Peace and security in Afghanistan is one of the important international issues which have engaged many countries, including its neighbors in Central Asia. Afghanistan’s Geographical proximity and common borders with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in Central Asia, which according to Russia’s political and security strategy are considered as its near borders and sphere of vital interests, have given Afghanistan a prominent status in Russia’s security and foreign policy. Based on this, Russia’s top priority in its relations with Afghanistan is generally the issue of security, which after all has a meaningful link with Russia’s geopolitical approach in the region and world. Security and geopolitics, along with a background of economic cooperation, especially in the field of underground mines, transportation and military arms have doubled the importance of Afghanistan in Russia’s foreign policy and has caused the country to closely watch Afghanistan’s developments and try to play its role as one of the main actors on the stage.
Afghanistan’s Importance for Russia
Afghanistan, particularly since the second half of the 19th century, has been a playing ground for geopolitical competition between the Tsarist Russia and the Great Britain empire and the rivalry continued into the second half of the 20th century, this time between the US and Russia in the bipolar system. Military occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet forces at the beginning of the 1980s and their defeat and pullout from the country in 1988, shortly followed by the USSR dissolution, brought with them insecurity to Afghanistan, whose impacts on Russia’s neighboring proximity, especially the newly-independent Central Asian states, were inevitable.
In addition to security issues, economy and geopolitics too are of paramount importance for Russia. Afghanistan is some country rich in minerals, and based on the geological exploratory operations conducted during the Soviet Union era, its intact mineral reserves, including in the rare minerals, could amount to over $1 trillion. On the other hand, the country’s capacities in other sectors, especially in transportation, have further stressed its importance. The geopolitical rivalry, given the preliminary collaboration between Russia and America ae well as Nato which will be pointed out later, is one of the importantly influential issues in Russia’s approach toward Afghanistan.
Russia’s Approach Toward Afghanistan Before and After 2001
The emergence of Taliban and conquest of Kabul by this group in 1996 is considered a turning point for the new Russia’s serious attention to Afghanistan; a subject rooted in Russia’s concerns about the spread of radical Islam among its population of Muslims and also among the Muslim Central Asian countries, leading the security threats infiltrating across the Russian borders. These worries led Russia to support the anti-Taliban front in Afghanistan and in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan by the US and allies, Russia stood behind the US with all its logistic and intelligence capacities and helped in their successful military operation in Afghanistan. Also, the importance of Taliban’s defeat for the Russians was so great that it allowed the US to establish military bases in its backyard in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
After the formation of the central government in Afghanistan led by Hamid Karzai in 2002, Russia’s policy was supporting the government; a policy pursued in the first term of Ghani’s administration in a relatively different manner. Russia’s foreign policy’s main index during this period was coordination with the west for countering the Taliban, despite some differences including Nato’s expansion to the east and occurrence of color revolutions in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Between 2009 and 2011, based on the Northern Distribution Network(NDN), a large part of the ISAF forces’ fuel and civilian items were transported to Afghanistan through Russia. Also during this period, opening the Russian and Central Asian Air spaces on the US and Nato aircraft led to high amounts of military equipment and personnel being sent to Afghanistan through this route, but these actions not only did not weaken the Taliban , but also by their regaining dominance over large swathes of land in Afghanistan, a new stage of Russia’s foreign policy toward Afghanistan began.
Taliban’s victory in various regions of Afghanistan and the failure of the central government in blocking their advance are among the factors changing Russia’s approach toward Afghanistan. Especially since the presence of the allies in Afghanistan in 2001, the production of narcotics, the most important financial lifeline to the Taliban, had quadrupled up to 2017. According to its formal statement, Russia has been in contact with Taliban since 2015, although western sources like REUTERS claim the contacts trace back to 2007. Anyway, the Russian authorities accept that the contacts have been in place since 2015 and Mr.Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s special representative in Afghanistan, confirmed in December of 2015 the Russian side had had contacts with the Taliban and there had been transfer of intelligence between them.
The open announcement of relations between Russia and Taliban cannot be analyzed separate from the crucial developments in that same year. The Ukrainian crisis and annexation of Crimea to Russia, the ISIS gaining momentum in Iraq and Syria, Russia dispatching forces to Syria for fighting the ISIS and terrorist groups were incidents that intensified the Russian and west rifts that led to draconian sanctions on Russia by the US and Europe. On the other hand, some developments in Afghanistan, such as Taliban’s advance in various regions, revival of ISIS, spread of insecurity and the jump in the production of narcotics were a sign of the reality that the US-led allies’ forces whether failed in countering the developments or were unable to seriously face the developments.
Anyway, Russia’s change of behavior toward Afghanistan, especially in talks with Taliban during the years between 2016 and 2020 has taken an opener aspect. Zamir Kabulov, Putin’s special envoy to Afghanistan, openly affirmed in January 2016 that Taliban’s interests were in complete compliance with those of Russia. He also added that,” The Taliban of Afghanistan and Pakistan have said that they do not recognize ISIS and Al Baghdadi as the ISIS caliph and this is so important. We have communication channels between us and the Taliban.”
Russia’s Actions Simultaneous with US Movements
Russia has simultaneously put on its agenda two formal and informal talks frameworks about Afghanistan since 2016. In the formal part it planned and held trilateral talks with Russia and China, in the Quadrilateral talks with China, Pakistan and America, in six parties talks with China, Iran, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and also in the 6+2 meeting (Afghanistan’s neighbors plus Russia and America) and complementary talks by including all Central Asian states. At the same time, the inter-Afghan talks were among the most important Russian initiatives, of which holding the November 2018 meeting attended by the Taliban representatives was a turning point, a step disliked by the American side and the Afghan government, and despite the presence of some members of the High Peace council, the Afghan government did not formally participate at the meeting.
In explaining why the Russian policy toward Afghanistan reactivated, numerous reasons can be pointed out, some are as follows:
- ISIS activation in Afghanistan and concerns about the group’s security threats in Central Asia, and consequently in Russia.
- The start of the US-Taliban peace negotiations in Doha in 2018, aimed at gradual western forces pullout from the country, while unrest in Afghanistan had intensified.
- The US negotiations with China and Pakistan at the outset, and ignoring Russia in the Peace Negotiations, which amounted to not recognizing Russia even as a regional power.
- Intensification of the geopolitical rivalries between Russia and the west in Ukraine and Syria and Russia’s effort to keep the US engaged in Afghanistan to better manage other areas of rivalry.
- On the other side, understanding Afghanistan’s neighbors’ capacities and the fact that no negotiation and talk would yield results without their presence, in a planned action, Russia included them in the negotiations at later stages. Included was creating a negotiating framework with China and Pakistan at the first stages and ignoring the Afghan government and two important neighbors, Iran and India, which was reformed and completed at later stages. Also, another Russian effort was participating at the Doha negotiations and including the US in the Russian initiatives, a thing seemingly failing to persuade America to give Russia a considerable status at the Doha peace negotiations.
The developments in Afghanistan, which has been engaged in war with the foreign occupying forces and civil wars for more than four decades, are of great importance to the neighboring countries. Unrest, extremism, production of narcotics and illegal immigration along with the presence of the US and Nato forces have increased countries’ sensitivity in the Afghanistan developments. Although the priority of security caused expanded cooperation between Russia and the US-led allies’ forces in the first decade of the new millennium, Russia’s geopolitical competition with the US in the second decade, especially since 2015, gained the upper hand. In addition, Russia felt that Taliban’s strengthening and the ISIL presence in Afghanistan, beyond the US and allies’ superficial measures, were troubling elements for the countries in the neighboring surroundings of Afghanistan.
In doing so, Russia, as a country which for decades has influenced the developments in Afghanistan and been influenced by them, while taking steps to secure its security, has tried to play an active role in shaping the Afghanistan developments against the rival US and Nato power’s unilateral behavior. Creating a negotiations-oriented atmosphere among the Afghan groups with the participation of Taliban in Moscow and holding formal talks with the Afghan government and neighboring states are among the important steps taken by Russia, parallel with the US step of Doha Peace Negotiations with the Taliban. However, the final Doha peace agreement was signed by the US, a thing that provoked Russia’s different position expressed by the speaker of the Russian foreign ministry on 3 December this year. Ms. Maria Zakharova, pointing to the fact that the US and its forces were not in Afghanistan of their own volition and were under the mandate of the security council, stated,” I wish to know what they have been doing during their long years of presence in Afghanistan, and without the intention to ridicule, I want to say what have they achieved? Because the situation is so grave in that country. There is a high number of fatalities among the military and civilians out there. How many crimes have been perpetrated during the presence of the western forces in Afghanistan that have been hidden from the public? They should know that they have to be accountable for their actions. There must be negotiations at the security council and the world community which has authorized operations in Afghanistan is entitled to know what actions have been done in the country.”
Ali Akbar Jokar, Top Expert at Central Asia and Caucasus Studies
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)