Islamic State Khorasan fighters at the Sheikh Jalaluddin training camp in Afghanistan in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

Russia’s shadow is extending over Afghanistan’s end-game as Moscow fortifies positions in neighboring Central Asian countries to guard against any destabilizing spill-over.

While Russia has declared it views the Taliban as a “responsible people”, it’s not taking any strategic chances as Islamic terror and militant groups previously in the shadows rise to the fore amid the new civil war.  

At the forefront of Russia’s concern is the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K), the transnational extremist jihadi group’s Afghanistan-based offshoot with links to his mother ISIL organization in the Middle East. While China seeks to drive a wedge between the Taliban and its allied, anti-China East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Russia does not need to press the Taliban on IS-K.

Both the Taliban and Afghan National Defense forces are battling IS-K, which has in recent years has suffered significant losses and territory. But some observers speculate the jihadi group is poised for a resurgence as the Taliban focuses on seizing Kabul, ousting President Ashraf Ghani’s US-backed government and entering the internationally accepted political mainstream.    

IS-K has sustained big battlefield setbacks in recent fighting, including near-eradication from its main Afghan base in Nangarhar province in November 2019 and further losses in its refuge in neighboring Kunar province in early 2020, a United Nations Security Council report notes. The UN’s Monitoring Team estimates IS-K’s numbers in Afghanistan are now as low as 2,200.

That could change, however, if the group can portray itself as the only defiant jihadi terror group left in the country, a claim which may appeal to those fighters, including from al-Qaeda, who were aligned with the Taliban as a rebel force against America’s and NATO’s perceived occupation but who may feel less fealty if the Taliban installs itself in power in Kabul and acts on the anti-terrorism requests of outside powers like Russia and China.

 

Taliban representatives at an international conference on Afghanistan in Moscow on March 18, 2021. Photo: AFP / Russian Foreign Ministry

“In addition to their handling of any threat posed by al-Qaeda, the Taliban’s credibility as a counterterrorism partner for the international community will rest on their success in countering the threat from IS-K,” the UN report said.

“The number of foreign terrorist fighters in search of a purpose and livelihood in Afghanistan, including up to 6,500 Pakistanis, will render this a complex challenge,” the report said.  

That’s already seen in an apparent tactical accommodation IS-K has reached with the Haqqani Network, an age-old autonomous Afghan guerrilla insurgent group that pioneered the use of suicide bombings in the country. Haqqani rebels have fought with the Taliban against US-led NATO forces and Afghan national forces and are known to have tactical terror reach in Kabul.

IS-K’s ideology is also known to be viewed sympathetically in the country’s north, particularly among ethnic Tajik and Uzbek populations, raising the risk of radical overflow into neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.  

The UN report mentions that “the ideology of the group still occupies a ‘virtual space’ online and within militant madrasas that endorse the [ISIS] belief set.” The group’s “global agenda” remains a major cause of concern for “many interlocutors” in Afghanistan, including Russia, the report said.

Russian interests in the region are no doubt in IS-K’s sights in view of Moscow’s role in fighting against ISIS in Syria’s civil war – an external power-driven free-for-all conflict scenario many feel Afghanistan will soon mirror.

Zamir Kabulov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special representative for Afghanistan, has portrayed the Taliban’s recent advances in Afghanistan as good news. “The fact that the Taliban are taking control… has a positive aspect to it. Why? Because most of these [non-Taliban extremist] groups are not focused on domestic matters but on Central Asia, Pakistan or Iran.”

IS-K fighters at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. Photo: Twitter

While Russia now regularly meets Taliban representatives, including reportedly to provide advice on how to contain terrorist threats, at the same time Moscow has started to beef up security in Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan as a strategic hedge.

Russia is supplying Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in particular with weapons and has commenced significant joint military drills with both nations’ forces near the Afghan border. Recent joint drills at the Kharb-Maidon training ground situated just 20 kilometers from the Tajik border with Afghanistan involved 2,500 troops from the three countries.

Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of staff, said during a recent meeting with his Uzbek counterpart Shukhrat Khalmukhamedov that the drills were staged “to practice actions to repel terrorist threats. “The main threat to the Central Asian region today comes from the Afghan direction,” he said.

Russia’s growing military activity around Afghanistan, however, is not entirely driven by the escalating civil war. Rather, the US’s troop withdrawal from Afghanistan has presented Moscow with a strategic opportunity to revamp its geopolitical clout in its old Central Asia stomping grounds as a regional security guarantor.  

Russia’s ramped-up moves have come amid reports that the US is searching for access to military bases around Afghanistan, including in neighboring Central Asian states. If Washington were able to secure access to such bases, it would create a new security dilemma for Moscow so close to its historically volatile southern borders, widely seen as Russia’s vulnerable strategic under-belly.

US Marines from the 2nd Battalion wait for helicopter transport in Helmand Province in Afghanistan on July 2, 2009. Photo: AFP / Manpreet Romana

In mid-July, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted in media saying that the establishment of US military bases in the Central Asian region would be “unacceptable” to Moscow. “We are warning them against such steps,” Ryabkov said. “We have told the Americans about this directly and frankly.”

Recent reports indicate the US plans to redeploy some 3,000 soldiers and Marines to Kabul to secure the evacuation of the US Embassy and American nationals. The reports also said the US will deploy some 4,000 troops “in the region” to assist with the same mission.

The Washington Post reported between 3,500 and 4,000 US soldiers will be deployed to Kuwait and put on standby in case even more combat troops are needed in Kabul, and about 1,000 other personnel will be sent to Qatar to assist Afghan allies evacuated with American help.

That would seem to indicate the US failed in any overtures made to win access to bases geographically closer to Afghanistan, including in Pakistan.

Russia’s quick deployment of military resources to frontline states not only underscores its concerns about a new US military presence in Central Asia, but also its own desire to proactively deploy and even expand on existing security agreements like the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to enhance its own presence and influence.

Russia currently maintains bases in Tajikistan, which shares a 1,300-kilometer border with Afghanistan, and Kyrgyzstan, both CSTO members along with Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Uzbekistan, Georgia and Azerbaijan withdrew from the treaty in 1997 and joined the rival GUAM group that includes Ukraine and Moldova and is seen as a counter to Russian regional dominance.

Russian military vehicles on a road near the Kharb-Maydon training ground in Tajikistan during joint exercises held between August 5 and 10, 2021. Photo: AFP / Press Service of the Central Mil / Sputnik

On July 7, Tajikistan’s CSTO representative requested “an adequate response” to the security situation emerging out of Afghanistan as per a 2013 resolution that stipulates not only active deployment of joint military resources but also the creation of necessary infrastructure on the border to repel any threat.

Putin had already assured his Tajik counterpart Emomali Rahmon of Russia’s full support to secure the nation’s porous and vulnerable border with Afghanistan.

“We are working on its strengthening, on strengthening the Tajik armed forces. We have joint work in this area, a whole program designed for several years. And we will do everything to ensure that it is implemented in a timely manner,” Putin reportedly told his Tajik ally.