A few years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised the United States and its NATO allies for taking on the “burden” of fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and urged them to “carry it to the end.”
But the Kremlin today appears to have embarked on a new policy aimed at turning Afghanistan into a setback or even a quagmire for Washington after Moscow’s belligerent policies in Ukraine and Syria competed against Washington to undercut its role and interests.
Over the past year, Moscow has slowly pulled back from cooperation with the United States to instead work with an array of Afghan power brokers and regional states to challenge Washington’s role in attempting to end the longest war in U.S. history.
David Sedney, a former deputy assistant secretary at the Defense Department, views the push as part of Putin’s efforts to make Russia a great power. He says the Kremlin seems to have concluded that the revival of its global power must entail diminishing the role, power, and prestige of the United States.
“Playing a role in Afghanistan is important for Russia in order to prove its great power status, and U.S. troubles there provide an important opportunity to undercut any U.S. claim to global predominance,” he said.
Sedney, who has spent years helping create Afghanistan’s army and focused on Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia at the Pentagon, says Russia’s Central Asian neighbors, who still take their foreign policy cues from Moscow, have been vocal about expressing their concerns over rising insecurity and the influx of narcotics from Afghanistan.
“In order to maintain and increase Russian hegemony in this Central Asian space, Putin needs to be seen as taking an aggressive leading role on Afghanistan,” he said.
Hameed Hakimi, an Asia research associate at London’s Chatham House think tank, agrees. He says Russia’s support of NATO’s stabilization efforts ceased after Moscow locked horns with NATO over Ukraine in 2014.
“Russian engagement in Afghanistan is likely to intensify in competition with NATO and NATO-allied countries,” he said, pointing to Moscow’s efforts to engage the Taliban and create alliances with power brokers inside Afghanistan.
The Russian ambassador in Kabul recently denied that Moscow was cooperating with the Taliban. But late last year, Zamir Kabulov, Putin’s special envoy to Afghanistan, said Russian interests in Afghanistan "objectively coincide" with those of the Taliban. Another Russian official said Moscow had established contacts within the Taliban to share intelligence and exchange information against the Islamic State militants.
At the same time, Moscow has courted First Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former communist general with a long history of ties to the Soviet Union and Russia. Dostum might have an axe to grind against Washington, after he was reportedly recently forced to cancel a trip to the United States after officials had quietly conveyed to Kabul that he would be denied a visa.
After the withdrawal of most NATO forces from Afghanistan in 2014, Moscow has hyped the threat from Afghanistan while offering limited security assistance to Kabul. In February, it gave Afghanistan 10,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition. It is also negotiating the sale of Mi-35 helicopters with Kabul.
In October, Afghanistan’s national security adviser, Hanif Atmar, suggested that Kabul has received a cold shoulder to its efforts in cultivating counterterrorism cooperation with Moscow. “We are thankful for their good intentions, but we are concerned about the speed with which they are moving,” he told an Afghan television channel.
Putin has built a close friendship with former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who remains a vocal critic of what he characterizes as Washington’s failure in establishing lasting security in Afghanistan.
“The United States must explain itself as to why things went wrong. Therefore, my suggestion is that the U.S. begin to seek help,” Karzai recently told Russia’s RT television. “Seek help from Russia, China, and India. In particular, Russia, in our case, because it is close to us, because it has a long history with us, and because it has the means to do it, together with the rest of the world.”
Marvin Weinbaum, a former Afghanistan-Pakistan analyst for the U.S. State Department, says that while Russia’s actions are contradictory, Moscow is still at the cusp of deciding its future course in the country.
“My sense is that Russia is carefully feeling its way in Afghanistan and is undecided on how large a role it's ready to play,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “I don't see at present any definitive steps that would indicate a major commitment to involvement.”
The Kremlin, however, seems to be pushing for a seat at the table in shaping Afghanistan’s future. In late April, Kabulov termed the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QGC) “inefficient.” In recent months officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States have participated in the forum to devise ways for ending the Afghan conflict through peace talks.
On April 27, Kabulov offered that Moscow is “willing to establish a format that would work and would take into account the interests of all states directly concerned,” he said.
Sedney, a former Defense Department official, sees Moscow using the failure of the QGC to prevent Beijing and Washington from cooperating in Afghanistan and to prompt them to accept its role as a “great power” in the country.
“They see their exclusion from that grouping as a sign that others see Russia as a minor, not major, player,” he noted. “I see Russian outreach to the Taliban as much a part of their pique over the four-party process as a true concern about the emergence of Da'esh [an Arabic name for Islamic State].”
He says that Russia is also using its alliance with Iran to shape the power dynamic in Afghanistan. “I see Russian and Iranian interests in Afghanistan as convergent (e.g. shared fears about Sunni aggression/terrorism, common worries about narcotics, equal levels of concern about what each country sees as the negative role of the U.S.),” he said. “From this perspective, Russia wants to work with Iran in Afghanistan -- but as an equal, not junior, partner.”
Hakimi, the Afghanistan specialist at Chatham House, however, says Russian efforts to return to what it views as its “natural sphere of influence” will complicate Kabul’s efforts in addressing the multi-layered and complex dynamics of insecurity, economic problems, and relations with neighbors. “The last thing the Afghan government can afford is a Russian involvement that is directly in competition with NATO countries,” he said.
Afghan officials, however, appear adamant to prevent their country from turning into another arena for a great power competition.
Lawmaker Nazir Ahmadzai says he recently confronted Russian officials over their individual dealings with and alleged support for power brokers.
“I told them that courting individuals in Afghanistan is tantamount to interference in our internal affairs,” he said.
Ahmadzai says Kabul has learned bitter lessons from its past alliance with its northern neighbor and will be reluctant to give up its alliance with the West.
“We cannot replace our old friends with new friends,” he said.