It is logic that Putin-era Russia lacks.” The Western media depicts Putin as a master strategist. However, Zygar refutes that. Putin’s policies are reactionary, based on his fear of the West. Putin’s goal is to disrupt political or economic activities of states that are perceived as hostile. In Afghanistan, he does that via the Taliban. Putin views the U.S. backed government in Kabul as hostile.
Moscow’s hostility towards a Kabul that is interested in maintaining ties with Washington dates back to the 1970s.
Two years before the Soviet invasion, Daud Khan’s relationship with Moscow deteriorated. In Daud Khan’s last meeting to Moscow, Leonid Brezhnev requested that Daud Khan gets rid of the Western experts in the northern provinces of Afghanistan. Daud Khan viewed Brezhnev’s request as an interference in Afghanistan’s affairs. He refused and said, “Afghanistan shall remain poor, if necessary, but free in its acts and decision.” He ended the meeting abruptly and said, “We will never allow you to dictate to us how to run our country and whom to employ in Afghanistan.” Daud Khan’s refusal to fulfill Brezhnev’s demand angered Moscow. The Soviets were furious that Daud Khan was keen on maintaining contact with the West.
After that meeting, Moscow united the two bitter factions of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), a political party that was supported by Moscow, in preparation for the coup against Daud Khan. On April 28, 1978, Soviet planes flew over Arg, the Afghan presidential palace. The Soviets bombarded the presidential palace and overthrew Daud Khan’s regime. Moscow installed Nur Mohammad Taraki as the president of Afghanistan.
Three days after the Coup, Moscow instructed Taraki to hide the communist nature of the government. Moscow feared a backlash from the Afghan population if Taraki would have announced his decision to join the Soviet bloc. Moscow’s policy was shortsighted. The Kremlin opted to gain immediate influence in Kabul by bringing the weak PDPA party in power instead of continuing to work with Daud Khan, a popular president, for a long-term strategy of cooperation.
Within a year, Moscow’s grip on the PDPA party weakened. Thus, Moscow invaded Afghanistan on December 25, 1979, to restore its influence in Afghanistan and install a new leader in Kabul. The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan was disastrous to both Afghanistan and Moscow. The war led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The war also ignited the current 4-decade conflict in Afghanistan.
Today, Moscow once again seeks to use the Taliban, a minority group like the PDPA party for immediate gains. Such policies caused Moscow to support a minority group at the cost of angering the majority. In the long term, supporting the Taliban like the PDPA party could be detrimental to both Afghanistan and Moscow.
Sabera Azizi is a graduate student at the City University of New York: Graduate Center. She studies international relations and can be followed on twitter @saberaazizi.