U.S. military helicopter taking off in Afghanistan.
An MI-17 helicopter leaving the Gulistan district in Farah province, Afghanistan, April 12, 2009.

For Washington, Russia Makes Afghanistan Mess Even Messier

June 14, 2017
Jeffrey Mankoff

The news for the United States in Afghanistan keeps getting worse. Hobbled by corruption and infighting, the U.S.-backed Afghan government is gradually losing its hold on the country. As the quarterly report issued by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) at the start of 2017 notes, “The numbers of the Afghan security forces are decreasing, while both casualties and the number of districts under insurgent control or influence are increasing.” Not only has the Taliban staged a comeback, Islamic State cells have cropped up as well, exacerbating insecurity throughout the country and threatening to spread Afghanistan’s instability beyond its borders. As Defense Secretary James Mattis told Congress on June 13, the U.S. is "not winning" in Afghanistan and the Taliban is "surging."

Amid the stark deterioration of security within Afghanistan, Washington faces a new and unexpected challenge in Russia’s decision to wade back into the Afghan morass. Moscow sees the failures of the American-backed government in Kabul, along with the ongoing turmoil in Washington, as a sign that the U.S. will not be able to bring stability to Afghanistan anytime soon. Russia’s growing involvement is thus both about protecting Moscow’s interests in an increasingly unstable Afghanistan and part of a larger effort to enhance its own role in the Greater Middle East at Washington’s expense. In recent months, Moscow has taken on a more active role in Afghan diplomacy, building on its earlier outreach to the Taliban, with senior U.S. military officials suggesting Russia has been supplying the militant group with small arms and equipment.

A Burdensome History

Since the withdrawal of Soviet forces from the country in 1988-89, Moscow has mostly steered clear of Afghanistan. It worried that neither its own population nor Afghans would tolerate a Russian presence in the country after a conflict that former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called a “bleeding wound” on the body of the USSR and in which more than a million Afghans died. As recently as the early 2010s, Moscow’s efforts to cooperate with the U.S. to combat Afghan drug trafficking met with howls of protest from the Afghan government, then headed by Hamid Karzai.

Throughout the past decade and a half, Russia’s participation in the Afghan conflict was, at best, indirect, and its objectives did not seem to diverge in substantial ways from those of the U.S. and its partners in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Moscow has generally supported U.S.-led efforts to stabilize Afghanistan ever since U.S. and allied forces overthrew the Taliban government in the wake of its refusal to turn over the perpetrators of the September 2001 terrorist attacks. Moscow provided diplomatic support for the U.S.-led efforts, while beefing up its own capabilities and those of its Central Asian allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to prevent the spread of instability from Afghanistan into the former Soviet Union. It also acquiesced to Washington’s deployment of troops to Central Asia, provided intelligence and other support for operations inside Afghanistan and signed on to participate in the much-hyped Northern Distribution Network, an effort to develop supply routes bypassing Pakistan.

You Are Back in Afghanistan, I Perceive

This year, though, Russia has taken a much more active role in the Afghan conflict—an approach that comes in the context of both a deteriorating security environment inside Afghanistan and a more confrontational U.S.-Russian relationship globally. Moscow appears to have concluded that the U.S.-led intervention, ongoing since 2001, has failed to stabilize Afghanistan and that, either through a precipitous withdrawal or through attrition, the U.S. is not going to be in a position to guarantee stability or to protect Russian interests in maintaining stability on the southern border of Central Asia over the longer term. At the same time, Moscow’s pursuit of a larger role in Afghanistan is part of a broader quest to chip away at U.S. influence in the Greater Middle East, which also affects Russian policy in Syria, Central Asia, the Gulf, the Levant and even North Africa.

In February, Russia sponsored a conference with regional stakeholders to discuss the future direction of Afghanistan, and in April it convened a much publicized peace conference in Moscow with representatives from a dozen countries (not including the United States, which refused an invitation).

Most notable and, from Washington’s perspective, most worrying about Moscow’s efforts to insert itself into the search for a solution to the Afghan conflict has been its willingness to embrace the Taliban as a partner (something the U.S., ironically, considered as recently as 2013 before deciding it was not possible). Even as the U.S. continues aiding and supplying President Ashraf Ghani’s government in its efforts to defeat the Taliban militarily, Moscow has stepped up diplomatic contacts with the Taliban, including reportedly agreeing to provide it with weapons and financial support. Moscow has denied these allegations, which have been repeated by multiple senior U.S. officials, saying it has merely been trying to include the Taliban in peace talks. At the same time, Moscow has blocked efforts by the U.S. to promote reconciliation between the Ghani government and other militant factions to more effectively prosecute the war against the Taliban.

Moscow’s Concerns

If true, Russia’s direct support for the Taliban would appear to be driven by a mix of pragmatic considerations and geopolitical calculations that go beyond Afghanistan.

Ever since the U.S.-led invasion, Russia has adopted a somewhat contradictory approach to the conflict in Afghanistan. While supporting the initial invasion, allowing U.S. supply lines on Russian territory and acquiescing to the deployment of U.S. troops to Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, Moscow has been clear from the beginning that it did not want to see the U.S. establish a permanent military presence in the interior of Eurasia. At the same time, Moscow has long worried that the U.S. would pull out of Afghanistan before it had completed the job of pacifying the country, and that whatever instability the U.S. left behind would pose a danger to Russia’s allies in Central Asia, and ultimately to Russia itself.

While these fears of “spillover” were at times exaggerated for political effect (both in Moscow and in the Central Asian capitals), they are not illusory. The production and trafficking of opiates from Afghanistan is a source of particular concern, with the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) noting that Russia is among the world leaders in opiate abuse, overdoses and drug-related HIV infection. Meanwhile, as the government’s writ in Afghanistan continues shrinking, the UNODC estimates opium production surged 43% in 2016. Russia has long argued that the U.S. approach to opium production in Afghanistan, which focused on interdiction rather than eradication, was flawed, and in February 2016 pulled out of an anti-narcotics cooperation agreement with the U.S. as the broader relationship deteriorated.

Moscow has also expressed concern about the spillover of extremism and terrorism from Afghanistan. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Taliban provided refuge to a range of militant groups, including, of course, al-Qaeda, but also the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) which had carried out attacks across Central Asia, including large-scale incursions into Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000. More recently, significant numbers of Central Asian jihadis have gone to fight in Syria. With security in Afghanistan increasingly breaking down, the prospect of battle-hardened Central Asians returning to the country in large numbers is a source of real concern for Moscow. Equally worrying is the appearance of ISIS cells in Afghanistan, comprising not only fighters returned from Syria, but also those who were radicalized closer to home.

The Enemy of My Enemies Is … Good Enough?

Russia’s apparent embrace of the Taliban is thus in part a bet that—in contrast to ISIS and figures who have been integrated into global jihadist networks through participation in the Syrian conflict—the Taliban cares more about dominating Afghanistan than about exporting jihad to other countries. As Moscow’s special envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov noted in a wide-ranging interview with the Turkish press in December 2016, “The majority of Taliban nowas a result of all these historical lessons they got in Afghanistanbecame a local force. They gave up the global jihadism idea.” 

Sensing that the tide is turning against Ghani’s government and that the U.S. cannot be counted on, Moscow is hoping that the Taliban can be strengthened to the point that they can act as a counterweight to ISIS and can impose some semblance of stability on Afghanistan, whether in some kind of coalition with Ghani, or instead of him.

Of course, opposition to ISIS is not all the Taliban have going for them in Moscow’s eyes. Ever since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to oust the Taliban from power for refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden, the group has been strongly opposed to the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. While Moscow downplayed its concerns about a U.S. troop presence as long as it appeared Washington was interested in and effective at bringing stability, Russia now appears to have concluded that the U.S. presence is more of a danger than an asset. In his interview with the Turkish press, Kabulov noted that since the U.S. was expelled from Iran following the 1979 revolution, it has searched for a military foothold from which to project power in Eurasia, and that Afghanistan “was an available option and a nearby country to Russia, Central Asia, China, Iran and Pakistan.”

This prospect has long worried Moscow, which fears that the U.S. aims to contain Russian power by keeping it bottled up in its own neighborhood. At the same time, Moscow believes that U.S. prestige throughout the Middle East is on the wane, and that Russia has an opportunity to fill the resulting power vacuum. Empowering the Taliban, whether by enabling an outright victory or through a peace deal that brings it into the government, would insure Russia against a long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan and give Moscow greater influence over the resulting government in Kabul.

The attempt to roll back U.S. influence in Afghanistan is in keeping with Russia’s involvement in Syria, where it has propped up President Bashar al-Assad in large part to maintain the country as a geopolitical bulwark in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as its actions in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and even Israel. Throughout the Greater Middle East, Moscow is eager to develop new partnerships as a means of containing U.S. power and ensuring its own ability to influence security developments around its perimeter.

Just when Washington thought Afghanistan could not get any more complicated, Moscow provided yet another reminder of its ability to disrupt longstanding assumptions and create new challenges. Of course, as Moscow learned the last time it ventured into Afghanistan (and as it is currently discovering in Syria), wading in is always easier than climbing out.


Jeffrey Mankoff

Deputy director and senior fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Photo credit: Wikicommons photo by Joseph A. Wilson shared as a U.S. government work in the public domain. 

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.