Putin’s Russian roulette in Afghanistan
10 May 2017|

Image courtesy of Pixabay user janmarcust.

The recent Taliban attack on an Afghan army post outside Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan—the deadliest-ever by the Taliban on a military base, killing some 150 recruits—underscores the terrorist group’s growing strength more than 15 years after they were ousted from power. The attack confirms yet again that Afghanistan still has a major security problem, and it’s not about to be resolved.

There are still some 13,500 NATO troops which are part of the Resolute Support Mission which mentors and trains the Afghan security forces. An additional 1,500 US troops are involved in counterterrorism operations, hunting down al-Qaeda and Islamic State terrorists.

However, even with these troops still in place and the US having spent some $1 trillion in war and reconstruction since 2001, the Taliban controls more territory today than it has since being ousted from power in 2001. According to US Central Command, the Afghan government controls less than 60% of the territory, the Taliban about 10% and the remainder is contested.

Unfortunately, the situation could get worse.

General John Nicholson, the top US Commander in Afghanistan, stated at a recent Congressional hearing that the Russians were providing military support to the Taliban. Russia has vehemently refuted those accusations, insisting that Moscow’s interaction with the Taliban is limited to convincing them to join negotiations. The Taliban has also rejected those claims but no one believes them.

Notwithstanding those denials, Moscow has nevertheless been engaging the group, believing that a strong relationship with the Taliban is essential for maintaining political stability in Afghanistan. In December 2015 President Putin’s special representative to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, acknowledged that ‘Taliban interests objectively coincide with ours’.

Russian authorities claim that the Taliban is the only bulwark against the greater threat, the Islamic State in Khorasan, as IS is known in Afghanistan and Pakistan (ISIS-K). However, there’s no evidence to support the claim that ISIS-K is a credible threat. Compared to the Taliban, which number in the thousands or tens of thousands, ISIS-K remains an insignificant force. Even at its height in 2015, ISIS-K was estimated to only have about 600 to 800 fighters. The Islamic State will have been further weakened with the recent announcement by US forces in Afghanistan that its leader, Abdul Hasib, had been killed by Afghan and US forces in late April.

Russia potentially arming the Taliban further complicates an already intractable situation and, as General Nicholson stated recently, ‘is not the best way forward for a peaceful reconciliation’ in Afghanistan. But that will hardly deter President Putin from deepening Russia’s relationship with the Taliban if he decides it’s in Russia’s interests.

President Trump has asked National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster to review US strategy in Afghanistan. General Nicholson has recommended that the US military commitment in Afghanistan be increased by some 3,000 troops. While the Trump administration hasn’t indicated whether it will support such a recommendation, a majority of those residing in the Pentagon’s upper echelons support an increase in troop levels. The review should be finalised soon.

Kabul’s neighbours will have mixed feelings about Russia’s deepening involvement in Afghanistan. Iran, which has also been accused of arming and providing battlefield advice to the Taliban, will welcome Russia. In a continuation of their anti-Western strategic alliance in Syria, Moscow and Tehran have been working together to accelerate the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

On the other hand, China won’t be pleased. Moscow’s increased meddling complicates Beijing’s drive to increase its presence in Central Asia, including in Afghanistan, especially through its multi-faceted ‘One Belt, One Road’ project. Moreover, the Taliban has links with the Uighur-dominated East Turkestan Islamic Movement which regularly attacks Chinese authorities in western China. But Moscow isn’t about to cede that strategic space—Russia’s backyard since the 19th century—to China.

India, which traditionally supports Afghanistan’s non-Pushtun ethnic groups, also won’t welcome Russia’s increased activity in Afghanistan, particularly its support for the Pushtun-dominated Taliban. But what should really worry the Indians is Moscow’s increasing cosiness with Islamabad, particularly in the military sphere, and what that will mean for the future of India’s long-standing bilateral relationship with Russia.

As such, it’s not surprising that Islamabad welcomes Moscow’s increased involvement in Afghanistan. As a matter of fact it recently asked the Russian government ‘to lead the process of stabilization’ in Afghanistan. It remains to be seen what that actually means.

However, Islamabad should be wary of Moscow’s military support for the Taliban. In the long-term, a political victory for the Taliban in Afghanistan wouldn’t be good news for Pakistan. A Taliban-dominated government in Kabul would give the Pakistan Taliban (the TTP as it’s called)—a close military and political ally of the Afghan Taliban—a real psychological and military fillip in their fight against Islamabad. Importantly, a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan would give the TTP a safe springboard from which it could launch attacks back into Pakistan.

Similarly, is it really in Moscow’s interest to eventually see the Taliban back in power in Kabul? The return of the Taliban would signal to Moscow’s restive extremists in the Caucasus—Russia’s soft underbelly—that jihad against the established order pays off. In sum, by trying to get even with the West in the short-term, Putin’s playing a very dangerous game, one that may well come back to haunt him in the long-term.