On August 27, Mohammed Jawed Hejri, a senior official in Afghanistan’s Takhar province, alleged that Russian or Tajik border aircraft launched a bombing raid against narcotics smugglers in northern Afghanistan. While the Russian Ministry of Defense swiftly denied Hejri’s allegations, the bombing raid sparked a fresh debate on Moscow’s strategic interests in Afghanistan.
Although Russia has been criticized by senior U.S. officials, like General John Nicholson and the U.S. Department of State’s Alice Wells, for allegedly providing arms to the Taliban, Russian policymakers have emphasized Moscow’s commitment to peace in Afghanistan. The benefits of a stable Afghanistan for Russian policymakers are manifold, as a peace settlement in Afghanistan would enhance the security of crucial Russian allies in Central Asia, like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and stem the inflow of narcotics and militants into Russia’s southern frontiers. Through a series of Moscow-format talks, which began as a result of a December 2016 gathering of senior officials from China, Pakistan, and Russia on combatting Islamic State (ISIS), Russia is seeking to establish a leading role in the stabilization of Afghanistan and showcase its conflict arbitration prowess to a broad international audience.
Russia’s strategy to achieve peace in Afghanistan consists of three main policies. First, Russia believes that Afghan National Army (ANA) forces and international actors should intensify their efforts to defeat the Islamic State’s South Asia branch, Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP). To justify Russia’s focus on the ISKP threat, the Russian president’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, has stated that ISKP has 10,000 active fighters in Afghanistan. This assessment contrasts with U.S. estimates of 2,000 active ISKP fighters in Afghanistan. To mobilize its allies against the terrorist group, Russia has argued that ISIS fighters have migrated from the Middle East to Afghanistan, and pose a threat to South Asia and the post-Soviet region.
In order to vanquish ISKP, Russia is calling for a recalibration of U.S. and ANA-backed counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan. Russian policymakers believe that the U.S. military’s overarching focus on defeating the Taliban is indirectly strengthening ISKP as the Taliban and Islamic State branch have hostile relations and can be pitted against each other. While U.S. policymakers believe that labelling the Taliban as a lesser evil to ISKP mischaracterizes the situation in Afghanistan, Russia hopes that mutual concern over the recent spate of Islamic State terror attacks in Kabul and Jalalabad will allow for greater Russia-U.S. cooperation against ISKP. Russian policymakers viewed the intensification of U.S. military strikes on ISKP targets in eastern Afghanistan during the early June ceasefire as an encouraging development, and Moscow has strategized with its Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) allies on developing a military action plan to weaken ISKP.
Second, Russia believes that stability in Afghanistan is an impossibility as long as the narcotics trade continues to provide revenues for militant groups. The narcotics trade in Afghanistan is a highly salient political issue in Russia, as the diffusion of heroin and opium from Afghanistan to Russia contributed greatly to the sustained rise in drug-related fatalities in Russia since 1991. As the Afghan narcotics trade has been a much less prominent part of the U.S. public discourse on Afghanistan, Russia believes that the United States is not doing enough to address this problem.
Even though Russia-U.S. anti-narcotics cooperation ended abruptly after the Obama administration imposed sanctions on the Director of Russia’s Federal Narcotics Service Viktor Ivanov in 2014, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov publicly endorsed the restoration of NATO-Russia military cooperation against the narcotics trade in a December 2017 statement. While the breakdown of U.S.-Russia relations has stymied short-term hopes for renewed cooperation, Russia has worked with its Central Asian partners, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, on combatting drug trafficking from Afghanistan, and hopes that these efforts, combined with periodic U.S. military strikes will reduce inflows of narcotic-derived revenues to extremist groups.
Third, Russia is seeking to divide the Taliban between moderate members that are willing to entertain a political settlement with Ghani’s government, and extremist members that seek the prolongation of the war at all costs. In response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s August 2017 decision to expand the scope of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Russia has insisted that pursuing a purely military solution to the war in Afghanistan is destined to fail and that the Taliban needs to be engaged as a legitimate stakeholder.
Although the Taliban’s refusal to participate in January’s Istanbul talks and March’s Tashkent process seemingly undercut Russia’s case, Moscow has been encouraged by the Taliban’s willingness to hold talks with U.S. officials in Doha, attend an Uzbek Foreign Ministry-sponsored mediation summit on August 11, and participate in the next round of Moscow-format talks on Afghanistan’s political future.
While the September 4 Moscow-format talks were temporarily postponed after the Afghan government rejected Russia’s invitation, Russian policymakers hope that this multilateral peace process will resume shortly, and result in productive dialogue between Afghanistan’s warring factions. If the Taliban were to make a concrete commitment to peace as a result of Kremlin-backed negotiations, the Russian government will be able to highlight Moscow’s indispensability as a diplomatic stakeholder in Afghanistan, and showcase Russia’s great power status to nationalists at home.
Even though Russia has been frequently described as a saboteur of peace in Afghanistan, a closer examination of Moscow’s motives and conduct suggests that a political settlement in Afghanistan would more effectively advance Russia’s interests than continued violence. By confining its objectives to an ambitious, yet achievable agenda, of weakening ISKP, combatting narco-trafficking and diplomatically engaging the Taliban, Russia can contribute to ending the war in Afghanistan, and use its rising diplomatic profile to bolster its own security and international standing in the months to come.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a contributor to The Washington Post and The National Interest. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2, and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani. This article has been previously published by the EastWest Institute.