What Does the ISIS-K Attack Mean for Afghan-Russia Ties?

For the Taliban, further engagement with any major power, such as Russia, is an opportunity to escape from international isolation.

According to Russian authorities, the horrific attack at Crocus City Hall on March 22 took at least 139 lives, marking the deadliest act of terrorism in Russia for many years. Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K) quickly claimed responsibility.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has asserted that “radical Islamists” were responsible for the terror. As Putin put it, extremists “whose ideology the Islamic world has been fighting for centuries” carried out this attack. But he has also accused Ukraine of playing some role—a claim that officials in Kyiv strongly deny.

ISIS-K and other violent jihadist groups have long seen Russia as their enemy. Over many years, Islamic State and Al Qaeda propaganda has depicted Russia as an “infidel” power guilty of committing crimes against Muslims in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Chechnya in the 1990s and 2000s, and Syria beginning with Moscow’s intensified military intervention in 2015. Moscow, along with the Islamic Republic of Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, fought to keep President Bashar al-Assad’s government in power, which entailed the Russian military fighting ISIS directly in certain battles. In 2015, ISIS propaganda produced more anti-Russian material, with the so-called Caliphate identifying Russia as leading the “Crusader East.”

“Since Russia entered the war in Syria in 2015, it has been increasingly perceived as a vanguard of Shi’a interests. Putin has provided substantial military aid to Assad, allying Russia with avowed enemies of Sunni jihadists,” argues Colin P. Clarke, the director of policy and research at the Soufan Group and the author of After the Caliphate: The Islamic State & the Future Terrorist Diaspora. He added that the Islamic State sees Putin as a “Shia stooge.”

After the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan in August 2021, ISIS-K carried out attacks in a host of foreign countries, such as Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey, before this latest act of terrorism in Moscow. The group has also threatened the West and China, highlighting how the Islamic State’s Afghan branch is committed to a global agenda extending far beyond Afghanistan’s borders. The Taliban’s diplomatic engagement with the United States in Doha and with Chinese officials have been incorporated into ISIS-K’s anti-Taliban propaganda.

While speaking with this author, Dr. Mark Katz, a professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, said, “I think that ISIS-K is ready to attack any country or group that it regards as an enemy—and it seems to regard many countries and groups as enemies. It is not surprising, then, that it would attack Russia. Indeed, it would be surprising if it did not.”

In September 2022, ISIS-K attacked Russia’s embassy in Kabul, resulting in six deaths. That attack highlighted the extremist group’s threat to Moscow’s interests in post-U.S. Afghanistan and throughout Central Asia. ISIS-K’s motivations for attacking Russia’s diplomatic mission in Afghanistan also stemmed from the organization’s determination to convince major powers such as Russia and China that Afghanistan would be unstable and unreliable under the Taliban regime.

Since August 2021, no government worldwide has yet to formally recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government. But Russia—along with China, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—has taken steps in the direction of recognition, essentially constituting a “soft recognition” of the Islamic Emirate. Two years ago, Moscow accredited a Taliban official, Jamal Nasir Gharwal, to serve as charge d’affaires in Afghanistan’s diplomatic mission in the Russian capital shortly before he started heading the embassy in April 2023.

Moscow’s Options

In light of the deadly attack on March 22, it is worth considering how Putin’s foreign policy may evolve and what that means for Afghan-Russian relations. The critical question is, will Moscow be more willing to work with the Taliban as a counterterrorism partner in the struggle against ISIS-K?

Experts believe that this is entirely possible.

“I think that Moscow will see this latest attack as heightening the need to work with the Taliban, as well as Iran, against ISIS-K. The Taliban, like Iran, is a desirable partner for Moscow because it is anti-Western. Russian cooperation with the Central Asian republics will also continue,” Dr. Katz told this author.

“I think [the March 22 attack] could very well could bring Moscow closer to the Taliban, which ironically, will make the Kremlin a more attractive target to ISIS-K. There is a witch’s brew of extremism and Sunni jihadist militancy in the Caucasus and Central Asia and these networks may be melding in ways that aren’t readily apparent to many intelligence services, which is a foreboding concept to consider,” said Clarke.

“Russia will likely continue hosting the Taliban delegations in Moscow, and holding talks with its representatives, aiming to increase its influence in Afghanistan. Since ISIS-K reportedly represents a serious threat to both the Taliban and Tajikistan—Moscow’s relatively loyal and very important ally in central Asia—the Kremlin will likely seek to strengthen its ties with Kabul and Dushanbe,” said Nikola Mikovic, a Belgrade-based policy analyst with expertise in Russian foreign policy, in an interview with this author.

According to Ahmad Sayer Daudzai, who previously served as Charge d’Affaires at Afghanistan’s embassy in the UAE, the trajectory of Moscow’s foreign policy vis-à-vis the Taliban will depend on how cooperative Afghanistan’s de facto government is with the Kremlin. He explained that Russian authorities have yet to decide whether the Taliban can serve as a counter-terrorism partner rather than operate as a facilitator of terrorism throughout Central Asia.

If the Taliban does not prove a helpful counter-terrorism partner for Russia, Daudzai believes there are three courses of action Russia could take to deal with ISIS-K.

The first would entail ignoring the root cause of the ISIS-K threat and instead blaming the bloodshed of March 22 on elements in Ukraine, hoping that the terrorist attack in the Russian capital is a one-off so that Moscow can avoid entanglement in a war against ISIS-K on Russia’s southern front.

The second would be Russia waging airstrikes against ISIS-K targets in Afghanistan. According to Daudzai, “This will allow them to match the activities of the United States in the region who [are] also targeting Zawahiri inside Kabul. Recently, Pakistan also conducted strikes inside Afghanistan on targets that they claimed were members of [Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)]. This could start a trend of regional countries striking their own enemies inside Afghanistan with impunity. This will also help Putin save some face after the major security failure in Moscow.”

A third option would consist of Moscow lending support to certain non-state actors in the region, which could fight ISIS-K: “This could include providing more arms, funds, logistical support, and intelligence support to the National Resistance Front [NRF], which is waging a low-intensity insurgency against the Taliban from their base in Tajikistan. The NRF has pitched this on multiple occasions to Russia, that the Taliban cannot be a counter-terrorism partner, but the NRF can be, and they will fight with both the Taliban and ISIS-K if they receive support from Russia.”

The Road Ahead

For the Taliban, further engagement with any major power, such as Russia, represents an opportunity to escape from international isolation. Authorities in Kabul might have reason to expect that Russia would be willing to be the first country to formally recognize the Islamic Emirate as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

It will be critical to observe how Russia’s major decisions regarding the Taliban play out in relation to other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), chiefly China and Iran. Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran share interests in preventing extremist groups like ISIS-K from gaining greater clout in post-occupation Afghanistan while also working to counter U.S. influence in Central Asia. Ultimately, Russia’s possible deepening of ties with the Taliban, at least in the framework of fighting ISIS-K, could open the door for China, Iran, and other non-Western powers to take major steps to increase their working relationships with the de facto regime in Kabul.

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