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Russia increases involvement in Afghanistan

Masood Saifullah
January 3, 2017

An increased Russian involvement in Afghanistan has surprised many observers. What does Moscow want to achieve in the war-torn country? After Syria, is another US-Russia conflict being played out in a different arena?

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

Lately, Russia has increased its involvement in Afghanistan. For many experts, this is surprising, because Moscow had maintained an apparent distance from the Afghan conflict for many years. In fact, Russia even supported the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the subsequent toppling of the Taliban regime. At the time, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai rightly said that Afghanistan was probably the only place where the interests of Moscow and Washington didn't clash.

But a new geopolitical situation is emerging in the region, and it seems that Russia has decided not to remain "neutral" in the protracted conflict wracking the Asian country. The recent tripartite meeting in Moscow involving China, Pakistan and Russia to discuss Afghanistan's security is just one example of Russia's growing interest.

Russia first established contacts with the Taliban leadership in 2007 to discuss the issue of drug trafficking through Central Asian countries that share borders with Afghanistan. Now there are reports that Moscow is again in contact with the Taliban. But this time the Moscow-Taliban contacts are not limited to talks on drug trafficking, according to analysts. Russia, they say, realizes the US policies in Afghanistan have failed, and therefore wants to intervene.

"Russia may have been chased out of Afghanistan several decades ago, but now it appears keen to re-enter the scene in a big way," Michael Kugelman, an expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told DW.

Stopping IS

Russia fears that Afghanistan may become another safe haven for the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) militant group after Iraq and Syria. Experts say Moscow wants to make sure that doesn't happen in close proximity to Central Asia.

Afghanistan Taliban Kämpfer in der Ghazni Provinz
Russian officials are in contact with the Taliban leadership, according to media reportsImage: Reuters

"Russian President Vladimir Putin considers the IS presence in Afghanistan a big threat to his country's interests," Ahmad Saidi, a former Afghan diplomat, told DW.

Saidi says the mutual fear of IS has brought the Taliban and Russians closer. The Taliban fighters and IS jihadists have been engaged in skirmishes across Afghanistan for the past two years. Both groups are seeking dominance in the country.

But Kugelman is of the view that Russia is taking a risk by turning to the Taliban. "Russia is strengthening a non-state actor that is a formidable rival of IS, a terrorist group that worries Russia a whole lot," said Kugelman.

The expert, however, underlines that neither IS' potential in Afghanistan nor Russia's willingness to go all the way to stop the extremist group from becoming stronger in the country should be oversold.

A geopolitical quagmire

An active Russian role in Afghanistan is bound to further complicate the geopolitics of the region. Although Russian diplomats have emphasized that their contacts with the Taliban are limited to peace negotiations, Western officials claim the Russian-Taliban ties go far beyond that.

Symbolbild Trump Putin
It will be interesting to see how US President-elect Trump will deal with the evolving Afghanistan situationImage: Getty Images/AFP

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) cited Afghan and Western officials as saying that Russia was trying to prevent a peace deal between the Afghan government and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former warlord who has distanced himself from the Taliban and signed a peace deal with the Afghan government. Kabul wants to remove Hekmatyar's name from the UN blacklist, but Russian diplomats are blocking the move, the WSJ said.

Experts say that Russia also wants to use the Taliban to increase pressure on Washington.

"There can be a 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' dynamic at play," said Kugelman, stressing that it was very difficult to determine the real objective behind Russia's engagement with the Taliban.

Former Afghan diplomat Saidi believes that after Ukraine and Syria, another US-Russia conflict is being played out in Afghanistan. Experts believe it doesn't augur well for the country, which desperately needs stability and peace.