Russia’s pursuit of “great power” status and its growing concern over terrorism and narcotic drugs have pushed it to re-enter the Afghan conflict, as demonstrated by the April 15 regional conference on Afghanistan in Moscow. Kabul and Moscow have had complicated relations during the last two centuries: Russia was the first country to recognise Afghanistan’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1919. It became its main developmental partner during the last century. Afghanistan was also a major contested zone during Moscow’s imperial expansion and ideological rivalry during the Cold War. In the 1970s, Moscow’s misunderstanding of Afghan politics and its imperial hubris provided its arch rivals — the West, China and Islamist groups — a golden opportunity to trap the Russian bear in the Hindu Kush, which ushered the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.
The West and the Islamists’ victory had, however, two unintended consequences: The destruction of the Afghan state and the emergence of militant Islamism. The combination hit back at the West on September 11, 2001. Following the rise of the Taliban, Moscow was again entangled in Afghanistan. This time, it chose the correct course of action. It joined an anti-Taliban regional alliance in support of the Mujahideen government in Kabul alongside Iran, India and the Central Asian states. After the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001, Moscow continued to pursue a Kabul-centric, an anti-Taliban policy in support of US-led international efforts. Moscow’s clarity helped develop conciliatory sentiments among Afghans towards Russia.
However, beginning in 2012, the US and Russia’s mutual understanding on Afghanistan was caught in Moscow’s new assertive policy against the West. The West’s war on terrorism in Afghanistan was diluted by its failure to confront its duplicitous ally, Pakistan, and not breaking the nexus of terrorism and narcotic drugs. During Barack Obama’s administration, the policy of reconciliation with the Taliban compounded Washington’s challenges.
On the eve of the transition of responsibility from NATO to the Afghan government in 2014, many in Kabul were hoping to see Moscow help to re-energise the international consensus by strengthening the legitimacy of the Afghan government. Unfortunately, while Moscow rightly questions the West’s records in weakening the state system in West Asia, pursuing double standards towards terrorists and favouring geo-politics to fighting terrorism, its own Afghan policy now includes these three pillars.
One can see the emergence of a “Taliban alliance” which includes Pakistan, with China, Russia and Iran. Despite their differences, these countries are united on two issues: The threat of the Islamic State and evicting the US from Afghanistan. Increasingly, they see the Taliban as a tool for attaining both objectives. One has to congratulate Pakistan for its ability to mislead Beijing, Moscow and Tehran’s policymakers and diverting their attention from the Taliban as the region’s main terrorist group to the ISI-camouflaged, so-called Daesh/Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan.
The “Taliban alliance” showcases the desire of multiple global actors to flex their geo-political muscle against the West. This is more acute for Russia, obsessed with Great Game power projection. But it will not help security and development; it will only add a new momentum to the vicious cycle of conflict and violence. Russia is also vulnerable to terrorism and drugs. Fifty thousand Russians die each year from drug abuse; Russian and Central Asian citizens constitute a significant pillar of the IS. When the Taliban were in power, they were the first group to recognise Chechen terrorists as a government-in-exile. That Islamist camaraderie flourishes.
The Afghan conflict is a tri-dimensional crisis, involving Afghan, regional and global actors. No one holds the key to resolving the crisis. But the US remains feared and/or respected by many Afghan stakeholders. The region should swallow the US’s long-term presence in Afghanistan as a bitter pill, particularly during Donald Trump’s muscular presidency.
Moscow should work on reviving its constructive policy of supporting Afghanistan’s fragile constitutional order and forge an effective and inclusive counter-terrorism alliance. The Soviet and Western alliance against fascism in Europe during the Second World War is a model for their mutual cooperation against the threat of militant Islamism, which was born out of the Afghan conflict. A peaceful Afghanistan will help defeat this global threat, both symbolically and strategically. Russia must join this global endeavour.