On October 19, 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered an address at the 14th annual Valdai Club meeting in Sochi. Even though the war in Afghanistan was not a major theme of Putin’s speech, many international media outlets drew attention to the presence of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the audience.
Karzai’s attendance at Putin’s Valdai speech underscored his important role in advancing Russian objectives in Afghanistan. Karzai’s conciliatory attitude toward the Kremlin since leaving office in 2014 has surprised some observers, as Afghanistan-Russia relations during his presidency were marred by periodic tensions.
During the early 2000s, Karzai criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin for supplying arms to Panjshiri Tajik factions that were trying to destabilize his government. Tensions between Kabul and Moscow peaked in 2010 when Karzai stridently criticized Russia for participating in a major anti-narcotics raid without his permission. Russia’s investments in Afghanistan’s economic reconstruction initiatives resulted in improved Kabul-Moscow relations during the latter years of Karzai’s presidency, and contributed to Karzai’s pro-Kremlin rhetoric since leaving office.
In addition to these investment initiatives, three other major factors explain the close relationship between Karzai and Kremlin officials. First, Karzai’s criticisms of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan has allowed him to be an effective spokesperson for Russia’s geopolitical agenda in the war-torn country. In recent months, Karzai has called the Islamic State a tool of the United States, labeled Afghan President Ashraf Ghani as a traitor for acquiescing to Washington’s MOAB strike in April, and argued that the Trump administration’s new Afghanistan strategy is fueling Islamic extremism in the country.
Karzai’s attacks on the United States closely resemble Russia’s criticisms of Washington’s counterterrorism strategy and propensity to use force unilaterally in Afghanistan. As a result of this synergy in perspectives, Karzai has expressed open support for Russia’s efforts to push for an all-inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan.
After meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on April 25, Karzai’s representatives released a statement praising Russia’s peacekeeping initiatives in Afghanistan and willingness to diplomatically engage with the Taliban. On October 11, Karzai elaborated on this statement further by urging the United States to cooperate with Russia in the Afghanistan conflict to avoid a geopolitical rivalry that worsens the quality of life of the Afghan people.
As Karzai is widely believed to still harbor political aspirations, Russian policymakers are hoping that Ghani will seek to neutralize the challenge the former president poses to his authority by integrating elements of Karzai’s foreign policy platform into Afghan decision-making. The Kremlin’s support for Karzai aims to pressure Ghani to diplomatically engage the Taliban, and grant Russia a more high-profile arbitration role than it currently possesses.
Second, Karzai’s support for cautious diplomatic dialogue between Afghanistan and Pakistan aligns closely with Moscow’s contention that Islamabad can play a constructive role in the resolution of the Afghan political crisis. Russian policymakers believe that Karzai is an ideal advocate for cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, due to a series of favorable developments in the Kabul-Islamabad bilateral relationship that occurred during the latter period of hispresidency.
After the fall of Pervez Musharraf’s military regime in August 2008, Karzai worked to improve relations with Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government. This diplomatic outreach culminated in an Afghanistan-Pakistan Free Trade Agreement in 2011, and successful negotiations between Kabul and Islamabad that allowed NATO forces in Afghanistan to strike targets held by Pakistani militant groups.
This rapprochement in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations has given way to renewed tensions between the two countries under Ghani’s leadership. In May 2015, the Afghan government expressed support for a deepened alliance with Pakistan that included cooperation between both countries’ security services. This approach was highly unpopular in Afghanistan and condemned by Karzai as threatening to Afghan democracy. To mitigate the backlash that resulted from this rapprochement with Islamabad, Ghani scathingly criticized Pakistan for being a safe haven for terrorism and actively supporting Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgency.
In light of Kabul’s anti-Pakistan tilt, Russia’s outreach to Karzai should be viewed as a means of encouraging him to act as a voice of moderation towards Islamabad. As Karzai has called for a “policy of friendship” with Pakistan, while resisting Islamabad’s links to terror networks in Afghanistan, Russian policymakers are hoping that Karzai’s links to senior members of the Afghan political establishment will steer Ghani towards revived diplomacy with Pakistan.
Third, Russia’s dialogue with Karzai is aimed at convincing the Afghan government and international community that Moscow’s diplomatic outreach to the Taliban is not aimed at exacerbating political instability in Afghanistan. Russian policymakers have sought to deflect from criticisms of Moscow’s Afghanistan policy by emphasizing that Western countries frequently engage in dialogue with the Taliban.
As Ekaterina Stepanova, the head of Peace and Conflict Studies at Moscow’s IMEMO institute, noted in our recent interview, Russia is a relative late-comer in diplomatically engaging the Taliban, and Moscow’s approach has been emulated by the United States and United Kingdom in the past. Karzai has given credibility to Russia’s official position by claiming that U.S. diplomats frequently talk to Taliban officials in Qatar, and that European countries, like Norway and Germany, have held extensive talks with the Taliban.
In addition, Karzai’s position on U.S. military strikes against the Taliban strikingly resembles the Kremlin’s position on this issue. In August 2016, Karzai argued that members of the Afghan security forces who support U.S. bombings of Taliban targets are countering the wishes of the Afghan people. Karzai also described the killing of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in June 2016 as a negative development that hinders the pursuit of peace in Afghanistan. These statements have strengthened trust between Karzai and Moscow, and highlighted the former president’s usefulness as a communicator of Russia’s diplomatic interests.
Even though relations between Hamid Karzai’s government and the Kremlin were occasionally fractious during his tenure as president, Karzai has consistently advanced Russian policy objectives in Afghanistan since his handover of power to Ghani in 2014. The close synergy between Karzai’s political agenda and Moscow’s ambitions for influence in Afghanistan suggest that Karzai will continue to be a valued partner for Russian officials for years to come.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.