Russia’s Falling Out With Kabul

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Russia’s Falling Out With Kabul

Russia’s embrace of the Taliban is increasingly coming at the expense of Afghan President Ghani’s government.

Russia’s Falling Out With Kabul
Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Service

On May 27, a delegation of Afghan politicians, led by former President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai, and representatives of the Taliban’s Qatar office congregated in Moscow to celebrate 100 years of Russia-Afghanistan diplomatic relations. After a series of discussions, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged the swift withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and called for the intensification of intra-Afghan dialogue in pursuit of peace.

Although this summit reaffirmed Russia’s desire to play an influential role in the resolution of the war in Afghanistan, the event sparked controversy in Kabul as no representatives of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government were present in the audience. The absence of Ghani’s representatives at the talks was unsurprising to close followers of Russian policy in Afghanistan, as Moscow’s relationship with the internationally recognized Afghan government has worsened in recent months. This deterioration was caused by Ghani’s frustration with Russia’s bypassing of the Afghan government in peace negotiations and Moscow’s increased openness to the Taliban playing a major role in shaping Afghanistan’s political future.

Since Russia hosted its first major diplomatic summit on Afghanistan in December 2016, Ghani-aligned officials have expressed discontent with Moscow’s willingness to sidestep the Afghan government. On December 26, 2016, Afghan officials described Russia’s decision to host representatives of China and Pakistan for a discussion of the Afghanistan conflict in Moscow without Afghan government representation as “illegitimate and dubious,” and openly warned Russia against meddling in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. In response to these criticisms, Russian officials invited Afghan government representatives to the six-party talks hosted in Moscow in February 2017, and argued that any intra-Afghan peace process must accept the leading role of Kabul. This summit saw Russia embrace a balancing strategy between Ghani’s government and the Taliban, to bolster its influence over the conflict resolution process.

Although Russia largely adhered to this balancing strategy in the months that followed, the breakdown of the scheduled September 2018 Moscow-format peace negotiations on Afghanistan tested Russia’s commitment to engaging with Kabul. While Lavrov initially accommodated Ghani’s reservations by postponing the talks, the November 2018 Moscow-format talks and February 2019 conference with the Taliban revealed Russia’s willingness to engage in intra-Afghan diplomacy without the presence of Ghani’s government. During these negotiations, Russia engaged directly with former Karzai and former National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar, who will run against Ghani in Afghanistan’s upcoming presidential elections.

Russia’s marginalization of Ghani’s government in its pursuit of peace has been criticized in Kabul. Ahead of the February 2019 talks, Afghan MP Fariba Ahmadi Kakar warned that Russia’s engagement with Afghan opposition factions in the absence of the Afghan government would complicate the peace process, as it would drive wedges between anti-Taliban Afghan policymakers. The Afghan Foreign Ministry supported this view by predicting that the negotiations would not facilitate peace in Afghanistan and urging Russia to accept an Afghan-led settlement. Former Afghan Minister of the Interior Amrullah Saleh displayed his discontent with the May 27 talks in even more stark terms, by sarcastically stating that “Russian experts of human studies had a stunning experience,” and alleging that Afghan opposition figures who traveled to Moscow betrayed the public.

The reduced willingness of the United States to confront Russia on its exclusion of the Afghan government from its peace talks has compounded the challenge Moscow-held negotiations pose to Ghani’s legitimacy. While the United States rejected an offer from Russia to participate in Kremlin-backed negotiations with the Taliban in August 2018, the U.S. Department of State sent a delegate to the November 9 Moscow-format negotiations and U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, traveled to Moscow for a trilateral summit with China in late April. This suggests that Russia’s diplomatic processes are gaining more widespread international acceptance and will reduce the likelihood of Moscow changing its conduct to suit Ghani’s preferences.

Russia’s willingness to accept a more prominent role for the Taliban in Afghanistan’s political system has also caused consternation in Kabul. To assuage Afghan government concerns about Russia’s engagement with the Taliban, Russian officials have repeatedly emphasized that they are only communicating with the Taliban to facilitate peace in Afghanistan and will not form a partnership with the Taliban, as it is a Kremlin-designated terrorist organization. These claims were viewed skeptically in Afghanistan due to U.S. allegations that Russia has transferred small arms to the Taliban but were not overtly challenged in the Afghan government’s official discourse on Russian peace efforts.

Since the February 2019 peace negotiations, Russia has pivoted away from this limited partnership approach to engagement with the Taliban, in favor of a comprehensive relationship-building effort. This shift was triggered in part by a diplomatic blunder, as a senior Taliban official explicitly contradicted Russia’s denials that these talks were government-backed, but also reflect Moscow’s broader reassessment of Afghanistan’s political trajectory. As Russian policymakers believe the Taliban is on the ascendancy, they want to establish closer relations with the organization and work with the Taliban on combating the Islamic State, which directly threatens Russia’s national security.

The joint calls from Lavrov and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan at the May 27 talks reflected their synergies in perspectives on conflict resolution. After this display of common purpose, Oleg Barabanov, an influential foreign policy analyst at the Valdai Discussion Club, postulated that Russia should promote the notion of a “trustworthy Taliban,” as the “friend-foe” stereotypes in Afghanistan had been jettisoned. While Ghani has offered the Taliban eventual political recognition as a carrot to participate in the peace talks, this cordial rhetoric is at odds with the opinions of many influential figures in Kabul, like Amrullah Saleh, who recently described the Taliban as having “scorpion genes” and possessing “Bronze Age logic.”

Although influential Afghan political figures, like Kabul governor Mohammed Yaqub Heidari, continue to emphasize the Afghan government’s close relationship with Russia, tensions between Russian policymakers and Ghani’s government have risen in recent months. As Russia continues to court Afghan opposition figures in peace negotiations and engage the Taliban without the presence of Afghan government representatives, this discord is likely to sully Moscow-Kabul relations for the foreseeable future.

Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy. He can be followed on Twitter@samramani2.