Tactical Talk (Update) Three decades after a military defeat in Afghanistan, Russia has returned to the scene. This adds Afghanistan to a long list of hotspots – from Syria and Libya to Venezuela and Ukraine – where Moscow’s low-cost, high-impact foreign policy is challenging the West. In Afghanistan, the Kremlin is covertly supporting the Taliban and other groups, and hosting regional talks with Pakistan, Iran and China. And whereas Moscow was strongly opposed to the Taliban throughout Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s, it seems a U-turn is underway.
Afghan and US officials both claim that since 2015, Russia has been providing funding and arms to Taliban groups. A CNN report in July 2017 claimed Russian arms were being transferred to Taliban fighters. A report in the Times of London citing Taliban sources concluded that Russia was channeling funds to the Taliban via cross-border fuel trading. Russia has strongly denied the allegations, but admits diplomatic contacts with the Taliban, arguing that since they are both fighting the regional branch of the so-called Islamic State (IS) they have common interests.
Officials in Moscow believe that whereas the Taliban is focused primarily on the domestic conflict inside Afghanistan, ISIS poses a transnational threat to Central Asian states and even to Russia itself.
The Russian government’s thinking on the threat from IS sometimes of the notion that IS is an American project aimed at destabilizing Russia. In June, Russia’s foreign ministry complained that “unidentified helicopters” were resupplying IS fighters, and implied that they were linked to US forces. Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s experienced special envoy to Afghanistan, claimed in 2016 that IS fighters were not focused on the Afghan conflict, but “are being prepared for a war against Central Asia, against the interests of Russia”.
What such claims make clear is that Russia’s policy is not just a response to security concerns, but is part of a wider geopolitical strategy.