The special representative of the Russian President in Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov has recently said that Russia would probably undertake military measures against the ISIL in Afghanistan. He stated that if the Afghan and American governments failed against the group, Russia would undertake military option.
In response to the remarks of this Russian official, the Afghan government has said, “the countries in the region must act responsibly against the terrorism, as does Afghanistan.” The Afghan government warns that having any contact with “terrorist” groups on behalf of any country can make the situation very critical.
The emergence of ISIL in Afghanistan created mistrust in Kabul-Moscow relations and, in the past two years, the Russian officials have repeatedly expressed their concern about the presence of the group in Afghanistan. After the remarks of the local Afghan officials and some members of the Parliament about the landing of unknown helicopters in the areas controlled by this group, the concerns of Russians have increased.
Here we have analyzed Kabul-Moscow relations, Russia’s concerns about the presence of ISIL in Afghanistan and the confrontation between Moscow and Washington in this country.
The Kabul-Moscow ties
After 2001 until the second term of Karzai’s Presidency, relations between Afghanistan and Russia were relatively warm, and after the beginning of the second term of Karzai’s government, due to his oppositions with Washington, relations between the Afghanistan and Russia improved and the Afghan officials repeatedly visited Moscow.
After the formation of the National Unity Government (NUG), Kabul sought to form a regional consensus against terrorism. Therefore, trying to achieve this end, President Ghani and National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar traveled to Russia and Russians promised to cooperate as well.
The Afghan government assumed that insecurities in the Northern Afghanistan and the emergence of ISIL in the country would urge Russians to extend their military cooperation with Afghanistan. However, on the contrary, Moscow became suspicious of Kabul’s fight against ISIL and established close relations with the Taliban which was the beginning of the deterioration of relations between Kabul and Moscow.
The mysterious emergence and fast expansion of ISIL in Afghanistan and after some members of the Afghan Parliament accused National Security Council of supporting ISIL, Russia became suspicious about the Afghan government’s fight against ISIL. Therefore, instead of extending state-to-state relations with the Afghan government, Russia strengthened its ties with the Taliban.
These suspicions went on to the extent that Russia-China-Pakistan trilateral meeting about Afghanistan was held without the presence of any Afghan representative, which further increased the distance between the two countries and the Afghan government strongly reacted against it and criticized holding such meetings.
Relations between Russia and the Taliban
Russian authorities have officially confirmed that they recognize the Taliban as a real armed political opposition of the government and that they (Russians) are in contact with them. Speaking of these relations on their websites, the Taliban has called these ties as the recognition of this group by the countries in the region. Therefore, these relations are not just rumors leaked to the media but a confirmed fact by all parties.
Since Russians believe ISIL to be a serious threat to them and the Taliban are practically in a war against them, Russians have preferred to deal with the ISIL in Afghanistan through establishing relations with the Taliban. There are two probable answers for why Russians chose the Taliban over the Afghan government. First, Russia believes that the Afghan government does not have the ability needed to confront ISIL. Second, Russia accuses both the Afghan government and its foreign allies of supporting ISIL.
In his remarks, Zamir Kabolov has said that attacking the Taliban, foreign forces have freed ISIL fighters that were surrounded by the Taliban in Nangarhar province. Nevertheless, the Afghan presidential palace says that the countries that believe the Taliban are against ISIL are seriously misled.
Russia confesses its relations with the Taliban and justifies these ties with the need to tackle the threat of ISIL and to ensure the security of its citizens and diplomats in Afghanistan. However, from a different angle, rivalry with the US is viewed as the primary factor behind these relations.
US-Russia rivalry in Afghanistan
After the 9/11 attacks and the US military attack in Afghanistan, a new phase of Russian policy towards Afghanistan started. Although primarily Russia supported the US initiative to overthrow the Taliban regime and form a new government with the support of ISAF, in recent several years, besides regional and international issues, the permanent US bases in Afghanistan and then the emergence of ISIL in this country affected the Russian policy and in the case of Afghanistan, to some extent, Russia put the policy of neutrality aside.
Emergence and expansion of ISIL in Afghanistan altered the geopolitical situation in the region and after the trilateral meeting between Russia, China and Pakistan over the issue of Afghanistan this change revealed itself in practice.
Russian officials, especially the special Russian representative in Afghanistan, have repeatedly criticized the US policy in the region in general and the US policy in the fight against terrorism in particular.
On the contrary, NATO and the US accused Russia of supporting the Taliban. In the meanwhile, both the Afghan and American officials are concerned about relations between Russian and the Taliban. According to the Commander of NATO and US forces in Afghanistan General John Nicolson, Russia has joined Iran and Pakistan in extending “harmful influence” in Afghanistan. He said that Russia wanted to win legitimacy for the Taliban and ISIL was just an excuse to justify Russian policies.
The special Russian representative in Afghanistan has said in his recent remarks that if the Afghan government and foreigners failed against ISIL, Moscow would not remain indifferent. He warned of Russian military action in Afghanistan which convoys the picture of Afghanistan turning into the battle ground of Russia and the US.
Besides preventing the expansion of ISIL in Afghanistan, Russia uses the option of “relations with the Taliban” as a mean to pressurize the US in other international cases as well and given the recent warning of Russia, it seems that after Ukraine and Syria, Afghanistan will be another area for Russian-American rivalry, which will further complicate the situation in Afghanistan and will turn Afghanistan into a battlefield for another type of proxy wars.
Although if the influence and activities of the ISIL expand in Afghanistan, there is a possibility of Russia targeting their sanctuaries in this country; currently it seems that such remarks are just to pressurize the Afghan and American governments and in the current circumstance, when the US and NATO are present in Afghanistan, Russia’s military intervention seems unlikely.