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Can Trump Diplomacy Win Russian Support For Afghan Stability?

U.S. President Donald Trump (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin
U.S. President Donald Trump (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin

Amid strong skepticism, some Afghan experts see U.S. President Donald Trump’s affability toward Russian President Vladimir Putin as an opportunity to gain Moscow’s support for Afghan stability.

Over the past several months, senior U.S. and Afghan officials have accused Moscow of supporting Afghanistan’s Taliban militants and lending credibility to their cause, which aims to overthrow the Western-backed Afghan government.

While Trump has criticized many regional and global powers for acting against U.S. interests, he has largely refrained from criticizing Russia and instead says he hopes to find “common ground” with Moscow in defeating radical Islamist terrorist groups.

Ali Amiri, a political science professor at a Kabul University, sees hopeful prospects for cooperation between Washington and Moscow.

"If President Trump follows up on his campaign rhetoric, he might be able to find common ground with Russia on Afghanistan,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “Russia's strategic interests, especially security of its southern borders and Central Asia, should serve as a detriment against engaging in a dangerous game with extremist groups in Afghanistan.”

Afghan lawmaker Nazir Ahmadzai, however, sees little chance for Trump’s success.

“Russia is now directly interfering in Afghanistan. The FSB (Federal Security Service) recently approached people living in areas along Afghanistan’s border with Central Asia. They were offered money,” he said. “I don’t think Trump will be able to easily convince Putin to stop this, because Russia opposes the security agreement between us and the U.S.”

It was not possible to verify Ahmadzai’s claims, but Moscow now openly opposes a long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

Zamir Kabulov, Putin's special envoy to Afghanistan, was recently vocal about challenging Kabul’s strategic cooperation with Washington.

“Why does the United States want land bases in Afghanistan?” he asked in a December interview with Turkey’s Anadolu news agency. “In Turkey, they have only one base. [But] in Afghanistan, they have the right to use nine big military bases plus almost 10 more. Why? If we did something like that in Mexico, would it not be disturbing for America?”

General John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said Russia is legitimizing the Taliban in Afghanistan.

"The Russian involvement this year has become more difficult. First, they have begun to publicly legitimize the Taliban. This narrative that they promote is that the Taliban are fighting Islamic State (IS) and the Afghan government is not fighting Islamic State, and that therefore there can be a spillover of this group into a region,” he told the Senate Armed Service Committee on February 9.

“This is a false narrative. The Afghan government, along with the U.S. counterterrorism forces, are successfully fighting against Islamic State in Afghanistan,” Nicholson added.

Moscow, meanwhile, is also pushing to assume a leading role in finding its own version of a solution to the Afghan security situation, which Nicholson characterized as a “stalemate.”

Speaking in Moscow on February 7, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country would host a conference on Afghanistan on February 15. Representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Iran, and India are invited to participate.

Speaking at a joint press conference with his visiting Afghan counterpart, Salahuddin Rabbani, Lavrov said "the Taliban must be included in a constructive dialogue."

Shafiq Hamdam, a former Afghan adviser to NATO, said Russia's support for the Taliban is not helping regional stability.

"Soon the Trump administration will realize the importance of curbing Russian momentum in Afghanistan and globally,” he said. “It is not difficult to stop Russia's influence in Afghanistan. Because Russia has adopted a wrong policy of supporting extremist Taliban, who are directly linked to global terrorism."

Ahmad Idrees Rahmani, a policy analyst at Rand Corporation, said all eyes will be on what will transpire during the first meeting between Trump and Putin. The two are expected to meet in July.

He said the U.S. administration is exploring ways to get along with Russia in many conflicts across the Middle East and Asia.

“If they get along, we will have a few years of relatively low tensions in Afghanistan,” he said. “But if they fail to get along, we will have more situations here in Afghanistan that might look like a repetition of history.”