Though Russia may no longer be a global ‘superpower’, its influence is still formidable. Recently, Russia has been showing glimpses of its geopolitical intentions in Afghanistan – giving the embers of rivalry between Russia and America a new breath for the first time since the 1980s.
The enemy of my enemy
ISIS is seen as a threat by essentially all players in the Middle East, including other terrorist organisations who fight them on the battlefield. As with any sporadic and enemy-of-all group, as it is being pushed out of some areas it is spreading to new ones. ISIS’ aggressive emergence in Afghanistan – which at some point involved 2,000 to 3,000 fighters – had everyone worried. But after ramping up operations, United States Brigadier General Charles Cleveland stated in March: “We believe that there are approximately 700 members of ISIS, perhaps even less.” But Russia still fears the presence of ISIS in Afghanistan will start putting Central Asia, including many of Russia’s cultural and historical allies, at risk.
Russia has been in contact with the Taliban since 2007, then as a way to stem the drug trafficking problem that was sifting through Central Asia. As time has gone on, it’s evident that relations have not been limited to the opium trade that the Taliban rely on as part of their income. Russia has also opted to arm the Taliban with modern weaponry to combat ISIS, and the Kremlin admitted it also supplies intelligence to the Taliban. The Soviet defeat in 1989 is still fresh in the minds of the Russian people, and Putin would rather use local resources than insert Russian troops on the ground.
At the same time, Russia is benefiting from the presence of the US military, which keeps the Afghan government, Taliban, ISIS, and other forces in check. The consequence of almost two decades of war has racked up trillions of dollars in costs for the United States, and the country is already heading toward another debt crisis. This may be another reason why Russia has chosen not put its troops in Afghanistan; an attempt to keep it’s own finances under control.
Simultaneously, Russia is also playing the role of noble investor through its funding of infrastructure projects. It’s strategy is to gradually highlight America as mere militant entity, whereas Russia is creating a flourishing environment for business and trade.
In the fog of war nothing can be taken for granted, and thus it is no surprise there are suspicions the Taliban may have been working together with ISIS in some instances. Multiple Central Asian leaders have expressed their desire for new Russian military bases in their respective nations, in order to ward off expansionism from either group. Russia may find it difficult to portray the Taliban as the ‘lesser of two evils’ to its Central Asian allies.
A complex web
Throughout the recent slowdown and pull-out of Western powers in Afghanistan, peace talks have consistently failed. But Russia has put its own weight behind the effort, and on October 11th it hosted peace talks with over 50 countries and international organisations, discussing how the conflict with the Taliban could be finally brought to an end. Putin also reached out to another regional ally, India. Although not publicly confirmed, officials have said that ongoing security concerns and Pakistan’s increasing role in Afghanistan were discussed. These efforts, combined with a lack of direct Russian military presence, helps to create an image of Russia as a stakeholder for peace in the region.
Russia has, in general, looked to demarcate itself from the unpopular US military presence as a way of influencing the region. While Putin wins over the Afghan people with increased investment in the country’s infrastructure, peace-building efforts prop up Russia’s image in other countries. Meanwhile, Putin is also helping to contain ISIS from spilling over the borders into its Central Asian allies’ territories. The result is multiple benefits for Russia at little cost. And to crown things off, Russian support for the Taliban is also sticking a thorn into America’s long-term geopolitical strategy in Afghanistan.