Moscow’s Double Game in Afghanistan

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 11

(Source: NBC News)

With multiple global crises competing for urgent public attention, it is not surprising that Western media and governments have failed to keep pace with Russia’s double game in Afghanistan. But in fact, Russian actions there provide a revealing “tutorial” on Moscow’s real approach to the issues presented by terrorism (see EDM, January 17). On one hand, Moscow is trumpeting its desire to lead an international coalition with the United States against terrorism to legitimate its intervention in Syria and deflect attention from its aggression in Ukraine. But on the other hand, it is, according to all accounts, simultaneously upgrading contacts with the Taliban (, January 31).

For example in late December 2016, Russia, Pakistan and China jointly discussed how to prevent the Islamic State (IS) threat they see in Afghanistan—where conditions have been deteriorating for some time in their eyes (, August 15, 2016)—from spreading into Central Asia (Sputnik News, December 29, 2016). Predictably, the exclusion of Afghan officials at these trilateral talks regarding Afghanistan infuriated the government in Kabul (Al Jazeera, December 27, 2016). In particular, the representatives of Russia, Pakistan and China jointly agreed to pursue a “flexible approach to remove certain figures [i.e. of the Taliban] from sanctions lists as part of efforts to foster a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban movement,” according to Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova (, December 27, 2016). Russia’s motives here may look opaque, but in reality they are not as mysterious as they seem. For all the talk of a global anti-terrorist coalition, it is clear that for Russia there are “useful” and “not so useful” terrorists. The Islamic State in Afghanistan clearly is not useful, except insofar as it furnishes motives for expanding Russian military presence in Central Asia. But the Taliban, which is evidently much less dangerous to Moscow, becomes useful because support for it continues to weaken the Afghan state, thus ensuring that Russia will always have a voice there. Indeed, the Russian ambassador to the tripartite conference with China and Pakistan, Zamir Kabulov, admitted that Moscow has no peace plan for Afghanistan (, December 31, 2016).

Moscow’s flirtations with the Taliban have multiple objectives: they are a tool for Russia to retain a voice in Afghanistan, to deflect the Islamic State from Central Asia, as well as to draw nearer to Pakistan—which itself would be the sponsor of any anti-government movement in Afghanistan for its own reasons. In addition, Moscow apparently still believes the residual Western forces in Afghanistan pose some sort of threat to Russia. Kabulov has even charged that the United States is purportedly seeking permanent military bases there (, December 31, 2016). As a result, Moscow’s support for the Taliban is predicated on the latter’s willingness to allow the preservation of a Russian role in Afghanistan. Alternatively, the Kremlin can use the continued existence of the Taliban to invoke a hypothetical terrorist threat to Central Asia, thus justifying its enduring military presence there as well.

On the other hand, Russia characterizes the Islamic State in Afghanistan as a bad terrorist group, presumably because it could actually threaten Central Asia and thus force Russia to make good on its claims that it is the gendarme of Central Asia. As such, Moscow’s argument that it is a fit partner for an anti-IS or other anti-terrorist coalition proves to be groundless when one looks closely at Russian activities in Afghanistan.

Indeed, Moscow’s utterly cynical and utilitarian approach to deciding who is a terrorist and with whom it must or must not collaborate is of long standing. In 2007, Russia’s ambassador to Israel, Andrei Demidov, called on Israel to open a dialogue with Hamas. But when asked about Russia’s refusal to talk with the Islamist Chechen insurgency, he stated that the Chechen problem is an internal Russian issue: “We decide how to settle the problem.” Moreover, in complete defiance of the facts, he claimed that Moscow had in fact already settled Chechnya by peaceful means and created a government, a legislature and a judicial system there. He even recommended that Israel learn from Russia’s actions in the Chechen republic (Jerusalem Post, February 16, 2007).

Ambassador Demidov’s hypocritical statement highlights the true realpolitik calculations behind Russian policy. It also reveals Moscow’s implicit belief that Israel is not truly a sovereign state while Russia is: so while Russia’s sovereignty is inviolable and not open to any outside input, it can command Israel to negotiate with terrorist groups that seek its destruction. Not surprisingly, back in 2010, Israel replied that Hamas is no different than the Chechen militant groups in the North Caucasus. “Just as Israel unconditionally supported Russia in her struggle against Chechen terror [sic], we expect equal treatment in our struggle against Hamas,” the Israeli foreign ministry declared (Haaretz, May 12, 2010).

Moscow’s double game regarding various terrorist organizations—whether they are in Syria, Israel or Afghanistan—is, indeed, nothing new. And any government seeking to build an anti-terrorist partnership with Russia should remember the old Latin phrase caveat emptor (buyer beware) and take appropriate precautions before it buys the same dead horse for the second or even third time.