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US withdrawal and Russia-Afghanistan Relations | Asma Hussain

The US pullout and the fall of Kabul to the Taliban changed the dynamics of politics and security in South Asia. It has also impacted the other South Asian countries’ interests and ignited their concerns. The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan ended with the emergency exit of armed forces and civilian citizens of the US and European governments from Afghanistan. However, besides the West, some countries react sharply and do not seem alarmed. Russia was one of the states that were not surprised by the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.

Like Pakistan, the diplomatic mission of Russia remained open in Kabul and had shown gratitude to the new government. The Russian Ambassador to Kabul, Dmitry Zhirnov, after his first meeting with the Taliban representative within 40 hours of the takeover, commented that he had seen no evidence of retaliation by the Taliban against the civilians. The special envoy of President Putin to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, appreciated the Taliban’s contribution to the security situation in Kabul in their fight against the Islamic state of Khorasan. While Russia did not confirm its recognition of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan with the new government, Putin opined that Moscow would develop relations with the Taliban as soon as it “enters the family of civilised people”. The support of Russia for Afghanistan’s new political order has made public diplomacy with the Taliban difficult.

Russian Partnership with the Taliban

Besides the support and accommodation for the new government, Russia’s reservations about the Taliban’s consolidation of power and purported commitment to combat terrorism within the boundaries of the country still exist. Ties between the Taliban and Russian Islamic networks and other fundamentalist factions in Central Asia are also a matter of grave concern for Russia. Another major aided threat to Russia is the smuggling of opium from Afghanistan to Russia through the Central Asian Republics. Opium production and its smuggling to neighbors started in the 1990s in the country due to the instability caused by the foreign invasion, and it heightened during the US stay. This smuggling helped to fuel the growth of organised crime in Russia and other neighbors as well.

Opium production and trafficking was one of the reasons for Russian support for the US and NATO’s global war against terrorism in Afghanistan. It believed that the coalition would achieve stability and lasting peace while also putting an end to opium cultivation. Russia believed that the American–NATO military deployment would help to alleviate its concerns.of its previous participation, which had resulted in tremendous fatalities, Russia had no desire to engage militarily in Afghanistan.

The warmth between Russia and the US in Afghanistan began to shift in 2014 due to several interweaved concerns. US and its coalition forces’ failure increased the insecurity and instability to increase in the region. President Obama’s plan aided in Russia’s insecurity over the region. The incidents before the US announcement of withdrawal, like the terrorist attack in Moscow in 2010, growing radicalization in Chechen in 2013, and Central Asian citizens joining the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant in 2011, materialized Russia’s fear of threat by religious extremism into Central Asia and Russia itself. Taking all these incidents as byproduct of the conflict in Afghanistan, Russia turned towards the Taliban for partnership. The emergence of another militant faction, Islamic State of Khorasan in 2014 in Afghanistan, minimized the Russian perception of the Taliban as a grave threat. The group’s recruitment from Central Asia and strong foothold in Northern Afghanistan provided Russia with an opportunity to rethink its Afghanistan policy and widened the already existing soft corner for the Taliban in Russia’s heart. The success of the Taliban in containing ISKP in the Northwest of Afghanistan compelled Russia to continue partnership to deter the threat of ISKP and halt its emergence into Central Asia.

The Doha agreement between the US and the Taliban, along with President Joe Biden’s declaration of American troops’ unconditional departure in April 2021, enhanced Moscow’s anticipation of the Taliban seizing control significantly. It tried to broker a de facto collaboration between the Taliban and certain former Mujahideen commanders in northern Afghanistan, precipitating the northern provinces’ rapid demise in August 2021. That move was intended to aid the Taliban in seizing the border districts. It began growing its political influence in Afghanistan’s politics in 2014. Russia held Afghan peace talks both before and after the US–Taliban Doha agreement in 2020.

Russia and Afghanistan in the vacuum left by US withdrawal

Although the exit of the United States and NATO from Afghanistan pleases Russia in terms of international geopolitical competitiveness. However, it also presents new concerns for Moscow. Russia may confront new dimensions of insecurity and uncertainty with the absence of foreign troops in Afghanistan. Despite the fact that the Taliban have established authority in the countryside and there is no indication of substantial power rivalry that might confront Russia, there remains a vacuum in terms of military, political, and economic backing for the Taliban government in Kabul.

Afghanistan, as a donor-dependent country, has been seriously impacted by the freezing of its assets and the cessation of international financial assistance since the Taliban’s acquisition of power. As insurgent organisations, namely the ISKP, increase their recruitment of new soldiers, the imminent poverty and broader economic crisis may exacerbate instability. The collapse of Afghanistan’s police and armed forces has jeopardised any future counterterrorism attempts. These circumstances are likely to enhance opium cultivation and trafficking. Insurgent organisations such as ISKP and Al-Qaeda are also likely to gain from and finance their activities through the narcotics trade.

Russia will engage with any entity in Afghanistan because it pursues a realpolitik strategy that disregards internal concerns, human rights, and democratic norms. Russia is expected to strengthen ties with the Taliban regime in order to prevent the expansion of ISKP and religious extremism, particularly in Central Asia. For geopolitical reasons, Russia’s efforts to influence the Taliban appear to be driven by a desire to discourage strong Western, European, and Chinese involvement. If the Taliban regime is globally recognized, its existing status as an outlier, and hence its ability to influence, might be jeopardised. By holding multilateral meetings, Russia has used a carrot-and-stick approach to gain leverage in Kabul. It has not, however, publicly recognised the Taliban authority.

Local powerbrokers, mostly members of the erstwhile Northern Alliance, have been severely damaged as a result of 20 years of centralistic rule. Russia will eventually have no choice but to back the Taliban administration in order to maintain peace. With several Central Asian terrorist organisations located in northern Afghanistan, the Taliban leadership could still avoid war with them in order to support their continuing presence. For the time being, the new governments in Kabul and Moscow are likely to move carefully, but they are anticipated to collaborate since it is in their mutual interests.

Conclusion

The United States and NATO’s 20-year commitment in Afghanistan benefited Russia by alleviating some of its difficulties. Now, the pullout has suited Russian goals even more by proving Washington’s dependability in the eyes of local allies. The quick escape of the United States and NATO has aided Russia’s goal of establishing itself as the main provider of security in Central Asia and a reliable partner in the region.

The Taliban took use of international talks held in Russia to garner credibility and consolidate its authority. Despite the fact that the ISKP, opium smuggling, and radicalism posed severe risks, Russia looked to be exaggerating the threats from Afghanistan in order to maintain its dominance in Central Asia. It also utilised the threats to emphasise its relevance as a security guarantor there. Russia’s assistance emboldened the Taliban in its conflicts with the then-government security and defence forces, resulting in increased violence and casualties. Russia cannot afford a leadership vacuum in Afghanistan, which would destabilise its periphery through instability in the form of extremism and an illegal economy.

Moscow wishes to fill the void in Afghanistan created by the American–NATO withdrawal, albeit not militarily, but simply diplomatically.  Russia is expected to follow suit, and may even cause issues for the Taliban administration if it rejects Moscow’s influence. Russia wants Kabul’s administration to listen when it talks and to see Russia as a regional force. Given its own historical experience and limited resources, Russia will not even seek to actively engage in military operations. It may give armaments and advice to the Kabul administration, but it will not engage militarily.

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