Russia’s first contacts with the Taliban took place informally in 1995 to free the seven crews of Il-76 that had been captured by the Taliban (the aircraft was carrying military equipment from Albania to Kabul for the Northern Alliance; the crews were released after a year). Despite these sporadic contacts, the Kremlin’s views on the Taliban were negative.
Alexander Lebed, then Secretary of the Russian Security Council, emphasized in 1996 that if the Taliban had been not stopped in Afghanistan, it would have advanced to Samara (a city in southern Russia). In the 2000s, after the rise of the Al Qaeda to power in Afghanistan, and the interaction between Russia and the US in this state after September 11, no difference was seen between the Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and the Kremlin insisted on dealing with all these movements.
But in the 2010s, the Russian views on the Taliban have relatively changed, and the differences between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban, and the al-Qaeda and the ISIS have become more visible for Russia. In this approach, some functions are assumed for the moderate Taliban such as the harassment or even positive actions against NATO and the US and especially against the rise of the ISIS to power in Afghanistan. Using these functions is the reason behind contacts, established by Tajikistan as the mediator, between Russia and the “moderate” Taliban.
It should be noted that in principle such contacts are not unprecedented in Russia’s secret diplomacy and her asymmetric actions in foreign policy, an example of which is now seen in her direct and indirect contacts with various Syrian opposition groups. In the case of the Taliban, as mentioned, Russia considers the government in Kabul is “weak and ineffective” to deal effectively with extremism, and curb its cross-border aspects, is suspicious of the real intentions of the US and NATO to fight against terrorism in Afghanistan, and does not ignore their instrumental use of extremism in this state. In these circumstances and in view of the high sensitivity of Russia to terrorism and extremism, and their likely spread into Russia, she does not refuse using different tools, even contacting the Taliban, to remove this threat.
Some Russian analyst welcoming this initiative, and emphasizing on the changing nature of the Taliban in recent years and its changing positions from extreme to moderate, insist that if Russia can successfully influence the Taliban and Afghanistan’s political map, she not only will remove this threat, but also will gain greater achievements. For example, creating balance against the US and China and influencing the developments in the region, including Central Asia, will be done more effectively. Approving the interaction with the Taliban, others mention this force is an effective actor to prevent the rise of the ISIS to power in Afghanistan.
Regarding this, the relationship between Russia and the Taliban shows that apparently this state, like the US, has distinguished the difference between the Pakistani Taliban and the Afghan Taliban, and by splitting the Taliban into “good and bad”, she is looking for establishing relations with the “good”. This approach is reinforced, especially after the official announcement of the death of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, in 2015, and that this group was divided into different groups. This assumption has also become stronger that it is possible to contact the Taliban moderate groups, and this will have some benefit.
Tactical Objectives behind Contacting the Taliban
The tactical approach to contact the Taliban aimed at managing and removing the threat considered by Russia. The Kremlin does not have a substantive approach to the Taliban and the contact with this group, and is only in search of a more effective solution for providing her own security interests. The scope and purpose of this relationship can be summarized as follows:
1. Using an instrumental approach aimed at managing and removing the threat, and not necessarily establishing a broad relationship with a legitimate force. Russia, in contrast with the US, Iran, Pakistan and even some Central Asian states, does not have many facilities to politically exert influence in Afghanistan. Establishing contact with the Taliban can directly and indirectly improve this weakness.
2. Aiming at intelligence and reconnaissance. Contacting the Taliban is one of the ways to identify the capacities and the range of power and action of this force. This information can prove useful for both symmetric and asymmetric blows to this group in the future in the appropriate time and conditions.
3. Instrumentally using the Taliban against the US and NATO. Contacting the Taliban and threatening to equip it with advanced weapons against the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan are the leverage for Moscow to make concessions from Washington in other areas, including Syria and Ukraine. Due to the desire of Republicans to equip the Syrian opposition groups and the government of Ukraine against Moscow, this leverage can be used negatively (although such action will have its own risks).
4. Convincing the US to interact with Russia, and consider her interests in Afghanistan.
5. Putting pressure on the government in Kabul. The Kremlin considers the government in Kabul is a weak government which is under the influence of Washington. Establishing contact with the Taliban can be a leverage to force Kabul into taking considerations and interests of Moscow more seriously.
6. Creating internal disputes in the Taliban. Certainly, establishing contact with Russia is not approved by all ranks of the Taliban, and this can cause conflicts within the group. This difference and the fact that some Taliban subgroups have approached Moscow can put them against others, and exacerbate their dispute.
7. Trying to dissolve the moderate Taliban in the political movements in Afghanistan (the long-term goal). The survival of the stream of thought of the Taliban and the forces of this group after years of war has led Russia to the same conclusion she reached at the war with the Chechen: the fight against extremism and terrorism requires a radical and long-term action, and in this context, a mere military repression will not suffice, and this threat must be also managed by attracting some moderate forces into political processes.
8. Using the evil against evil. Using the Taliban against other extremist forces in Afghanistan, including the ISIS is also of interest to Russia. In this way, both the Taliban and the ISIS will be weakened at the same time, and their possible recourse to external forces such as Moscow to provide for them money and weapons can help Russia achieve her other goals.
Russia is also following many of these objectives in her instrumental approach towards and tactical talks with the Syrian opposition groups. Having a better understanding of their capacities, potentials, strengths and weaknesses, reducing the leverage of the West, Arabs and Turkey, and in contrast, gaining a bargaining leverage and putting pressure on them, dividing the opposition with regard to their differences of views regarding the interaction with Russia, using moderate opposition groups against the ISIS and other opposition groups as well as putting pressure on the Assad regime to force it to comply with the Moscow demands are among the advantages that Moscow has achieved/ will achieve through interacting with the Syrian opposition groups.
Russia’s tactical relations with and instrumental approach towards the Taliban should not be exaggerated. This relationship is only on the Kremlin’s agenda because it aimed at managing and removing the threat, and it does not follow positive long-term goals. On the other side, one of the main stated objectives of the Taliban is to deal with occupation, and from this perspective, some ranks of the Taliban are opposed to the relationship between this group and Russia. The war in the Soviet era still evokes bitter memories for both sides.
In that respect, there cannot be great potential for relations between Russia and the Taliban. In the long term, Moscow have preferred and will prefer the multi-level cooperation with the government in Kabul, regional states and major powers such as the US to having interaction with the Taliban, but due to the ineffectiveness of these tools at the present time, Russia has inclined toward having an instrumental relationship with the Taliban. Certainly, achieving the targeted goals regarding the Taliban will not be simply possible, but achieving the minimums is also considered an achievement in itself.
In the meantime, Moscow does not think that regional multilateral mechanisms are prepared in the current situation for taking action in Afghanistan, but the lack of a coherent framework for the cooperation between Iran and Russia in Afghanistan is thought-provoking. Because the two states have common views on both fields of symmetric and asymmetric threats arising from Afghanistan, and their combined capabilities can be more effective in managing and staving off the threat. The absence of this framework of cooperation is a sign of the lack of a clear strategy in the major relations between Tehran and Moscow. This means that if the geopolitical and asymmetric threats of the ISIS in Syria are the reason for the cooperation between the two states, there is also such a threat with the same nature in Afghanistan. If there is a clear strategy between the two states, their interaction in Syria can be extended to Afghanistan as well, but the discontinuity of bilateral interactions confirms the lack of a clear strategy in these relations.
Alireza Nouri, an analyst of Russian politics, is the fellow at IRAS.
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