Russia hedges bets in Afghanistan

By Pakistan Forward and AFP


Taliban fighters stand along a road in Kabul on August 18. [Wakil Kohsar/AFP]

MOSCOW -- While many countries are scrambling to vacate their embassies and staff from Afghanistan, Russia claims to be staying put.

A day after the Taliban overran Kabul, a Russian Foreign Ministry statement August 16 said the situation in the Afghan capital "is stabilising" and that the Taliban had started to "restore public order".

The Taliban were already guarding the Russian embassy and had given Moscow guarantees that the building would be safe, said Ambassador Dmitry Zhirnov.

The militants had assured the Russians that "not a single hair will fall from the heads" of their diplomats, he said.


Taliban militants, in a picture posted in 2020, practice firing with weapons made in Russia at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. [File]


Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Taliban peace negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai (centre) and then-Iranian Ambassador to Afghanistan Mohammad Reza Bahrami (right) pose for a photo in Moscow in November 2018. [Yuri Kadobnov/AFP]

However, Russian confidence in the Taliban seems to be wavering as the days wear on. On Wednesday (August 25), four Russian military aircraft evacuated more than 500 Russian and Central Asian nationals from Afghanistan on Russian President Vladimir Putin's orders.

The move marks a shift in the country's stance on Afghanistan.

Despite the hardline Islamist group tracing its origins back to the war against the Soviets in the 1980s -- in which about 15,000 Soviet troops were killed -- Russia's view on the group now is pragmatic.

Three decades later, seemingly indifferent to the painful past, the Kremlin has boosted the Taliban's international credibility by hosting it several times for talks in Moscow -- despite the movement being a banned terrorist organisation in Russia.

That designation did not keep the Kremlin from arming and funding the Taliban since at least 2015 -- a relationship that might have emboldened Moscow to keep its embassy open.

Zhirnov met late August 17 with the Taliban in Kabul, hailing on state television a "positive and constructive" meeting.

Protecting Kremlin interests in Central Asia

The aim of these talks, say analysts, is to prevent the conflict from spilling into neighbouring Central Asian countries, where Russia maintains military bases.

"If we want there to be peace in Central Asia, we need to talk to the Taliban," said Nikolai Bordyuzha, former secretary general of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).

The Taliban have moved to reassure their northern neighbours that they have no designs on them, despite several Central Asian countries having offered logistical support to NATO forces.

The Taliban gave Moscow assurances too, suggested Zhirnov.

Russia wants Afghanistan to have peaceful relations with "all the countries in the world" and "the Taliban had already promised us" this, he said.

But the Kremlin Thursday shied away from officially recognising a Taliban government in Afghanistan, saying it will monitor the group's conduct before making that decision.

As the Taliban advanced through Afghanistan this summer, Russia staged war games with allies Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and postured as the protector of Central Asia -- its history of funding and arming the Taliban notwithstanding.

Moscow now will look to strengthen its military presence in the region, said Central Asia scholar Arkady Dubnov.

"To different extents, these countries will be obliged to accept Moscow's help, but none will want to exchange their sovereignty for their security," he said.

Afghanistan's three Central Asian neighbours -- Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan -- have different approaches to the conflict, he emphasised.

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan held high-level talks with the Taliban and are likely to recognise Taliban rule, while Tajikistan has not engaged with the militants.

'Friendly and co-operative' allies

Russia's dialogue with the Taliban is the fruit of several years of courting.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in July described the Taliban as a "powerful force". At that time, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov blamed the Afghan government for faltering progress in talks.

"It is not for nothing that we have been establishing contacts with the Taliban movement for the last seven years," the Kremlin's special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, told the Ekho Moskvy radio station August 16.

The relationship raises many eyebrows, given the Soviet-Afghan war that both sides seem eager to forget.

But Russia assumes that the Taliban have changed since the 1990s, when they gave shelter to al-Qaeda, said Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Centre.

"Moscow does not see this version of the mujahideen as its enemy," he told AFP.

Beijing was also quick to reach out to the Taliban in congratulation as uncertainty reigned in Kabul.

China is ready to deepen "friendly and co-operative" relations with the Taliban, a government spokeswoman said August 16.

"The Taliban have repeatedly expressed their hope to develop good relations with China, and that they look forward to China's participation in the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters.

Beijing's acceptance of the Taliban also has strategic implications.

A co-operative administration in Kabul would pave the way for an expansion of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) into Afghanistan and through the Central Asian republics, analysts say.

Among other goals, the BRI is meant to facilitate the extraction and shipping of poorer countries' natural resources for Chinese benefit.

The Taliban meanwhile may consider China a crucial source of investment and economic support, either directly or via Pakistan, a close Beijing ally.

In this alliance of convenience, the Taliban seem willing to overlook China's repression of millions of Muslims in Xinjiang, while Beijing is saying little of the Taliban's militant ideology and violent campaign to overthrow the Afghan government.

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