The latest round of talks between the Taliban and other Afghan factions in Russia on Tuesday and Wednesday were organized by Moscow to mark the 100th anniversary of diplomatic relations with Afghanistan. Parallel peace talks led by the US and Russia underscore the complicated nature of the Afghan conflict, which is driven by geopolitical factors.
The divergences of interests are evident in the joint call by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the political deputy of the Taliban, for the withdrawal of US-led coalition troops, the presence of which they consider a major obstacle to peace in Afghanistan.
It must be noted that Russia has both geopolitical and geo-economic interests in Central Asia. It considers Central Asia its strategic backyard and has a monopoly over pipeline diplomacy, as it has continued to transport Central Asian natural resources through pipelines that have existed since Soviet times. The Russian role in Afghanistan has been shaped primarily by the threats to the region emanating from and facilitated by the latter.
Snce the 9/11 terror attacks, Russian policy has been geared toward containing American penetration of the region as well as shielding the Central Asian republics from radical Islamic influences and stopping Afghan drugs from entering them. The American objective of laying down alternative pipeline routes for the transfer of Central Asian resources to the world market through Afghanistan threatened Moscow’s long-term geopolitical interests.
While the US considered the Taliban’s assistance in laying down pipelines routes such as Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline (TAP) to be crucial, Russia perceived a substantial threat when the Taliban rose to prominence in Afghanistan. For instance, Sergei Ivanov, head of the Russian Security Council, threatened to launch missile and air strikes against Afghanistan after accusing the Taliban government of assisting the Chechen resistance. Moscow further accused the Taliban of giving sanctuary to Islamists from some of the Central Asian states and allowing them to train for guerrilla warfare to destabilize those states. During the Afghan civil war, Russia kept pouring in weapons and money in support of Uzbek and Tajik warlords. When the civil war entered a decisive phase, Russia, in order to push the Taliban out of Tajik and Uzbek areas, threw its weight behind Ahmad Shah Massoud, who had bases in Tajikistan.
On the other side, many scholars viewed threat perceptions from all these sources, although relevant, to be deliberately exaggerated by the Russian authorities because they aimed to exercise firm control over the former Soviet republics. The developments in Chechnya, Central Asia (civil war in Tajikistan) and Afghanistan were seen as part of a larger plot hatched by a secretive network of Islamist activists and terrorists whose main goal, according to Russia’s Federal Security Service, has been to create a great Islamic caliphate. However, the scholar Rasul Bakhsh Rais argues in “Afghanistan: A forgotten Cold War Strategy” that the link between the Taliban and the Islamist movements in Central Asia was questionable. According to him, all these movements have indigenous roots and Russia and the ruling elites in Central Asia exaggerate the transnational links among the Islamic movements to divert attention from their own political failures.
Safeguarding its strategic backyard (Central Asia) from the growing menaces of drug trafficking and Islamic fundamentalism (non-conventional threats) emerging in Afghanistan was the driving factor that pushed Russia to accept the American military presence (a conventional threat) in the region post-9/11. Russia’s support for the US-led “war on terror” in response to 9/11 was evidently driven by its national interests, apart from the despicable nature of the terrorist acts themselves. More specifically, Moscow’s desire to cultivate international support for its concerns stemming from the uprising of radical Islamic forces in Chechnya and challenges posed by the rise of Islamic opposition movements and drug trafficking in its Central Asian backyard were key to Russian cooperation with the US.
As the US and its NATO allies were drawing close to the areas where Moscow had strategic interests, suspicions over Washington’s geopolitical objectives became visible
However, Russian support for the American-led Afghan war was far from being full-fledged and unconditional. As the US and its NATO allies were drawing close to the areas where Moscow had strategic interests, suspicions over Washington’s geopolitical objectives became visible. Immediately after the American declaration of war, then-defense minister Sergei Ivanov ruled out any presence of NATO in the region and the chief of the general staff, Anatoly Kvashnin, remarked that Russia had no plans to participate in a military operation against Afghanistan.
Russian suspicions remained as to the intensity of the US engagement with the Central Asian states in the guise of taking on terrorism within the framework of Operation Enduring Freedom. In order to secure a firm foothold in Central Asia, the US not only secured temporary forward basing in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, strategic engagement in the region was also fostered through access to airspace and restricted use of bases in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
There were frequent instances of American officials visiting Central Asia, intelligence-sharing and improved coordination within the US Central Command. Further, American interest in reviving the TAP pipeline project in 2002 in an attempt to end the Russian monopoly over supply routes to transfer Central Asian resources, which was facing uncertainties due to the turbulence generated by the Taliban, corroborated Russian suspicions over US geopolitical interests.
As the American entrenchment in the Central Asian region deepened, the countries of the region were asked to fulfill their bilateral and other obligations to Russia. Dmitry Rogozin, during his stint as a Russian envoy to NATO between 2008 and 2011, made efforts to make it clear that Russia wanted to help the US and Afghanistan as part of the international community, but on its own terms.
Around the same time, although Russia did not object to them in principle, it viewed skeptically several new transit corridors laid down by the US to deliver goods to its forces in Afghanistan (the routes are collectively termed the Northern Distribution Network), and emphasized that these must not be used to transfer lethal goods. On the other side, many US officials were envisaging the network being transformed into a Modern Silk Route.
In response to the US military bases operating in different parts of Central Asia, Russia established its own bases, but their direct contacts were surprisingly limited. In response to the greater role of the US in the region, Russia called for a larger role for regional organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in maintaining security and stability in Afghanistan.
You might also like: Why Afghan peace process must not be hasty exercise
Perhaps because of Russia’s overriding influence due to its monopoly over oil supplies, the Central Asian states agreed to strengthen the CSTO as an alternative to NATO. In one top-level summit, in 2011, the CSTO leaders unanimously agreed that countries outside the regional security bloc would only be able to establish military bases in the territory of a member state with the consent of all member states.
Responding to the evolving Afghan scenario, Russia not only made efforts at diplomatically engaging successive Afghan governments, it attempted to establish itself as a major stakeholder in the Afghan peace process, too. Being excluded from the Quadrilateral Coordination Group to broker peace of which the US, China, Pakistan and Afghan government are members, Moscow opened up its channels to play its part in the Afghan peace process, taking other regional countries and the Taliban on board.
Realizing the geopolitical importance of the outcomes of regional war and peace efforts, Moscow has allegedly shifted its support from the fragmented Northern Alliance group to the Taliban in order to strengthen its Afghan role. Washington believes that Moscow is channeling its support toward the Taliban to impede the peace process in Kabul and roll back progress made by US-led forces and drive a wedge between Washington and its coalition partners, while Moscow keeps denying allegations of its support for the radical group.
US State Department officials, however, have expressed concerns over Moscow’s failure to work with Washington in Afghanistan, and some American military officials on the ground have not hesitated to accuse Russia of providing arms to and sharing sensitive intelligence with the Afghan Taliban.
Russia justified its opening up channels of communication with the Taliban with such objectives as protecting Russian citizens in Afghanistan, promoting peace, and above all, containing the influence of ISIS – which is considered by Moscow a more dangerous threat to the Central Asian region because of its transnational objectives and role. Just as Syria became a hotbed of geopolitical jostling for influence between Moscow and Washington, Afghanistan, as another site for their scrambling for geopolitical supremacy, will continue to witness an enhanced Russian role, preventing cooperation between the two powers unless Moscow’s regional geopolitical claims are counterbalanced by a global US geopolitical role.