From July 11 to 12, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad met with senior diplomats from Russia, China, and Pakistan in Beijing to discuss the resolution of the war in Afghanistan. U.S. officials viewed the summit favorably, and Khalilzad stated that the outcome of the negotiations was “very positive.” After the conclusion of the talks, all four countries reached an agreement on the need for “a permanent ceasefire that starts with intra-Afghan negotiations.”
As Russia and the United States have clashed over Afghanistan due to Moscow’s alleged arms provisions to the Taliban and the Kremlin’s willingness to host peace negotiations that excluded Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government, the productive dialogue between American and Russian diplomats in Beijing was a significant milestone. In spite of these talks and recent statements from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Russian President Vladimir Putin that acknowledge the value of U.S.-Russia dialogue on Afghanistan, substantive cooperation between the two countries on ending the war remains elusive.
The most contentious issue that separates the American and Russian perspectives is what constitutes a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. As the United States, Russia, and China recently discussed a potential American military withdrawal if the Taliban pledged not to harbor terrorist groups, Moscow hoped that an agreement with the Taliban on this issue would cause the U.S. to completely depart from Afghanistan. Russia’s perspective has gained little traction in Washington, however, as U.S. President Donald Trump’s July 2 calls for the long-term retention of a “very strong intelligence presence” in Afghanistan underscored the U.S. military’s preference for a limited withdrawal.
This chasm in perspectives ensured that Trump’s July 2 comments were negatively received in Moscow. Russian state media coverage highlighted the contradiction between Trump’s Afghanistan policy and his desire to prevent the United States from being the world’s policeman. Sergei Balsamov, a Moscow-based expert on Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs, claimed that Trump’s announcement was motivated by pressure from Congress and his preoccupation with avoiding “mistakes” that could jeopardize his re-election prospects. Dmitry Mikheyev, a prominent Russian commentator on U.S. foreign policy, stated that Trump’s announcement revealed that his Afghanistan policy did not differ from that of previous administrations.
Russia also stridently opposes the increase in American private security personnel in Afghanistan. In an August 2017 interview with Izvestiya, the Russian president’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, described U.S. plans to deploy armed security contractors as “inappropriate” and claimed that the failure of U.S. troops to stabilize Afghanistan meant that private security deployments would be similarly ineffective. Since Khalilzad intensified his outreach to Russia in December 2018, Russian officials have kept silent on the presence of American armed security contractors. However, Russia’s consistent emphasis on the need for the U.S. to completely withdraw from Afghanistan suggests that Moscow’s position has likely remained consistent.
If the United States and Russia cannot reach a common understanding on what an American withdrawal from Afghanistan entails, Moscow could attempt to undermine the performance of residual U.S. personnel through information warfare and expanded military involvement in Central Asia. Russia’s re-emergence as a major diplomatic player in Afghanistan, with the inception of the Moscow-format talks in early 2017, has corresponded with an intensified disinformation campaign against the U.S. mission. Russian state media outlet Sputnik has a Dari language website that spreads pro-Kremlin narratives to an Afghan audience. One frequently referenced conspiracy theory in the Russian state media is the contention that the U.S. wants to maintain a foothold in Afghanistan to secure access to Central Asia’s mineral resources and Iran’s oil and gas reserves. Russian media outlets also contend that the United States has deployed armed security contractors to profit from an endless war in Afghanistan. To enhance the credibility of their reports, Russian state media outlets frequently interview Afghan politicians and security experts who harbor anti-American sentiments that are shared by large sections of the local population.
In addition to delegitimizing the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan through information warfare, Russia will likely try to encircle remaining U.S. troops through expanded military involvement in Central Asia. On June 21, Russia announced its decision to upgrade its aerial defenses in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, in order to respond to the threat posed by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). On June 27, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev announced Moscow’s intention to strengthen Tajikistan’s army and security forces at a Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) meeting in Bishkek. Patrushev justified this decision by emphasizing the threat posed by the return of Islamic State militants from Iraq and Syria to northern Afghanistan. The expansion of Russia’s military presence in Central Asia increases the likelihood of Moscow launching unilateral counterterrorism or anti-narcotics missions, which might disrupt U.S. objectives.
Although a new round of talks between the U.S., Russia, and China is scheduled to be held in Moscow in late July, it remains uncertain whether the United Statesand Russia will be able to reach a common understanding on what an American withdrawal from Afghanistan entails. The editor of Russia in Global Affairs magazine, Fyodor Lukyanov, cautioned readers of Moscow-based business daily Vedomosti in February that U.S.-Russia dialogue on Afghanistan remains a “mere exchange of mutual services when something is needed on narrow topics,” rather than a platform for genuine cooperation. This sobering assessment underscores the obstacles to U.S.-Russia collaboration on stabilizing Afghanistan and will likely remain a geopolitical reality, unless Washington and Moscow can strike a deal on a mutually accepted U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
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 is a geopolitical analyst and commentator who regularly contributes to the Washington Post and The National Interest. He can be followed on Twitter @samramani2