Throughout the history, Russia’s strategy towards Afghanistan has been security-centric.
While Russia remained out of Afghanistan in the last three decades, recently Moscow has made a “U-turn” by increasing its involvement in Afghanistan and providing covert support to Taliban and other insurgent groups in the country.
Since 2015, Russia has been transferring arms to the Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, channelling funds to the group via cross-border fuel trading, and most importantly, making diplomatic contacts with the Taliban leadership, arguing to defeat their common enemy Islamic State Khorosan (IS-K).
This paper discusses Russia’s strategic interests in Afghanistan and explores how the current conflicts in Afghanistan threaten the security of Russia’s central Asian border. While Russia’s security policy towards Afghanistan is to protect itself from the penetration of terrorism and drug trafficking into Central Asia and Russia, its current economic goal is to benefit the share of TAPI gas pipeline, CASA1000 electricity transmission and other projects in Afghanistan. This paper also briefly examines historical rivalries between Russia and the United States over geo-strategic location of Afghanistan.
The relationship of Afghanistan and Russia is popular since the “great game” era where the British Empire and the Russian Empire competed for Afghanistan to contain each other’s spheres of influence or expand their power in the region. After the collapse of the Tsarist regime during the First World War, Afghanistan was amongst the first countries who recognise the new Communist regime in 1917. The two countries expanded their relationships after World War II and the Soviet Union continued its economic support accompanied by its advisors to Afghanistan. However, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 changed the relationship between the two countries and Afghanistan became a battleground between the Soviet Union and the United States. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union attempted to save the newly-established communist regime in Kabul but the US and Pakistan supported the Mujahideen groups to fight against the Soviet Armies and the central government of Afghanistan.
The Russian Afghanistan policy in the Cold War era
During the Cold War period, the Soviets policy towards Afghanistan has been driven by four motives: a) to ensure Kabul and Kremlin remains friendly; b) to exclude or limit the US presence in the country; c) to counter or limit the spread of fundamental Islam in Central Asia; and d) to ban or restrict drug trafficking which was already a problem.
In September 1979, when Hafizullah Amin, who assumed to have a link with the United States, was selected as new leader of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, the Soviet leadership made a decision to replace him with a pro-Soviet Babrak Karmal.
In December 1979, the Soviet troops entered Afghanistan to topple Hafizullah and save the newly-established communist regime in Kabul. Hafizullah Amin was killed on December 27, 1979, and the Soviet troops remained in Afghanistan until 1989.
During the Soviet’s presence in Afghanistan, the United States, Israel, Arab countries (such as Saudi Arabia, Emirates and Egypt), Pakistan, Iran and many other countries provided financial aids, training, arms and fighters to help the Afghan Mujahideen to fight against the Soviet army and the communist regime of Afghanistan. The US and its allies channelled their financial aids and arm supports to Mujahedeen by the help of the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). In this period, the Pakistani border area of the North-West Frontier Provinces was used as a safe haven to train, arm and coordinate Mujahedeen’s operations in Afghanistan.
When the Soviet armies failed to seal the frontier border of Pakistan, the Mujahideen became even stronger and they brought the war from villages to cities. The war in Afghanistan continued for 10 years until the Soviet Union was compelled to withdraw from the country. After the Soviet’s withdrawal in 1989, Dr. Najibullah’s government also collapsed in the hand of Mujahideen and internal war between the Mujahideen groups and the Taliban continued until 2001.
From 1989, Russia remained out of Afghanistan for the next two decades and Moscow had completely lost its hope of competing the United States’ influence in Afghanistan.
Russia’s strategic interest in post-2001 Afghanistan
From 2007 Moscow began to improve its relationship with Kabul by pardoning its US$11 billion Soviet-era debt and providing arms and military equipment to Afghanistan. In 2010, Afghanistan and Russia signed a bilateral agreement on trade and economic cooperation and by 2013 the Russo-Afghan bilateral trade reached to over US$ 1 billion. Russia, by exporting oil, timbers and steel, become enormously dominating the trade balance by 96.8 percent while Afghanistan’s export of agricultural products to Russia accounted only to 3.2 percent. Since 2014, Moscow is eagerly looking to take part in CASA-1000 electricity transmission from Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan and the TAPI gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
Currently, Russia’s strategic interests in Afghanistan lies on the stability of Afghanistan: that a fairly stable Afghanistan would allow Russia to expand its economic ties and secure its southern border from drug trafficking and infiltration of terrorism into Central Asia.
However, the post-2014 security situation of Afghanistan worried Moscow to contact and work with some non-governmental actors such as Taliban and other insurgent groups who are in a direct fight against the central government and the US-NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Moscow believes that Taliban has not any agenda beyond Afghanistan and the group, compared to IS-K which is a transnational, is not a danger to Moscow. Therefore, Moscow has established a working relationship with Taliban to “fight against IS”, motivate the Taliban to enter peace talks, and use its leverage on Taliban leadership to protect its citizens. So far, Russia has saved two of its citizens when two Russian helicopters crashed in Taliban controlled-area in 2013 and 2016. In 2016 and 2017, Russia also hosted three rounds of talks, involving China, Iran and Pakistan, focusing on Afghanistan and regional security.
However, Afghan analysts believe that maintaining contact with Taliban will not benefit Russia, it only “strengthen the Taliban group” to increase their operations and pose more harm to the people of Afghanistan and the region in large.
Throughout its history, Russia has been threatened from its southern border, Afghanistan. After the defeat and withdrawal of the Russian forces from Afghanistan in 1989, Russia remained out of the country throughout the 1990s and 2000s. In the last three decades, Russia continued to worry about the security and presence of terrorism in Afghanistan and drug trafficking from Afghanistan into Central Asia and Russia.
In 2011, after Hamid Karzai’s distancing from US and his travelling to Russia with large delegation of ministers and business leaders, Russia returned back to increase its involvements in Afghanistan and show great interests in TAPI gas pipeline and CASA-1000 electricity transmission where the Russian company, Rostec, became greatly enthusiast to secure the contract and construct the pipeline from Turkmenistan towards Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
In 2014, the US withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan and the US-NATO failures in Syria, Libya and Ukraine further bolstered Moscow to challenge the US presence in Afghanistan by contacting the Taliban group and providing them arms and political support.
While the Russian supporting of the Taliban group has been continued to now, this tactic, no doubt, is not only reinforcing Taliban to increase its operation throughout Afghanistan, it also, in turn, allow Taliban and Taliban-affiliated groups such as Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and other insurgent groups to endanger the security of the whole region, including Central Asia.
Perhaps, the Russian interest in Afghanistan will be best served to work with Afghan government than supporting non-state actors such as those of Taliban and other insurgent groups in the country.