Strategic Turnaround? Russia’s Support to the Afghan Taliban and its Strategic Implications

Strategic Turnaround? Russia’s Support to the Afghan Taliban and its Strategic Implications

“We know that the Russians are involved, stated U.S. Army General John Nicholson during an interview with the BBC, publicly accusing Russia of smuggling loads of weapons to the Taliban. Russia’s logistical and financial support to the Afghan Taliban is a short-term security insurance, and a profitable long-term investment, for the Kremlin’s future geopolitical manoeuvres.”

By Roberto Colombo

During 2018, United States (U.S.) military commanders in Afghanistan repeatedly reported that the Taliban received material, financial and logistical support from Russian representatives.[1] “We know that the Russians are involved,” stated U.S. Army General John Nicholson during an interview with the BBC, publicly accusing Russia of smuggling loads of weapons to the Taliban.[2] These allegations were backed up by testimonies of Afghan police and military officials, which reported to Western media that recently-produced Russian military equipment, including night-vision goggles, heavy machine guns and small arms, is now part of the Taliban’s arsenal.[3] Russia denied any involvement in the alleged shipment of Russian weapons to the Afghan Taliban, declaring that these weapons could have been smuggled by several transnational non-state actors.[4] This escalation of suspicions and accusations demonstrates that Russia’s increasing influence in Afghanistan is causing significant problems for the U.S. and the Afghan Government. Russia’s decision to embrace the Taliban stands in clear contrast with the previous history of logistical help that Moscow guaranteed to the U.S.-led forces fighting the Taliban.[5] Why is Moscow reversing its political stance regarding Afghanistan? This article will analyse Russia’s strategic turnaround from three perspectives: geopolitical considerations, national security and long-term interests.

Geopolitical considerations are an evident catalyst of Russia’s strategic turnaround. In the wake of Russia’s revisionism, Moscow is unlikely to discard the occasion that the Afghan quagmire offers to its regional aspirations. Russia’s support to the Taliban poses significant extra costs on the U.S. because a stronger insurgency in Afghanistan jeopardises the progress that counterinsurgency (COIN) operations achieved during years of protracted political and military engagement. Consequently, the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan forces the U.S. to strengthen its presence in the country. Without the United States’ support, the Afghan Government is unlikely to regain control of the provinces overrun by the enemy. The increasing amounts of resources and personnel diverted to Afghanistan limits the United States’ capability of projecting its hard and soft power in other regions. Therefore, while the U.S. tries to prevent the Taliban from seizing power in Kabul, Moscow is incentivised to expand its influence in North Africa, the Middle East and in the Euro-Atlantic area.[6]

Nevertheless, Russia’s primary interest regarding Afghanistan is directly linked to the security and protection of its external borders.[7] Moscow, by providing support to the Taliban, is aiming at disrupting the presence of the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan. The IS is considered by the Taliban a hostile entity that challenges their monopoly on insurgency. Therefore, the Taliban are determined to force the IS out of Afghanistan through the use of force. Similarly, Russia regards the Islamic State as a threat because it poses several challenges to its security. Among these difficulties, the return of foreign fighters to Russia, the connections between the IS in Afghanistan and segments of the underground North Caucasian insurgency and the influence of the IS propaganda on Russia’s population are the most concerning.[8] Russia and the Taliban are partnering because they share a common enemy and their interests are mutually compatible. While the Taliban are focused exclusively on dominating Afghanistan and do not have any interest in expanding their presence outside the country’s borders, the IS strives for enlarging its network both in Russia and Afghanistan.[9] The imperative of preventing the spread of takfiri ideology (radical Islam) and the radicalisation of segments of the Russian society would explain the alleged smuggling of Russian weapons to the Taliban. These weapons do not provide the Taliban with enough firepower to challenge the U.S. forces supremacy, but they can make a difference in the fight against the IS. Furthermore, Russia’s top-priority of disrupting the Islamic State’s cells in Afghanistan also explains why the Russian foreign ministry shared intelligence with the Taliban regarding the movements of the Islamic State’s fighters in Afghanistan.[10]

Lastly, long-term interests of Russia’s support to the Taliban must be considered. The Kremlin is aware that the Taliban are a reality in Afghanistan that cannot be ignored.[11] When Russian officials, interviewed by press representatives, give statements such as “defeating the Taliban by military means is no longer an option,”[12] they are embracing the fact that peaceful settlements of the Afghan situation are meaningless without the Taliban’s consensus. Consequently, having a leverage on the largest non-state actor in Afghanistan enables Russia to seize a favourable position from which to influence the peace talks that could eventually take place between the Taliban and the Afghan Government.

For the U.S., Russia’s support to the Taliban represents a serious problem that could jeopardise years of progress towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict, favourable to the U.S. backed Afghan Government. The Taliban, counting on the assistance of a great power, are likely to increase their efforts to overthrow the central government and refuse to be party to U.S. sponsored peace talks. In contrast, insurgents would be inclined to cooperate during meetings sanctioned by Russia specifically designed to advance Moscow’s projects for the region.

A reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan Government that would not deliver the control of the country to the insurgents has always been a difficult objective to achieve. Currently, Russia’s increasing interference and the Taliban’s growing capabilities suggest that a conflict resolution beneficial to the United States’ strategic interests is, for the moment, out of reach.[13] Therefore, there are no short-term solutions at the United States’ disposal. Furthermore, Trump’s plans to withdraw a significant number of troops from Afghanistan in 2019 indicate that forcing the Taliban to the negotiation table is no longer considered a viable option by U.S. policy-makers. At this point, predicting how the Afghan dilemma will evolve in the coming months is not possible. What is certain is that Russia’s support to the Taliban is adding uncertainty to an already strategically complex situation.

Russia, from its relationship with the Taliban, gains geopolitical advantages, national security guarantees and long-term interests at a relatively low political, financial and logistical cost. For all the reasons addressed in this article, Russia’s support to the Taliban is a short-term security insurance, and a profitable long-term investment, for the Kremlin’s future geopolitical manoeuvres.[14]

[1] Groll, E. (2018, April 2). Security Brief: Russia Providing Arms to Taliban; China’s Global Kidnapping Campaign. Retrieved from Foreign Policy: https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/04/02/security-brief-russia-providing-arms-to-taliban-chinas-global-kidnapping-campaign/.  
[2] Azami, D. (2018, April 2). Is Russia Arming the Afghan Taliban?. Retrieved from BBC World Service:  https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-41842285.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Rasmussen, S. (2017, October 22). Russia Accused of Supplying Taliban as Power Shifts Create Strange Bedfellows. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/22/russia-supplying-taliban-afghanistan.
[5] Chellaney, B. (2017, March 8). Putin’s Dance with the Taliban. Retrieved from The Japan Times: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2017/03/08/commentary/world-commentary/putins-dance-taliban/#.XA-C6y2cat8.
[6] Sazonov, V. (2017, June 16). Afghanistan as an Example of the Kremlin’s Hybrid Warfare-Why Russia is Arming the Taliban. Retrieved from International Centre for Defence and Security: https://icds.ee/afghanistan-as-an-example-of-the-kremlins-hybrid-warfare-why-russia-is-arming-the-taliban/, p. 7.
[7] Kaura, V. (2018) “Russia’s Changing Relations with Pakistan and Taliban: Implications for India,” Jadvpur Journal of International Relations, Vol. 22, No. 1, p. 73.
[8] Stepanova, E. (2018) “Russia’s Afghan Policy in the Regional and Russia-West Contexts,” Russie.NEI.Reports, No. 23, p. 22.
[9] Rayan, M. (2018, October 12). The Kremlin’s Comeback. Retrieved from The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/world/wp/2018/10/12/feature/behind-the-scenes-russia-regains-a-complicated-status-afghanistan-power-broker/?utm_term=.072b3271945b.
[10] Rasmussen, Russia Accused of Supplying Taliban as Power Shifts Create Strange Bedfellows.
[11] Azami, D. (2018, April 2). Is Russia Arming the Afghan Taliban?. Retrieved from BBC World Service:  https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-41842285.
[12] Stepanova, p.28.
[13] Chellaney, B. Putin’s Dance with the Taliban. [14] Rayan, The Kremlin’s Comeback.

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