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Russia’s Afghanistan Policy

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Throughout history, Russia has given importance to Afghanistan in its foreign policy, as it describes Central Asia as its “backyard”. During the Tsarist period, Russia played an important role in shaping the borders of Afghanistan within the scope of the “Great Game” with Great Britain. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) tried to take Afghanistan under its influence by communistizing it within the scope of the “Socialism in One Country Doctrine” since it is neighbor to Afghanistan. In this context, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 under the name of supporting the friendly government in addition to its strategic goals. In this process, also Western countries, especially the United States of America (USA), and Islamic States supported Mujahideen groups. Thereupon, the Soviet Union had to withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989 and the government it supported was overthrown in 1992.

The Russian Federation, describing itself as the successor state of the USSR, wanted to influence the Post-Soviet geography within the scope of the “Near Environment Doctrine”. In this context, Russia created the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in order to attract the Post-Soviet states to its side. In 1992, when the Mujahideen could not share power among themselves, the Taliban Movement emerged, which took advantage of the power vacuum. As soon as the Taliban captured Kabul, it executed Dr. Najibullah Ahmadzai and his brother. In addition, within the framework of its revisionist foreign policy, it allowed radical organizations that threaten the security of Russia and Central Asia to operate in Afghanistan. In the 1990s, the Moscow administration supported the Northern Alliance to ensure border security and stabilize the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Moscow, which supported the “Operation Enduring Freedom” of the USA after the September 11 terrorist attacks, gave the green light for Washington to establish a base in the Central Asian Republics in this context. It also participated in the Bonn Conference, supporting the government established instead of the Taliban. After the USA and the Coalition Forces defeated the Taliban, Russia began to perceive a threat from this, as it continued its presence in Afghanistan. After the terrorist organization DAESH-Khorasan Province (ISKP), which has a caliphate ideology, started to organize in Afghanistan since 2014, Russia’s security concerns have escalated.

According to Moscow; DEASH is an organization that threatens the territorial integrity and national security of both itself and its allies in Central Asia within the scope of the ideology of the caliphate. The Taliban, on the other hand, only want to establish a (legitimate) government within Afghanistan, and most of its fighters are Afghans. Due to the “Afghanistan Syndrome” and the presence of foreign forces there, Russia supported the Taliban instead of directly intervening against DAESH. In 2015, Russia’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov stated that they had established relations with the Taliban. Kabulov stated that the main reasons for these contacts were to ensure the safety of Russian citizens and to fight against DAESH. [1]

In the last 20 years, Russia has been developing policies towards the region, taking into account the US’s Taliban policy. In this context, when Washington allowed the Taliban to open a Political Office in Doha, Moscow immediately established relations with the Taliban at a low level. When the USA defined the Taliban as a “security tool” against ISKP and started to negotiate directly with it, Russia also started openly negotiations with the Taliban. After the Doha Treaty, Russia saw the Taliban as Afghanistan’s “De Facto Government” and invited them to all conferences hosted by it. Russia’s support to the Taliban has strengthened the Taliban both on the ground and at the table. Thus, the support of Russia played an important role in the re-domination of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

After the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, Kabulov stated, “The Taliban have shown that they are more open to negotiations than the overthrown state of Afghanistan, which was established with the support of the West.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov used the following statements regarding the recognition of the Taliban:[2]

“Russia is not in a hurry to recognize the Taliban, and an interim government in which all ethnic and sectarian groups participate is required for the solution of the Afghanistan Problem.”

It is estimated that the re-domination of the Taliban in Afghanistan in front of the American soldiers was evaluated positively by Russia. Because Russia, by supporting the Taliban in the same geography, took the “vengeance of the USSR” from its rival, the USA. The point that draws attention here is that while the government supported by the USSR resisted alone for 3 years against the Mujahideen, the government supported by the USA was dissolved in front of its own eyes. Therefore, Russia continues the activities of the Kabul Embassy and develops its relations by accrediting the diplomats of the Taliban.

Although Russia does not recognize the Taliban administration, it tries to reduce the international pressure on it. In this context, Russia, on the one hand, keeps the Embassy in Kabul active, on the other hand, it sends aid to Afghanistan. However, Russia says that the West, especially the United States, is responsible for the situation in Afghanistan and that it should help for the rebuilding of Afghanistan. Finally, Russia wants the US to release the Afghan national reserves that it has blocked so that the economic and social structure of Afghanistan does not collapse. Instead of making decisions on its own in recognizing the Taliban, Russia acts together with both Western actors and regional powers within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In this context, Russia participates in the meetings held in Tehran, New Delhi and Islamabad from time to time with the USA, China and Pakistan as part of the enhanced Troika format.

The foundations of Russia’s Afghanistan policy can be listed as filling the power vacuum created here with security concerns, gaining prestige over this country and leading the projects put forward. Moscow considers that its national security passes through Afghanistan. Although the Taliban claims that security is ensured by saying that they are dominant in all of Afghanistan, the ongoing activities of terrorist organizations, especially ISKP, radicalism, drug and weapons smuggling worries Russia. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are trying to build railways (reaching the Indian Ocean via Afghanistan and Pakistan-Iran) and pipeline (TAPI) projects through Afghanistan. Russia is uncomfortable with the export of Turkmenistan natural gas to Pakistan and India. Therefore, Russia may want also Russian companies to take part in the realization of these projects by establishing close relations with the Taliban.

Among the Russian officials, the person who is most sympathetic to the Taliban is Afghanistan Representative Zamir Kabulov. In a statement, Kabulov noted that the recognition of the Taliban took place step by step in practice. He also stated that the visit of the Taliban delegation to different states and their participation in the extraordinary meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is proof of this.[3] In his last statement, Kabulov stated that Moscow could recognize the interim government of the Taliban, and that it would not wait for the USA or other states in this regard. [4]Although Kabulov talked about the recognition of the Taliban, the Kremlin Spokesman stated that there was no such thing.[5] He said that this would be possible only if the Taliban fulfilled the demands of the international community (the demands of pluralist government, respect for human rights and the fight against terrorism).

Russia sees its interests in Afghanistan in not weakening the Taliban government. Therefore, it improves its relations with the Taliban, known as the main actor, and tries to marginalize its opponents. Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, said that the Penshir Movement, which was formed under the leadership of Ahmet Mesut, was an artificial movement, and said, “We know their feelings and wishes.”[6] However, he stated that if the artificial movement turns into reality, a civil war will break out in Afghanistan and it will not be possible to provide prosperity and peace in Afghanistan.[7] Although Russia improves its relations with the Taliban, it increases its military presence in the Central Asian Republics to eliminate security concerns. Known to have 201 military bases and 6,000 soldiers in Tajikistan, Russia also organizes military exercises with the Central Asian Republics from time to time.[8]

Russia sees the USA as the main reason why the Taliban government is not accepted by the international community. In addition, it thinks that the US policy of weakening the Taliban may bring major problems to the regional states, especially to itself. Because if the Taliban is weakened, terrorist organizations and dissidents will become stronger, thus increasing the possibility of Afghanistan will be dragged into a civil war again. Therefore, Kabulov makes a special effort for Russia to recognize the Taliban.

It would not be a correct inference to say that other states will take steps in this direction before a global state recognizes the Taliban administration. If the United States continues to press Russia further over the Ukraine Crisis and tries to further destabilize Afghanistan, Russia may choose to recognize the Taliban by acting with the logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Such a step could lead to the division of the international community into two. More importantly, such an attempt by Russia will mean that the US’s Taliban policy has failed.

[1] “به چهار دلیل روسیه از طالبان پشتی‌بانی می‌کند”, Haşti Subh, https://8am.af/4-reason-russia-support-taliban/, (Date of Accession: 20.06.2022).

[2] “بحران افغانستان؛ واکنش قدرت‌های کلیدی منطقه به طالبان چه بوده؟”, BBC, https://www.bbc.com/persian/afghanistan-58268582, (Date of Accession: 20.06.2022).

[3] “روسیه: به رسمیت شناختن طالبان به‌طور عملی در جریان است”, Tasnim Haber Ajansı, https://l24.im/FnxOEQ, (Date of Accession: 20.06.2022).

[4] “روسیه: ممکن است طالبان را به رسمیت بشناسیم”, Etilaatroz, https://www.etilaatroz.com/144859/russia-we-may-recognize-the-taliban/, (Date of Accession: 20.06.2022).

[5] “سخنگوی پوتین: در مسکو هیچ صحبتی در مورد به رسمیت شناختن طالبان نشده است”, Afintl, https://www.afintl.com/202206159541, (Date of Accession: 22.06.2022).

[6] ضمیر کابلوف: جبهه مقاومت ملی یک جنبش مجازی است,” Sputnik, https://l24.im/gLGUi, (Date of Accession: 20.06.2022).

[7] Ibid.

[8] “سیاست روسیه در قبال قدرت گیری مجدد طالبان در افغانستان”, Uluslararası Barış Çalışmaları Merkezi, https://l24.im/h4sCmLw, (Date of Accession: 20.06.2022).

Ahmad Khan DAWLATYAR
Ahmad Khan Dawlatyar, 2013 yılında Kunduz Üniversitesi Hukuk ve Siyaset Bilimi Bölümü’nden mezun olmuştur. Yüksek lisans derecesini Ankara Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Siyaset Bilimi Anabilim Dalı’nda “Türkiye Cumhuriyeti ve Afganistan İslam Cumhuriyeti Anayasalarında Güçler Ayrılığı İlkesi Üzerine Karşılaştırmalı Bir Analiz” başlıklı teziyle 2019 yılında almıştır. Çeşitli bilimsel etkinliklere katılan Dawlatyar, Afganistan sorunuyla ilgili bildiriler ve makaleler sunmuştur. Bu kapsamda “Afganistan Sorununun Dini ve İdeolojik Nedenleri” başlıklı sunumu yayınlanmıştır. Halihazırda Ankara Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Uluslararası İlişkiler Anabilim Dalı’nda doktora eğitimine devam etmektedir. ANKASAM bünyesinde yürütülen çalışmalara katkıda bulunan Ahmad Khan Dawlatyar’ın başlıca çalışma alanları Afganistan ve Pakistan’dır. Dawlatyar, anadil seviyesinde Farsça, Özbekçe, Türkçe ve Peştunca dillerine hakimdir. Ayrıca orta düzeyde İngilizce bilmektedir.