Close watchers of Afghanistan may recognize the name Zamir Kabulov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s presidential envoy to the country. Kabulov’s been on the scene for a while in Afghanistan, with a career dating back to the Soviet Union’s occupation of the country in the 1980s, when he was a low-ranking diplomat at the Soviet embassy and, by one account, eventually the top KGB agent in the country. More recently, he served as the Russian ambassador and, in his current capacity, has played an important role in shaping and communicating Russian policy toward both Afghanistan and Pakistan — particularly since the formal end of U.S. combat operations in the country in late 2014.
On Saturday, Turkey’s Anadolu Agency ran an exclusive interview with the Russian diplomat that’s quite revealing with regard to where Russian policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan may be heading in 2016. Kabulov’s comments in the interview additionally help rationalize and explain some of the actions Moscow took in 2016 and even earlier on. The full interview is available here.
First, what’s most striking about the interview — at least to me — was Kabulov’s tendency to speak like an old Soviet diplomatic hand, concerned with the geopolitical balance of power in the Asian heartland. For instance, Kabulov speaks at length about the United States’ audacity in continuing to maintain a troop presence in Afghanistan, expressing concern that Afghanistan is effectively a buffer state of sort on Russia’s door step. (Geographically speaking, Afghanistan borders the former Soviet Socialist Republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, but not the Russian Federation, which Kabulov represents.)
Asked if he finds the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan disturbing Kabulov replies emphatically: “Of course … 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.”
Second, if you followed Afghanistan last year, you may recall reports that Russia was slowly and cautiously ramping up engagement with the Taliban. (Samuel Ramani took a closer look at this last week.) In late 2015, there were reports that Moscow was even sharing limited intelligence with the armed insurgent group to counter their common adversary: the Islamic State. Kabulov drops the pretense of engagement with the Taliban around shared interests and delves into territory that is unlike anything I’ve seen in a statement by a Russian official on Afghanistan over the past year.
Specifically, Kabulov paints the Taliban has a benign and fractured organization, with “radical” and more mainstream elements. The latter point is certainly true, but only as a technical distinction. For instance, Kabulov says the Haqqani Network are out of bounds for cooperation, but that the remainder of the more mainstream Taliban are fair game considering their limited ambitions in fighting “crusaders.” Kabulov adds: “My short answer is that today the Taliban is predominately a local force,” ostensibly suggesting that cooperation with the group won’t lead to blowback for Russia. For Moscow, the Islamic State is now the primary blowback concern. (Casey Michel outlined Kabulov’s exaggerations regarding the extent of the Islamic State threat in the country for The Diplomat last year.)
Third, Kabulov’s remarks on the state of the Taliban’s involvement in Afghanistan’s booming drug trade is revealing and helps underwrite hypotheses that Moscow sees the group’s cultivation of opium as, ultimately, a topic for negotiation. Russia has moved on from seeing the Taliban as a potential source of support and incubation for separatist Chechen rebels within its own territory and more as a potential ally in stemming the flow of Afghan opium into its own territory. Kabulov alludes to this in the interview, outlining how opium cultivation in Afghanistan increased under the U.S./NATO occupation, with the group seeing opium as a pragmatic ends to acquiring revenue to fund an insurgency. “America is the godfather of drug production in Afghanistan,” Kabulov says.
What goes unsaid in the interview is equally interesting. For instance, Kabulov doesn’t directly address Russia’s plans for its relationship with Pakistan, which Moscow has long appreciated as a source of support for the Taliban and other groups threatening the writ of the Western-backed government in Kabul. Russian rapprochement with Pakistan — long a U.S. client state — has shifted in recent years, beginning with the lifting of the unilateral arms embargo against Islamabad in 2014. While that move was ostensibly a practical one in the aftermath of Moscow’s international isolation following the annexation of Crimea, cooperation has expanded. The two countries held their first bilateral military exercise in late-2016, to the concern of Russia’s longtime partner India.
Kabulov’s name was at the center of many of those efforts. For example, he was instrumental in communicating Russian intent ahead of the exercises with Pakistan. Kabulov also came to Islamabad’s defense following the recent Heart of Asia 2016 conference in Amritsar, India, where Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi directly criticized Pakistan for providing sanctuary to armed extremist groups. Kabulov pushed back against the criticisms levied against Pakistan and commended Sartaj Aziz, the Pakistani prime minister’s advisor on foreign affairs. Despite Indian concern over the Russo-Pakistani rapprochement, Moscow and New Delhi continue to confer bilaterally and trilaterally with China over Afghanistan. Moreover, Russian cooperation with the internationally backed Ghani government in Afghanistan continues, with Moscow selling important equipment to the Afghan National Army including attack helicopters and assault rifles that would directly abet the Afghan struggle against the Taliban.
Kabulov, more so than any other senior diplomat in the Russian Foreign Ministry, is deeply acquainted with Afghanistan, with three decades of experience. He brings a level of familiarity with the Taliban that few Western diplomats can claim to possess — he personally met the group’s reclusive former leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar in the mid-1990s. He’s additionally at the center of Moscow’s ongoing recalibration toward the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, which has caused concern in Kabul, New Delhi, and Washington alike. If Moscow’s outreach to the Taliban persists, the group stands to gain important international legitimacy that could undercut ongoing efforts to pursue negotiations toward a political solution based on peaceful reconciliation in Afghanistan. (The Taliban see themselves as a government-in-exile.)
Whatever the extent of Russia’s plans for the Taliban, Moscow hasn’t given up on the Ghani government just yet. If anything, Kabulov’s remarks make it clear that the outreach is a combination of Moscow hedging its bets, striving to counter U.S. influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia, and, on a more practical level, stemming the outflow of drugs from Afghanistan. Given all this, expect to see the Russo-Taliban rapprochement intensify through 2017, with potentially deleterious consequences for Ghani’s government.