What’s Russia’s strategy in Afghanistan?

Samuel Ramani

As US withdrawal nears and the Taliban makes sweeping territorial gains, Russia’s security presence in Central Asia and diplomatic involvement in Afghanistan is rapidly growing.

As the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan nears, Russia is playing a more assertive role in managing its fallout. On August 5, Russia carried out military drills in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which seek to prevent a spillover of instability from Afghanistan to Central Asia. 

Russia also initiated the August 11 extended troika meeting in Doha, which allows it to engage with the US, Pakistan and China on facilitating intra-Afghan dialogue and promote a political solution in Afghanistan.

The expansion of Russia’s involvement in Afghan security can be explained by three factors. First, Russia is concerned about the security of its southern flank in Central Asia. The Taliban’s military successes in Badakhshan and Takhar provinces, which border Tajikistan, have alarmed Russian officials. Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon has sounded the alarm about a concentration of “terrorist groups” on its shared border with Afghanistan, which include 3,000 militants from the post-Soviet space and China. 

Russia is also concerned about an expansion of the ISIS (Daesh) presence in Afghanistan, and fears that stalled diplomatic negotiations could give Daesh time to concentrate its presence. A Daesh foothold in Afghanistan could pose a remote threat to the North Caucasus, which has witnessed regular clashes between Russian security forces and Daesh in recent years. 

Second, Russia views insecurity in Afghanistan as an opportunity to consolidate its hegemony over Central Asia. The Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) has not expanded beyond Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, despite extensive negotiations with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and Russia’s plans to establish a second base in southern Kyrgyzstan have stalled. 

While the proposed expansion of Russia’s Kant base in Kyrgyzstan and deployment of S-300 missile defence systems to Russia’s base in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, were positive steps, the current crisis in Afghanistan has reinvigorated Russia’s security role in Central Asia. 

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu recently announced plans to expand the combat readiness of Russia’s bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and sell military equipment to Tajikistan. By providing security assistance to its Central Asian partners at a time of need, Russia seeks to thwart US efforts to establish an over-the-horizon security presence in what it sees as its sphere of influence.

Third, Russia’s diplomatic activities in Afghanistan reinforce its great power status, and build on its arbitration efforts in Syria, Libya and the South Caucasus. In 2017, Russia inaugurated the Moscow format talks as a six-party mechanism to promote cooperation between Russia, China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and India, and facilitate a national reconciliation in Afghanistan. 

These talks were derided in the United States, as they gave the Taliban legitimacy without concessions, and were boycotted by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in February 2019. Nevertheless, they have served as a valuable forum for non-Western powers to discuss Afghan security and aid Russia’s efforts to spearhead a multipolar approach to protracted conflict resolution in Afghanistan. Russia’s lead organiser role in the extended troika meetings builds on these past successes.

While the security and geopolitical benefits of Russia’s expanded role in Afghanistan are evident, Moscow is likely to advance its interests through diplomatic rather than military means. Notwithstanding the Kremlin’s revisionist narratives on the Soviet war in Afghanistan, which peaked on the fortieth anniversary of its outbreak in 2019, the Russian public continues to view the conflict as a reference point for military failure. 

As Russia grapples with a worsening Covid-19 pandemic at home and mounting socioeconomic challenges, it has little appetite for a military intervention in Afghanistan. 

Russia’s efforts to downplay the Taliban’s resurgence, such as Deputy UN Ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy’s claims that the Taliban is unlikely to take power in Afghanistan or Putin’s Special Envoy Zamir Kabulov’s assertion that just two administrative centres were captured this weekend, could be aimed at easing domestic concerns about the gravity of the Afghan threat. 

Looking ahead, Russia will likely confine its military role to drills in Central Asia and periodic cross-border strikes, which could be modelled after the August 2019 attack on the Taliban, and avoid broader coercive action.

Russia’s diplomatic engagement with external powers on Afghanistan and efforts to promote intra-Afghan dialogue could be more successful. Although prospects of US-Russia dialogue on Afghanistan appeared slim as the Taliban bounty controversy made headlines, President Joe Biden remains open to selective engagement with Moscow on Afghanistan. A possible area of long-term US-Russia cooperation is anti-narcotics, as both countries collaborated on curbing drug trafficking during Barack Obama’s presidency.

As Russia and China are involved in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Contact Group on Afghanistan, both countries could deepen their security cooperation in the coming months. Russia-Pakistan cooperation on Afghanistan complements growing momentum in the economic sphere, which includes the July 15 PakStream Gas Pipeline agreement. Kabulov’s rebuttal of accusations that Pakistan seeks to destabilise Afghanistan has won plaudits in Islamabad. 

Russia’s bilateral coordination with Turkey, Iran and India on Afghanistan could also strengthen these partnerships. Russia could try to increase the role of all three countries in creating a political solution in Afghanistan.

Russia also maintains a diverse array of local partnerships in Afghanistan, which it can leverage to mitigate security threats and facilitate intra-Afghan dialogue. Although Kabulov recently accused the Afghan government of hypocrisy for refusing to hold talks with the Taliban, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov engaged with Ghani on conflict resolution in Tashkent. 

While the Taliban is a designated terrorist organisation in Russia, Moscow has cultivated ties with what it regards as the “trustworthy Taliban” over the past decade. Russia also maintains cordial relations with Afghan political figures, such as former President Hamid Karzai, former Vice President Karim Khalili and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. These partnerships could allow Russia to emerge as a dialogue facilitator and ensure that the Taliban does not harbour transnational terrorists that threaten its security.

While NATO countries are increasingly concerned about China’s post-war ambitions in Afghanistan, they should also monitor Russia’s conduct and earmark selective areas of cooperation with Moscow.

Courtesy: (TRT World)

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