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Russia and the Taliban: A Closer Look

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Russia and the Taliban: A Closer Look

Why is Putin reaching out to the Afghan Taliban?

Russia and the Taliban: A Closer Look

Afghan security forces keep watch in front of their armored vehicle in Kunduz city, Afghanistan (October 4, 2016).

Credit: REUTERS/Nasir Wakif

On December 8, 2016, Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Alexander Mantyskiy, announced that the Russian government had made a diplomatic outreach to the Taliban’s leaders. In a press conference, Mantyskiy countered international criticism of Russia’s Taliban links by insisting that Moscow’s contacts with the extremist group were limited and aimed at ensuring the safety of Russian civilians.

Even though Russian President Vladimir Putin’s diplomatic engagement with the Taliban has strained Moscow’s relationship with the Afghan government, the Kremlin has continued its dialogue with the Taliban for two main reasons. First, Kremlin policymakers believe that engagement with the Taliban is necessary for the preservation of long-term political stability in Afghanistan. Second, Russian diplomats believe that they can strike a deal with the Taliban on drug trafficking and use the Taliban’s opposition to Islamic State (ISIS) to further Russia’s counterterrorism objectives.

The Link Between Russia-Taliban Cooperation and Afghanistan’s Political Stability

Even though Putin supported the Bush administration’s 2001 decision to overthrow Afghanistan’s Taliban government, the degeneration of the U.S. war in Afghanistan into an intractable stalemate caused Putin to change his views on the Taliban. As Washington’s struggles in Afghanistan occurred in tandem with the deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations under Bush and Obama, Putin concluded that U.S. military activities in Afghanistan were contributing to the destabilization of the country.

This perception caused Moscow to establish diplomatic relations with the Taliban, as Russian policymakers believed that the Taliban could act as a check against reckless U.S. power projection in Afghanistan. A senior Taliban official told Reuters in early December that Russia’s relationship with the Taliban began in 2007, as Moscow shared the Taliban’s objective of forcing all U.S. troops to swiftly withdraw from Afghanistan.

The official end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan in 2014 did not cause Russia to distance itself from the Taliban. Instead, Russian policymakers expanded their diplomatic outreach with the Taliban, on the grounds that long-term peace in Afghanistan would be impossible if the Afghan government excluded the Taliban from peace talks. This position differed markedly from the Russian Foreign Ministry’s 2001 statement that Taliban participation in Afghan politics is incompatible with the creation of a multi-ethnic, democratic state.

Critics of Russian foreign policy argue that Putin’s outreach to the Taliban is a cynical ploy to undermine the legitimacy of President Ashraf Ghani’s U.S.-backed government. Some Afghan policymakers and General John Nicholson, a leading U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, have publicly given credibility to this contention.

The Russian government has responded to these criticisms by insisting that its support for Taliban participation in peace negotiations will not necessarily result in the Taliban becoming an Afghan government coalition partner. Containing the Taliban’s influence will be more difficult for Moscow to achieve than its rhetoric suggests, however, as major Russian strategic partners, China and Iran, have also supported the Taliban’s participation in the Afghan government.

Why Russia Views the Taliban as a Security Partner in Afghanistan

Even though Russia’s relationship with the Taliban soured during the 1990s over the Taliban’s sponsorship of Chechen rebels and provision of sanctuary for Central Asian terrorist networks, Kremlin policymakers no longer view the Taliban as a major threat to Russia’s security. Instead, Russia has viewed the Taliban as a more effective anti-drug and counterterrorism partner than the Afghan government.

As Stanford University Professor Kathryn Stoner noted in a 2015 interview, Russia views the Taliban as a more reliable partner than Ghani in the struggle against drug trafficking. Stoner justified this bold claim by noting that the current Afghan government accrues more illegal revenues from heroin sales than the Taliban regime, which ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001.

Opponents of diplomatic engagement with the Taliban have noted that the extremist organization earns between $100-300 million per year from illegal drugs and actively helps traffickers transport opium in exchange for a share of the profits. Yet Kremlin policymakers believe that the Taliban’s position on the illegal drug trade is negotiable. This conclusion is based on Moscow’s past success in forging deals with the Taliban. Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, successfully negotiated the release of seven hostages from Taliban control in 1996, and seeks to use knowledge gleaned from that experience to extract more concessions from the Taliban.

As Russian diplomatic overtures give the Taliban critical international legitimacy, Kabulov could make continued Russian diplomatic recognition of the Taliban conditional on the organization suspending its drug sales to Russia. If Moscow can prove that it can successfully strike a deal with Taliban on drug trafficking, Putin will achieve a major diplomatic victory that could greatly bolster Russia’s bargaining position in future negotiations on Afghanistan’s political future.

In addition to exploiting the Taliban’s leverage over drug exports destined for the CIS region, Russia believes that the Taliban is a useful counterterrorism partner due to its opposition to the Islamic State (ISIS). In December 2015, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova revealed that Moscow engaged in intelligence sharing with the Taliban to help the Taliban vanquish the 3,000 ISIS members who reside in Afghanistan.

Over the past year, Putin has highlighted Moscow’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against ISIS and anti-American foreign policy orientation to deepen Russian anti-ISIS cooperation with the Taliban. To keep this cooperation outside the international spotlight, Russia has held negotiations with the Taliban on ISIS in Tajikistan’s Kunduz province.

Citing a high-level Taliban official, The Daily Beast reported in October 2015 that Moscow also encouraged Tajik intelligence operatives to facilitate the shipment of Russian arms to the Taliban. This revelation, if true, would flagrantly contradict Russia’s pledge to uphold the international arms embargo against the Taliban.

While the extent of Russian military assistance to the Taliban against ISIS remains unclear, Moscow’s counterterrorism cooperation with the Taliban has further undercut international confidence in the Afghan government’s ability to combat ISIS. Russia’s ability to cooperate with both the Afghan government and the Taliban on counterterrorism also gives it a unique advantage over NATO countries, which have used military force to contain the Taliban’s resurgence and relied exclusively on Ghani’s cooperation against ISIS.

Even though Russia’s diplomatic overtures toward the Taliban have received extensive international criticism and could undercut Moscow’s burgeoning alliance with India, Russian policymakers continue to support Taliban participation in Afghanistan’s reconstruction process and cooperate with the Taliban on security issues. If the Taliban continues to recapture territory in southern Afghanistan and make a push for control of Kabul, Russia will be uniquely placed to have a decisive role in shaping Afghanistan’s political future.

Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who writes regularly for the Washington Post and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.