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Afghanistan - Russia Relations

Russia is bent on cultivating its own patronage networks in Afghanistan to gain advantage over the United States and China. With an American disengagement, Russia recognizes an opportunity to exercise influence without incurring any major obligations in Afghanistan.

Russia has security concerns regarding stemming from Afghanistan-based terrorism and narcotrafficking. Russian-Afghan relations suffered due to Russia’s public acknowledgment of communications with the Taliban and support of the Taliban’s call for coalition withdrawal from Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, Russia publicly called the new US South Asia Strategy a “dead end.” Russia continued to seek ways to undermine U.S. influence in the region by engaging with the Taliban, disseminating false information about U.S. support to ISISK, disseminating false information about U.S. objectives in Afghanistan, and pressuring Central Asian neighbors to deny support to U.S. and NATO stabilization efforts in Afghanistan.

Russia was the only force that could help Afghanistan fight terrorism, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai said 08 April 2018. "I understand perfectly well that if you [Russia] build new relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan, you can help us. Not the Britons as we kicked them out of the country several times, not the Americans as they've been killing us for 17 years, but Russia only. We [Afghanistan] are the last barrier from terrorists. We've been fighting continuously for a century and a half," Karzai toldthe Russian NTV TV channel.

"Moscow has always helped us, even when its forces invaded Afghanistan at the invitation of then-president Babrak Karmal. We surely fought each other at those times, but you [Russia] used to build schools and hospitals in Afghanistan. Americans lie when they say that al-Qaeda emerged as the result of your invasion. They used the war to grow al-Qaeda in Pakistani military camps. They wanted to be the only superpower and they did it. The USSR collapsed and one of the reasons was the Afghan war," Karzai said.

once major NATO combat operations ended in late 2014, the Kremlin moved toward undermining the U.S. mission in the country. The shift was partly fueled by Putin's desire to restore Russia's great power status, but it was mainly due to competition with the West in Ukraine and later in Syria, where Russia joined Iran in defending President Bashar al-Assad's regime. By late 2015, Zamir Kabulov, Putin's special envoy to Afghanistan, was openly touting contacts with the Taliban. He told Interfax in December 2015 that Moscow's interests in Afghanistan "objectively coincide" with those of the Taliban in fighting the extremist Islamic State (IS) militants, whom Moscow was battling in Syria. Some Russian officials claimed the Kremlin was sharing intelligence and exchanging information with the Taliban against IS.

By 2017 a resurgent Russia was making new inroads into Afghanistan by aligning itself with the Taliban. Russia's encroachment into Afghanistan could be part of President Vladimir Putin's expansionist ideals to restore Russia's position as a geopolitical player.Russian special envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov confirmed that there was low-level contact between the two, and extolled the group’s present anti-Daesh function.

The militant group posed an ongoing threat to the integrity of the current government in Kabul. In November 2016, the Afghan government required the assistance of US forces to protect the city of Kunduz after the Taliban mounted a coordinated offensive.

In December 2016, Moscow disclosed its contacts with the Taliban, the group that is intent on toppling the Afghan government. The Russian Foreign Ministry announced that it is sharing intelligence and cooperating with the Taliban to fight Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group's (ISIL, also known as ISIS) militants in Afghanistan.

Afghan government officials have claimed Russia has been delivering weapons to the Taliban, allegations that have been rejected by Russian officials. Russia's recent posturing towards Afghanistan has opened a new chapter in what could be a new great game in the heart of Asia.

By aligning with the Taliban, Russia could strengthen its bargaining position in broader dealings with Washington. By 2017 instability in Afghanistan was on the rise, threatening the survival of the US-backed Afghan government and posing a danger to the US and NATO mission in the country. In the Russian calculation, harassing US/NATO in this precarious situation could be used to extract concessions, reducing US pressure on Russia regarding Crimea and easing US sanctions, among others.

The Afghan Taliban said 13 April 2017 that it did not support Russia-sponsored multi-nation talks on Afghanistan because the process seems to be motivated solely by the “political agenda” of the organizers. The Islamist insurgency issued its reaction a day before delegates from Afghanistan as well as its immediate and far neighbors are due to meet in Moscow to resume what Russian officials refer to as consultations on prospects for Afghan security and national reconciliation. The Taliban also denied receiving military aid from Russia, though the group defended “political understanding” with Afghanistan’s neighbors and regional countries.

American military officials suspect Russia’s so-called Afghan peace diplomacy is aimed at undermining the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan and have accused Moscow of arming the Taliban. Russian officials have strongly rejected allegations they are providing weapons to the Taliban, though they have publicly acknowledged maintaining contacts with the insurgents.

Russia may be supplying the Taliban as they fight U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, a top U.S. military commander said 23 March 2017. We " have seen the influence of Russia of late — an increased influence — in terms of association and perhaps even supply to the Taliban," General Curtis Scaparrotti, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander and U.S. Army General, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

The Russian Defense Ministry considered as absurd the accusations of Head of US European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti against Russia, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said 24 March 2017. "Not a single fact, specific figures or documents – the same slogans, only now in new covers, and absurd accusations," Konashenkov said. “The Pentagon’s inability to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan during the 16 years of its presence there has been explained by General Scaparrotti by alleged machinations from Russia, even though Russia has not been there since 1989,” Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said in a statement. Zamir Kabulov, the director of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Second Asian Department, labeled the accusations as "absolutely false."

John Nicholson, the U.S. commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, testified in February 2017 that Russia was giving the Taliban encouragement and diplomatic cover. Nicholson did not, however, address whether Russia was supplying the terrorist group. “Russia has been legitimizing the Taliban and supporting the Taliban.”

“Those are utterly false assertions, and we have reacted to such [allegations] on several occasions. It is not even worth a reaction since those statements are fabrications designed to justify the failure of the US military and politicians in the Afghan campaign,” Zamir Kabulov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s director of the Second Asian Department in Afghanistan, told RIA Novosti on 24 March 2017. “They are looking for someone to blame [for their failures] everywhere other than in Washington,” Kabulov, who served as Russian envoy to Afghanistan in 2004-2009.

“The Russian side is accused of supplying the Taliban movement with weapons, financing the activities of this extremist organization and even facilitating the creation of training camps for the militants on the Afghan territory. Needless to say, all this is not supported by any evidence,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “Promulgation of such absurd inventions reveals a staged campaign to discredit our country, during which the Afghan and the world communities are being supplied with the thesis that Russia is ‘undermining’ international anti-terrorist efforts in Afghanistan”.

Background

With the failure of the communist hardliners to take over the Soviet government in August 1991, Najibullah's supporters in the Soviet Army lost their power to dictate Afghan policy. The effect was immediate. On September 13, the Soviet government, now dominated by Boris Yeltsin, agreed with the United States on a mutual cutoff of military aid to both sides in the Afghan civil war. It was to begin January 1, 1992.

The post-coup Soviet government then attempted to develop political relations with the Afghan resistance. In mid-November it invited a delegation of the resistance's AIG to Moscow where the Soviets agreed that a transitional government should prepare Afghanistan for national elections. The Soviets did not insist that Najibullah or his colleagues participate in the transitional process. Having been cut adrift both materially and politically, Najibullah's faction torn government began to fall apart.

During the nearly three years that the Kabul government had successfully defended itself against mujahidin attacks, factions within the government had also developed quasi-conspiratorial connections with its opponents. Even during the Soviet war Kabul's officials had arranged case-fires, neutral zones, highway passage and even passes allowing unarmed mujahidin to enter towns and cities. As the civil war developed into a stalemate in 1989, such arrangements proliferated into political understandings. Combat generally ceased around Qandahar because most of the mujahidin commanders had an understanding with its provincial governor. Ahmad Shah Massoud developed an agreement with Kabul to keep the vital north-south highway open after the Soviet withdrawal. The greatest mujahidin victory during the civil war, the capture of Khost, was achieved through the collaboration of its garrison. Hekmatyar's cooperation with Tanai, the Khalqi Defense Minister is discussed above.

Interaction with opponents became a major facet of Najibullah's defensive strategy, Many mujahidin groups were literally bought off with arms, supplies and money to become militias defending towns, roads and installations. Such arrangements carried the danger of backfiring. When Najibullah's political support ended and the money dried up, such allegiances crumbled.

Moscow maintained an apparent distance from the Afghan conflict for many years. In fact, Russia even supported the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the subsequent toppling of the Taliban regime. At the time, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai rightly said that Afghanistan was probably the only place where the interests of Moscow and Washington didn't clash.

Russia first established contacts with the Taliban leadership in 2007 to discuss the issue of drug trafficking through Central Asian countries that share borders with Afghanistan. Now there are reports that Moscow is again in contact with the Taliban. But this time the Moscow-Taliban contacts were not limited to talks on drug trafficking, according to analysts. Russia, they say, realizes the US policies in Afghanistan have failed, and therefore wants to intervene.

In Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov's 23 February 2007 visit to Kabul, used "cold war tones," and tersely commented that NATO's presence in Afghanistan was "an enduring presence against Russia" that "denied Russia its proper role in Central Asia." Lavrov reportedly insisted that NATO "must leave" Afghanistan and said that NATO "denied Russian business interests" in Afghanistan.

Determined to reset relations between the U.S. and Russia, Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev created, in July 2009, the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission. Its purpose is to improve coordination between the two countries, to advance our highest priority objectives and pursue joint projects and actions that strengthen strategic stability, international security, economic well-being, and the development of ties between the Russian and American people. One area in which the Commission realized unprecedented success is in counternarcotics. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, joined forces with a number of Russian agencies, such as the Russian Customs Service and the Russian Federal Drug Control Service, or FSKN, to disrupt the smuggling of Afghan opiates through Central Asia.

In 2010, Afghanistan, as the world's largest opium supplier, accounted for nearly 80 percent of the world's opium, according to UN estimates. While some of the heroin is used in Russia, some also transits Russia to other consumer markets.

By 2016, Russia had increased its involvement in Afghanistan. For many experts, this was surprising, but a new geopolitical situation is emerging in the region, and it seems that Russia has decided not to remain "neutral" in the protracted conflict wracking the Asian country. The recent tripartite meeting in Moscow involving China, Pakistan and Russia to discuss Afghanistan's security is just one example of Russia's growing interest.

Russia and officials in Pakistan argue that military operations by the U.S.-led international forces and their Afghan partners have not weakened the Taliban but instead created ungoverned areas where terrorist groups like IS, also known as Daesh, can establish a foothold. Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, told the U.N. Security Council in December 2016 that the deteriorating security situation has encouraged IS militants fleeing Syria and Iraq to look at Afghanistan for shelter. He said they will eventually pose a threat to Russia through neighboring central Asian states.

Churkin rejected Afghan and U.S. concerns that Moscow's overt ties to the Taliban are meant to undermine international efforts aimed at establishing peace and stability in Afghanistan. "Our contacts with representatives of Taliban are limited to the task of providing for the security of Russian nationals in Afghanistan and also aimed at moving the Taliban towards joining with the process of national reconciliation," he said.

The U.S. commander of the international forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, said "Their [Russia's] narrative goes something like this: That the Taliban are the ones fighting Islamic State, not the Afghan government.And of course the Afghan government and the U.S. counterterrorism effort are the ones achieving the greatest effect against Islamic State". He said the public legitimacy Russia has lent to the Taliban is "not helpful," arguing that, "It is used as a way to essentially undermine the Afghan government and the NATO effort and bolster the belligerents." Top Foreign Ministry officials from China, Pakistan and Russia met in Moscow on 27 December 2016 to review what they perceived as a "gradually growing" threat to their frontiers posed by Islamic State extremists in Afghanistan. Chinese, Pakistani and Russian officials say they were driven to joint action by the efforts of IS affiliates to establish a foothold in Afghanistan. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's national unity government questioned the motives of the trilateral dialogue, which will take place without Kabul being represented. Russian officials maintained the "working group on Afghanistan" is one of several initiatives Moscow has undertaken with regional countries, including Afghanistan, to develop a "wider partnership" for containing IS influence.

"Russia may have been chased out of Afghanistan several decades ago, but now it appears keen to re-enter the scene in a big way," Michael Kugelman, an expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said in January 2017. Kugelman is of the view that Russia is taking a risk by turning to the Taliban. "Russia is strengthening a non-state actor that is a formidable rival of IS, a terrorist group that worries Russia a whole lot," said Kugelman. Russia also wants to use the Taliban to increase pressure on Washington. "There can be a 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' dynamic at play," said Kugelman, stressing that it was very difficult to determine the real objective behind Russia's engagement with the Taliban.

Russia feared that Afghanistan may become another safe haven for the "Islamic State" (IS) militant group after Iraq and Syria. Experts say Moscow wants to make sure that doesn't happen in close proximity to Central Asia. "Russian President Vladimir Putin considers the IS presence in Afghanistan a big threat to his country's interests," Ahmad Saidi, a former Afghan diplomat, said. Saidi says the mutual fear of IS has brought the Taliban and Russians closer. The Taliban fighters and IS jihadists have been engaged in skirmishes across Afghanistan for the past two years. Both groups are seeking dominance in the country. He underlined that neither IS' potential in Afghanistan nor Russia's willingness to go all the way to stop the extremist group from becoming stronger in the country should be oversold.

An active Russian role in Afghanistan is bound to further complicate the geopolitics of the region. Although Russian diplomats have emphasized that their contacts with the Taliban were limited to peace negotiations, some Western officials claimed the Russian-Taliban ties go far beyond that.

On 03 January 2017, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) cited Afghan and Western officials as saying that Russia was trying to prevent a peace deal between the Afghan government and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former warlord who has distanced himself from the Taliban and signed a peace deal with the Afghan government. Kabul wanted to remove Hekmatyar's name from the UN blacklist, but Russian diplomats are blocking the move, the WSJ said. Along with Ukraine and Syria, another US-Russia conflict was being played out in Afghanistan. Experts believe it doesn't augur well for the country, which desperately needs stability and peace.

The six-party talks that took place in Moscow in February 2017 represented an unprecedentedly broad and uniquely multipolar approach to resolving the long-running War on Afghanistan. This is the first time that Russia, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and India all got together in trying to find a solution to the conflict. One of the ideas that had been floated prior to the Moscow Summit was de-facto recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate political actor and an indispensable on-the-ground force in fighting Daesh.

Multi-nation talks on the prospects for Afghan security and national reconciliation, the third such round since December, began 14 April 2017 in Moscow. Eleven countries took part in discussions, including Afghanistan, China, Iran, Pakistan and India. Former Soviet Central Asian states had been invited to attend for the first time. The United States was also invited to the Moscow talks but Washington didn't attend, saying it was not informed of the agenda beforehand and was unclear of the meeting's motives.

Russia continues to compete for influence in Afghanistan, where international reconciliation efforts are underway, while Iran is playing both sides of the Afghan conflict, according to a top U.S. military official. The head of U.S. Central Command, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, told VOA October 05, 2018 that Moscow was posturing to be a "player in the solution" to the decades-long conflict. "I think what they [Russia] are doing trying to do is they are pursuing a strategy which is to compete with us by trying to exert their influence wherever they can, whether it is in Afghanistan or Syria or anywhere else," Votel said.

"They are continuing to use disinformation to create the narrative that they want," the CENTCOM commander noted. "They continue to perpetuate this idea, not just in Afghanistan, but in Iraq and Syria as well, that the United States is responsible for supporting and propagating ISIS." Votel said the notion that the United States was somehow promoting the Islamic State terror group, also referred to as ISIS, was "ridiculous."

Matt Dearing, an assistant professor at the Washington-based National Defense University, said Moscow's involvement in Afghanistan comes as no surprise. "They have every incentive to play spoiler in Afghanistan. I expect they will continue to do so on multiple fronts, whether it is engaging Taliban or supporting government opposition parties," Dearing said. "It is unfortunate when political figures in Afghanistan accept Russian support, as this creates further divisions in politics and weakens the legitimacy of GIROA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan]," he added.

Thomas Johnson, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and author of Taliban Narratives, said that while Russia is trying to assert influence in Afghanistan, its role is somewhat exaggerated. "I think the notion that they [Russian officials] play a role on [the] Taliban is overblown," Johnson said, adding that Afghans, including the Taliban, have a vivid memory of Russian intervention in late 1970s and that "Afghans dislike Russians."



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