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From foe to friend

Waslat Hasrat-Nazimi / sri
March 2, 2016

More than two decades after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Moscow is once again seeking to play a major role in the country by boosting military and economic cooperation with Kabul. DW examines.

Präsident Wladimir Putin Russland mit Präsident Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai Afghanistan
Image: picture-alliance/A. Druzhinin/RIA Novosti

Russia and Afghanistan have become friends again, putting behind their past enmity and bitter memories from the decade-long Soviet occupation of the South Asian country. The two countries today share good relations, and they even signed a security agreement last year.

Just recently, Moscow gave 10,000 Kalashnikov rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition to the Afghan government. And further Russian military and economic aid is expected to flow to Kabul.

Although Russia hasn't engaged militarily in Afghanistan since the start of the US-led invasion of the country in 2001, Moscow has provided logistical support for the reconstruction of the war-torn nation. This cooperation was formally institutionalized by the NATO-Russia Council.

Increasing engagement

However, after Russia's relations with the West soured following the Ukraine conflict, Moscow decided to become active and expand its role in Afghanistan, said Omar Nessar, the director of the Moscow-based Center for Contemporary Afghan Studies (CISA). "Russia has sought closer ties with the Afghan government in a bid to help shape the events on the ground," he told DW, pointing to Moscow's military aid and economic investment in the country.

Furthermore, Russia plans to support Afghanistan's housing sector, as indicated by Zamir Kabulov, a department chief at Russia's Foreign Ministry and President Vladimir Putin's special envoy to Afghanistan, during his meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on February 29.

Afghanistan, in turn, has welcomed economic support not only from Russia, but also China, as Western nations continue their drawdown from the impoverished nation.

China is also playing a major role in the so far indirect peace talks held with the Taliban.

While Russia officially favors peace talks with the Taliban, it remains skeptical about whether the negotiations could begin soon. Nevertheless, Kabulov called on the Taliban to take part in the talks. During his recent visit to Kabul, he insisted that only the Afghan government was empowered to lead the peace talks with the militants.

"Russia shares friendly relations with the Afghan government, but it has no confidence in the China and US-mediated peace talks with the Taliban," said Javid Ahmad, a South Asia expert at Yale University. "The Russians are more interested in a parallel diplomatic effort led by Moscow to promote their own interests." But experts say Russia has found a rather unusual partner in this attempt, in the form of the Taliban.

A double game?

Russia's interests in Afghanistan "objectively coincide" with those of the Taliban, Kabulov told journalists in Moscow in January. He noted that the Russian government has been in contact with the Taliban to exchange information about the so-called Islamic State (IS) terrorist group, which has been seeking to increase its presence in the country.

Yale analyst Ahmad says the Russians view IS as a bigger threat to their interests. "That's why they have embraced their former nemesis: the Taliban, as a hedge against the growing influence of IS in the neighborhood," he pointed out.

A September 2015 UN report said IS fighters were operating in 25 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. Many of these militants are former Taliban members. It is estimated that there are currently some 3,000 IS fighters in the country.

"This is a calculated, and at the same time, dangerous approach, which not only has far-reaching consequences for the security of Afghanistan, but could also lead to a proxy war," said Ahmad. However, he cautioned, any material support provided to the Taliban also means that UN sanctions have been violated.

But CISA analyst Nessar views this as an exaggeration. "All regional and world powers have established contact with the Taliban," said the expert. "Whether it is Pakistan, Japan, China or Iran, all countries have the right to contact the Taliban. Why shouldn't this also apply to Russia?"

According to Nessar, it is Western and Afghan media that often distort and misinterpret Kabulov's statements. "The goal is to undermine the trust between these two countries and prevent renewed Russian engagement in Afghanistan," said Nessar, pointing out that Russia still faces strong enemies in Afghanistan.

Amu Darya instead of Wolga

Nonetheless, Russia fears that terrorist groups could infiltrate Central Asia. According to Afghan security officials, hundreds of terrorists from Arab nations, along with Chechens, Uighurs, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Pakistanis from the bordering area of North Waziristan have come through the bordering area of North Waziristan to Afghanistan to fight.

As a result, over the past year northern Afghanistan has become the scene of bloody battles. The provincial capital of Kunduz, located some 70 kilometers from the Tajik border, fell into Taliban hands for a few days. Rumors have been circulating that it was Russia's material support of the Taliban which enabled the fall of city in the first place.

Russia is also concerned about having that many terrorist fighters so close to its borders. To prevent them from entering, Moscow has decided to support and train the Tajik Army.

"We'd rather fight the Islamists on the Amu Darya than on the Volga," Kabulov told Russian news agency Interfax early this year. Perhaps this could become the slogan of the renewed Russian-Afghan friendship.

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