Geopolitical processes are evolving around Afghanistan. A new round of talks with representatives of the Taliban movement is expected. Global capitals are making statements that one could hardly imagine a year ago. An active negotiations process (which has already turned into never-ending) involving almost all big geopolitical players is underway. Russia enjoys a special place in that row.
After the main contingent of US and foreign troops withdrew in 2014, a vacuum emerged, which was very quickly filled by the Taliban. The situation degraded, destabilization reached an unthinkable scale. Radical groups got around 40% of the country’s territory, an absolute majority of rural lands under control. In southern and eastern provinces, the Taliban movement virtually took power, defining taxes, informal governors and the laws, under which most people live. As it got a feel for power, the Taliban intensified confrontation. The civil war reached big cities where fundamentalists were not among favorites. Terrorist attacks became everyday routines.
That was the environment and lay of the land preceding the current geopolitical reality. In February 2018, a political sensation occurred. Taking on the role of the major peacemaker, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani reached out to the Taliban. He declared determination to acknowledge the radical movement as a political party and release imprisoned Taliban members from jails. It was suggested that radical forces take part in elections at various levels and become a full-fledged political power. That was probably the highlight of last year for Afghanistan.
The sides of the conflict – Kabul and Taliban – realized that a military victory was impossible. Whereas in the US there was a reshuffle in the administration, which at least at first sight, tends towards a certain simulacrum of go-it-alone approach, particularly in the East. The peaceful process initiated early last year envisions constant negotiations in various influential capitals. The official Kabul and Taliban representatives were expected to search for compromise solutions to break the deadlock. However, the movement would not budge and refused to foster dialogue with “Kabul’s proxy rule.” As a result, the negotiations process is underway mainly between the Taliban and the US, as well as representatives of regional and global powers. Among those involved in the process are Russia, China, Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Iran.
The key actors have their own interests and views on the Afghan settlement. Another thing is no less important: all are confident that one cannot ignore the process and should join it as soon as possible. The talks with the Taliban is not a goal in itself. Their aim is to sign a peace treaty (or at least truce). Obviously, Afghanistan will not become another Switzerland, and full peace will not arrive in the foreseeable future. A battle for relative stability and ceasefire is underway. Leading actors are already aware of that (paradoxically, it took 18 years). The whole process may be described as follows: talks, truce and integration.
The peaceful process is aimed at integrating the most moderate and pragmatic part of the Taliban into the Afghan power structures. Subsequently, Afghanistan will change and can substantially transform in political, cultural and religious ways.
And as is well known, here the interests of many countries of the world are zeroed in. Hence, global media outlets, think tanks, eastern and western governments have so much interest in Afghanistan. What are Russia’s interests then?
Not so few things connect Moscow and Kabul as might appear at first sight. Suffice to say, Afghanistan was the first country to acknowledge the young Soviet country in 1919. Moscow responded likewise, while already in 1921 the countries signed the first Treaty of Friendship. Historically, the Afghan territory has always been of interest to Russia. That is due to many factors: geographic proximity, history, geopolitical standoff, economy and trading routes from the South to the North. Out of all non-Muslim and non-regional countries, it appears that particularly Russia has the closest historical connections with Kabul, which root back to the Middle Ages. There have been a bunch of things in the relationship between the two states: cooperation, trade, approaching, betrayal, non-confidence, and disaffection. However, the tragic and unsound bringing of Soviet troops to Afghanistan and the subsequent war became the most ‘dramatic’ in a flurry of events both countries have gone through. That was disaster for both nations.
Obviously, Afghanistan will not become another Switzerland, and full peace will not arrive in the foreseeable future. A battle for relative stability and ceasefire is underway.
At the present stage, Moscow is interested in stable, prosperous and predictable Afghanistan and is pursuing active policy in that direction. The Afghan territory has common extended borders with friendly Central Asian states, which in their turn, maintain a visa-free regime with Russia and are bound by joint agreements within SCO, CIS, EAEU, and CSTO.
The Kremlin has had no strategy on the Afghan direction for a long time. Tales of the past still exist. Though fragile efforts to shape it are being made now. Theoretically, foreign policy should not turn into a motionless thing in itself. At least, professional diplomacy and, subsequently, the state’s foreign policy line has to be dynamic and consistent with day-to-day realities and threats. That is what happened with the Russian policy regarding Afghanistan. Today still not everything, mildly speaking, is ideal. Certain mistakes and faults are committed over and over again. But all the same, progress is evident. Moreover, Russia has certain competitive advantages: it knows the country, region, people, and culture. Russian intelligence services hold Afghan databases, maps and topographical schemes thus far.
Neutralizing potential threats from the side of terrorist groups from the south has been Moscow’s main interest for a long time. The issue is not only about some physical pushback, but also about combating the export of extremist ideas and the effect that, from Moscow’s perspective, can be created by various terrorist groups in the region. That point of view is justified if considered without bias and stretches. They do not fit in foreign policy.
Eventually, from around 2014-2016, Moscow started getting very active, which coincided with two factors: destabilization in Afghanistan and the flare-up between the US and Russia. As a result, the US did everything possible and impossible to suspend any Russian initiatives related to Afghanistan. The official Kabul went to great lengths to torpedo bilateral relations. That ultimately led to a strategic deadlock. The security situation worsened, potential threats mounted, while the Afghan government virtually blocked any dialogue connected with basic trading transactions.
The search for paths to hedge risks on the Afghan direction if the situation ran completely out of control started. Russia has never rejected contacts with representatives of the Taliban. The radical movement is the reality of today’s Afghanistan. And from the viewpoint of sound realism, it is an unreasonable luxury not to have contacts with the group keeping control of almost half of the country. Even more so, the western press often forgets that diplomats from Britain, Norway, Japan, Germany, and the UN, for example, maintain contacts with the Taliban. Not to mention the Turkish, Saudi, Iranian, Qatari and Pakistani dignitaries. The Americans are absolute leaders among them.
The crisis in the relationship between Russia and the west has lead exactly to the fact that foreign policy tolerates no hyperbole. Any contacts that Moscow had with Afghan political groups (they were not more frequent than, say, the Turkish or the Japanese had) were considered from the perspective of the zero-sum game. The logic was simple: “What can Russia want in Afghanistan?” The answer was very simple: “No good.” Accusations against Moscow of supporting the Taliban followed. The talk reached the point where Russia supplies weapons to it. There were tough cases as well: supplies of Siberian crude oil to the radical movement were reported. And no one wondered whether it was necessary for Moscow in the first place? The answer was a priori evident as the Russians are not right and guilty of almost everything.
Truly speaking, it did not last long, and was connected with the new Cold War. After all, it is reasonable to assume that many realized that such accusations were the aftermath of information warfare attacks rather than the reality. Russia did not stand aside and responded accordingly. The narrative regarding the Afghan campaign was toughened. While Russian Presidential Envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov said a couple of years ago that if Trump decided “to pull out the contingent, everything would collapse.” Already in the summer of 2017, the diplomat said in a conversation with the writer of these words: “Since the US army cannot do anything properly, let them leave Afghanistan. The American campaign in Afghanistan has failed.”
However, at this stage, the Afghan policy has reached a completely different point. Two inter-related factors are important here.
First, the already mentioned negotiations process with the Taliban. It is aimed at agreeing on ceasefire with subsequent integration of the pragmatic part of the Taliban into the official Afghan political establishment. De-facto they already rule part of the country.
Second, Kabul’s main sponsors, the US, is leaving the region. At least, the process of military pullout from the Afghan territory and the region in general has been launched. That was not started yesterday, and not by the current administration. The gradual withdrawal was launched by Barack Obama, who replaced interventionist George Bush Junior. That is a fairly painful process, which promises no success. Obviously, it will last for years, probably even several decades. The military pullout process will be fragile, rough and cyclic. It is not implausible that inside that process there will be periods of tactical contingent increases and quick military campaigns. But strategically, the US has started the process of reducing their military footprint in the Middle East. At the very least, the current leadership and personally the occupant of the Oval Office is aching to get rid of the burden of useless, in his judgement, wars.
The process will have a serious impact on the perimeter, countries of the regions and, of course, on Russia.
The reduction of the US presence and involvement in the Afghan politics will inevitably strengthen the official authorities in Afghanistan.
The abovementioned factors will spur an upgrade of the regional system and evolution of the political entity of Afghanistan. Which requires a brand new strategy on Afghanistan from Russia. It should be flexible, resilient and contemporary. The strategy that will not serve the logic of the Cold War and zero-sum game. It should focus around one thing – national interest. Which includes maintaining security and a full-fledged development of relations with friendly and neutral Kabul.
Some parts of this paper was previously published at the Russian International Affairs Council sources.
Georgi Asatryan, Ph.D., is a scholar, Senior Lecturer at the Russian State University for Humanities, President of Syndicate Consulting Group, expert for The Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), the Middle East Institute @alorientalist.