The American withdrawal from Afghanistan coupled with the exponential growth of those parts of the country under the rule of the Taliban have caused alarm in Russia. Kommersant’s foreign policy expert Maxim Yusin painted a series of gloomy scenarios. The Taliban could expend into the former Soviet republics in Central Asia; Tens of thousands of Afghan Tajiks and Uzbeks fleeing the Taliban could destabilize Tajikistan and Uzbekistan; Tajikistan would be unable to seal its border necessitating the return of Russian border guards. If Central Asia was radicalized this would adversely impact Russia, as “millions of people from these republics work in our country.” The situation was actually worse than what obtained in 2001 at the start of the American intervention, because then at least the Northern Alliance provided a buffer against the Taliban but now the borders of the former Soviet Republics were exposed. Yusin concluded”: Afghanistan may very soon turn from an American headache into a Russian one. And, the problems seem to be just beginning.
Zamir Kabulov, Putin’s troubleshooter for the region tilted towards the Taliban and against the Kabul government. Some commentators believed that an accommodation could be worked out with the Taliban, who had their own interests in not pushing the envelope too far. Other commentators claimed that Taliban assurances were not to be trusted and the movement was interested in reassuring Russia until it had consolidated power. Under the most gloomy scenario, Russia could be forced to take military action perhaps in cooperation with the Chinese.
The following report surveys Russian reaction to the American withdrawal from Afghanistan coupled with the Taliban surge and what it portends for Russia:
The Official Optimistic View: The Taliban Can Be Confined To Afghanistan, Can Be Used To Counter ISIS
The position enunciated by the highest Russian officials is that Russia is willing to come to the aid of its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization should they face aggression. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated “We will deploy any means, including using the capabilities of our military base, situated at the Tajik-Afghan border, in order to prevent any aggressive actions against our allies. Earlier, on July 5, 2021 Russian President Vladimir Putin held a telephone talks with Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon on the situation at the Afghan-Tajik border. The Kremlin announced that the Russian leader “confirmed his readiness to provide the necessary help to Tajikistan.”
Interestingly, Lavrov blamed the situation on the Americans and the Kabul government, he stated that the “United States is not just withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan. It is withdrawing them de facto having admitted that their 20-year-long mission failed. The terrorist threat has not diminished. On the contrary, it has increased many times over since 2001, when the Americans went there. The drug threat has increased by orders of magnitude. Moreover, there are materials in the West that indicate that US soldiers likely participated in transporting drug cargoes.”.
“The main problem is the one that you mentioned – the threat of terrorist attacks there has increased. The Taliban have become more belligerent, because the existing agreement presupposed the formation of a transitional government that would prepare conditions for forming more stable government institutions. Unfortunately, the Kabul leaders are reluctant to organize anything transitional. They fear that this will remove them from their active political work. It turns out that they and the Americans, who are withdrawing from the country, are leaving the situation to be resolved by military force. The situation is further aggravated by the fact that, in addition to the Taliban, universally recognized as part of Afghan society, and as a result of stalling political processes and the ensuing resumption of hostilities, niches are being formed for the ISIS militants, not Taliban.”.
Zamir Kabulov, Putin’s Special Representative on Afghanistan, was more explicit in condemning the Kabul leaders and expressing respect for the Taliban. He claimed that the Kabul government was insisting that the Taliban first recognize it and then they would be prepared for talks, and he condemned this ploy: This is hypocrisy. This is an attempt to shut one’s eyes to the existing reality, therefore these are empty words. What we need are actions.”
The solution was to foster the conditions for intra-Afghan talks and perhaps to expand the external sponsors to include Russia.
Kabulov pushed the theory that the Taliban was bad news for ISIS that had felt great in Afghanistan building up concentrations of 3-4 thousand fighters. “They now faced an implacable enemy: They [the Taliban] hate them and do not take them captive; they annihilate them. Therefore, Taliban successes there drain their blood and depeive ISIS of grounds for attacks and sabotage against Central Asia.”
Ria.ru, commentator Petr Akopov, who generally echoes and amplifies official positions, was at pains to claim that the Taliban did not pose a threat to Russia or its allies. The threat to the Central Asian republics, Akopov claimed, emanated not from the Taliban but from various armed formations from the northern Afghan provinces, which could be defeated or ejected out from the country by the Taliban.
Another problem was the American insistence on maintaining bases outside the country or settling their interpreters in countries bordering on Afghanistan. Akopov believes that these interpreters could easily be resettled in the US, and the fact that the Americans want them nearby betrays an American ulterior motive to embroil Afghanistan’s neighbors with the Taliban: “‘You [Afghanistan’s neighbors] claim that you didn’t allow the Americans to deploy their bases on your territory, that you didn’t let the US intelligence work against Afghanistan from your territory, isn’t it? But what are thousands of Afghan citizens, who work for the US and live on their money, doing on your territory? Are they on vacation? Or are they engaged in subversive work against Afghanistan?'” it will be difficult to answer such questions posed by the new Taliban authorities”..
In another article for Ria.ru, Akopov commented on the visit of a Taliban delegation to Moscow and claimed that the Taliban no longer fit the description of a terrorist organization with whom Russia did not negotiate. “The thing is that despite 20 years of American occupation, the former rulers of Afghanistan are still the most prominent force in the country. Now the Americans are withdrawing, and the Taliban is coming back.” The Taliban had been willing to cooperate with Moscow in reaching a negotiated settlement. Unfortunately, the Kabul government believed that the Americans would stay forever and did not negotiate in good faith.
Moscow’s optimal program was an intra-Afghan settlement; the minimum program is “the containment of Afghan problems, and protection of neighboring countries (primarily the Central Asian republics) that are allied or friendly us.”
Akopov sought to negate concerns about the Taliban. They were not the mujahideen that fought the USSR with American backing. Nor were they creatures of Pakistani intelligence. They were an authentic movement. “For almost three decades of its existence, this unusual and very secretive movement has proven its resilience and demonstrated support from a significant part of the Pashtuns, who constitute the main people of Afghanistan. The Taliban proclaimed Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is a quarter of a century old, 20 years the state existed underground and was engaged in guerrilla warfare. It’s not the point whether one likes their ideas about Islam, state or society.”
The Taliban decided to reinforce such hopes by sending a delegation from the Qatar office to Moscow for the third time this year for talks. at the end of which they staged a press conference, where they tried to allay fears over their return to power.  They promised to fight both narcotics and ISIS.
Kommersant was skeptical about these assurances. The Taliban promised to not take the provincial centers by force in order to avoid casualties among the peaceful population. However, “immediately after the press conference, the news on heavy clashes in the outskirts of city of Kandahar (the second largest city in the country) appeared”
The Taliban representatives also sought to refute charges that the movement opposed science and progress. Muhammad Suhayl Shaheen, the head of the Taliban delegation emphasized that all citizens of Afghanistan, including women, should be able to receive an education “from school to the PhD” level. Shaheen sought to accredit the idea that the Taliban and ISIS were bitter enemies.: “We had harsh clashes with IS. This group has been eliminated from the northern and eastern provinces, for instance from Nangarhar and Kunar.” According to Shaheen, the Taliban fighters recently encircled a group of 2,600 ISIS fighters and transferred them to the Kabul authorities. “We pledged that no one will be able to use the land of Afghanistan against neighboring, regional and world powers, including the US and its allies..”ISIS is a foreign group, they have no roots in our country,” added the Taliban representative.
Experts sounded out by Kommersant were highly skeptical. “Professor Rustam Burnashev an expert on Central Asian security commented: “This is amanipulation of terms. Both Taliban and ISIS are ‘umbrella terms’ that can be used for anything. For instance, there is no certainty that the groups currently ‘taking control’ of the Tajik border have any affiliation with the Taliban representatives, who negotiate with Moscow. The same is true for ISIS.” Burnashev also warned “that when the Taliban links their adversaries with the IS, this is simply an ideological trick to acquire support from foreign powers.”
Andrey Serenko, director of the analytical center at the Russian Society of Political Scientists scoffed at Taliban “promises to fight the drugs production (revenue from this activity constitute at least half of the Taliban’s budget (i.e. about $1 billion)) or guarantees that the war won’t spread beyond Afghanistan’s borders.” Serenko questioned the credentials of the Moscow visitors to speak for the Taliban and claimed that disagreements existed between the Taliban’s Qatar office and those who de facto manage the movement on the ground. “The genuine promises can be made by different people, but they don’t come to Moscow or other capitals. Perhaps they don’t want to undertake ridiculous commitments.”
Plan B: Containing Problems Within Afghanistan
According to Alexander Mikhailov, who heads the Bureau of Military-Political Analysis, Russia will be able to cope, because it is experienced in dealing with border issues among the Central Asian republics:
“Russia is able to find ways to prevent a military conflict at the border. Additionally, not only military means of dealing with the issue are available. It can be solved via diplomatic methods through participation of both the CSTO and, possibly, the concerned SCO [Shanghai Cooperation Organization] member-states.”
“Military-wise Russia is already strengthening its air-missile defense capabilities in the region and conducts exercises,” added Mikhailov.
Andrey Kazantsev, Director of the Analytical Center of the Institute for International Studies at Moscow State University argued that it would be mistaken to draw alarmist conclusions from the current situation, which was a product of American and NATO mishandling “The power of the Afghan government in Kabul rests on the shoulders of mercenary troops, which were financed with foreign assets. Such troops were plagued with serious internal contradictions mostly of an intra-ethnic nature. The entire system was held together by the continued supply of foreign money, as well as by the US and NATO military support…Now, since the financial support has stopped, soldiers are fleeing or surrendering due to low morale. In contrast, Russia has the situation well in hand. “Considering that there are Russian bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and that the CSTO has prepared different scenarios to provide assistance in case of aggravation at the Tajik-Afghan border, the available capabilities are quite sufficient to help Russia’s allies under the CSTO,” concluded Kazantsev
Military experts emphasized the important of Russia’s 201st military base in Tajikistan. Colonel Anatoly Matviychuk was confident that this would counter any threat posed by the Taliban. “Currently the 201st base is strengthened with artillery, rocket launchers and helicopters. If tactical aviation will be deployed there, the military base will be capable of repelling any threat posed by the Taliban.”
The Military Intervention Option
If push came to shove and both Plan A’ and Plan B’ failed would Russia and China replace the Americans in Afghanistan?
Alexey Maslov, Acting Director of Institute of Far Eastern Studies at Russian Academy of Sciences, discounted the possibility.
“It’s unlikely that China will deploy its troops in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the Americans, because Beijing doesn’t have any experience in operations of this kind. Only the US, Russia (USSR) and the UN “Blue Helmets” [UN peacekeeping forces] possess such experience. China is very concerned about stability in Afghan state, because the transport corridor to Pakistan, financed by Beijing, passes through it. However, since Pakistan is leaving this project, the Chinese participation in it will be suspended too.
“Thus, for China, Afghanistan is now important only security-wise. The Chinese need to curb drug trafficking from that state. Beijing is also concerned about a support for Islamic extremism in China.
“China won’t pressure Russia regarding the situation in Afghanistan. This is not a case when Moscow would heed the Beijing’s words. If the Kremlin makes any decision on Afghanistan, it will be determined solely by its own interests.
“Today, Moscow and Beijing are engaged in deliberations on the Central Asia issues. However, the prospects of deployment of Russian, Chinese or a united military contingent in Afghanistan has never been touched upon, because it would lead to even further destabilization of the region.”
Alexey Malashenko, professor, chief researcher at IMEMO [Institute of World Economy and International Relations] was also dismissive of the idea and preferred containment:
“To a large extent no one needs Afghanistan and no one knows how to deal with it either. Russia, considering its economic shortcomings, won’t be able to accomplish anything there. There is a possibility to find a threat to Central Asia in Afghanistan, and try to engage Russian diplomacy and the military in its containment. Thus, Moscow will be interested in a political and military presence surrounding the country.”
Malashenko believed that it would be possible to play ball with the Taliban: “It’s hard to answer whether Afghanistan, after the withdrawal of Americans, will become a foothold for radical Islamists. Be that as it may, the Afghan Taliban has no need for terrorists and extremists. They plan to build a nation state and have good relations with everyone.
It’s not yet clear who will take the power in Afghanistan after the Americans. It could be the Taliban, but a coalition cannot be excluded. However, Al-Qaeda, for a certainty, won’t rule the Afghan state.”
The respected military columnist Pavel Felgenhauer was less sanguine about the situation and did not exclude joint military intervention by Russia and China.
“Both the Chinese and Russians, by and large, don’t give a damn about Afghanistan. Only the countries of former Soviet Central Asia may become a problem. The thing is that in case of Afghan destabilization, the commotion could spread to the northern border into these former Soviet republics. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are particularly vulnerable in this regard. This scenario could become a regional catastrophe for both China and Russia.
“Neighboring Iran, as well as the West, won’t benefit from it too. Still the Americans decided that they aren’t going any longer hold this line of defense, and that if the Russians and the Chinese need it, then they have to do it themselves.
“China receives gas and oil [supplies] from Central Asian countries, and Russia has its own interests in the region as well. If the Taliban would allow for the Islamic State to infiltrate these countries, the latter may establish bases, for example, in Kyrgyzstan. Such a scenario will create a direct threat to the Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region of China, populated [mainly] by Muslims. This is a serious issue for both China and Russia. If this will be the case, then joint Russian-Chinese military operations against the Islamists in Central Asia are possible.