Russia ruffled feathers in Afghanistan last week when its envoy to the country suggested forming an “inclusive and transitional coalition government” in Kabul to hasten the peace process and accused the United States of reneging on its agreement with the hard-line Taliban Islamist movement.
Kabul swiftly rejected the proposal by declaring envoy Zamir Kabulov's pronouncements as “inconsistent with the current realities of Afghanistan” and contradicting past “official statements of the friendly country of Russia.”
Analysts say the latest controversy is part of the Kremlin’s efforts to compete with the United States for influence in Afghanistan. At the least, they maintain, it poses a hindrance as Washington reviews a critical peace agreement with the Taliban, signed in February 2020, that stipulates a complete U.S. withdrawal by May in return for Taliban counterterrorism guarantees and peace talks with the Afghan government.
The Taliban purportedly supports a transitional government as a step toward building a new political system in Afghanistan, but Kabul says the idea undermines Afghan sovereignty and endangers the survival of the Afghan state.
“Moscow’s main motive [in signaling to the Taliban] appears to be to make life difficult for Washington, especially in the current movement when the new administration is trying to balance itself at a difficult time in U.S. domestic politics,” Asfandyar Mir, a South Asia specialist at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, told Gandhara. The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden is currently focused on reining in the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 500,000 Americans.
Hameed Hakimi, a research associate with the Chatham House think tank in London, agrees. He told Gandhara that Kabulov’s statements are aimed at courting the Taliban at a low cost.
“Moscow’s warmth toward the Taliban is a pragmatic step … to [remind] the Western governments that Russia will remain keenly involved in its backyard in Afghanistan,” he said.
Kabulov made the remarks as he began a regional tour to prepare the groundwork for a high-level diplomatic meeting of the countries with influence over the Afghan peace process including Russia, the United States, China, Pakistan and Iran.
“Moscow prefers that all parties to the conflict in Afghanistan agree on the establishment of an inclusive and transitional coalition government,” Kabulov told the state-owned Sputnik news agency on February 16.
A seasoned Russian diplomat who has overseen or played a major role in the Kremlin’s diplomacy toward Afghanistan for over two decades, Kabulov accused Washington of breaking its agreement with the Taliban.
“The Taliban adhere to the agreement almost flawlessly,” he said. “Not a single American soldier has died since the agreement was signed -- which cannot be said about the Americans.”
The controversy follows the storm over the news of alleged Russian bounties to the Taliban for targeting U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which came to light last summer. Many questioned the Kremlin’s real motives in Afghanistan after media reports suggested officers of the GRU -- Russia’s foreign military intelligence service -- paid or offered bounties to the Taliban to kill American soldiers. The Kremlin, the Taliban, and then U.S. President Donald Trump rejected the reports.
The Afghan government quickly responded to Kabulov’s statement.
“Be assured that as long as I am alive, they will not see the formation of an interim government,” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told families of fallen Afghan soldiers on February 20. “I am not like those willows that bend with the wind.”
A day earlier on February 19, the Afghan Foreign Ministry issued a lengthy rebuttal of Kabulov’s pronouncements.
“Mr. Kabulov also said the Taliban were ‘almost flawless’ in fulfilling their agreement with the United States while the entire world knows that the Taliban have violated their four major commitments to (1) sever ties with terrorists, (2) reduce violence, (3) continue meaningful negotiations, and (4) not allow the released fighters to return to the battlefield,” the statement said.
Russia’s relations with Afghanistan have long been a rollercoaster. A disastrous defeat at the end of a decade-long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s led to its disintegration in December 1991, and yet Kabul remained significant for the Kremlin as a regional neighbor. With the rise of Islamist militants and drug cultivation in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s, the Kremlin welcomed the hard-line regime’s demise in 2001.
The presence of Islamic State (IS) militants in Afghanistan after the drawdown of NATO troops in Afghanistan in 2014 prompted Russia to extend an olive branch to the Taliban.
“It’s fascinating that a group formerly viewed as an enemy, i.e., the Taliban, are now warmly welcomed into Moscow,” Hakimi said, adding that the Kremlin is unlikely to replace Tehran or Islamabad in terms of influence over Afghan political and militant actors. “Moscow will find it incredibly difficult to arm the Taliban because it will have broader consequences for the Taliban with their other significant backers and will also impact [the] Taliban’s narrative of jihad on the ground.”
“In addition, the emotional trauma of Soviet defeat in Afghanistan is still lingering in Moscow, with hesitation to be dragged into the Afghan conflict directly,” he said.
Mir says there’s also little Russian interest in repeating its role in Syria, where its military intervention prevented the collapse of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime after a mass revolt in 2011 evolved into a multipronged civil war.
“Afghanistan is far more difficult to enter and stabilize,” he noted. “Russia is recognizing that, having suffered their own failure in the country in the 1980s. Russian goals are far more modest; they are limited to keeping the U.S. off balance instead of attempting another Syriaization policy of Afghanistan.”
Hakimi says Russia’s support for the Taliban is a double-edged sword. While it could help the once pariah movement still under heavy international sanctions gain some international legitimacy, it also might jeopardize the Taliban’s delicate relations with Washington.
“Any overreach in relations with Moscow can hurt the Taliban’s position with the United States; the last thing Washington wants to see is a Taliban attempt to pressure them via Moscow,” he concluded.