Why Is Russia Legalizing the Taliban?

Although there are potential security and economic benefits for Moscow to be gained from closer ties to Afghanistan, they will be difficult to achieve.

Ahead of this year’s St. Petersburg International Economic Forum—which has been attended by a Taliban delegation since 2022—the Kremlin handed a PR victory to the rulers of Afghanistan. The Russian foreign and justice ministries submitted a formal proposal to President Vladimir Putin to remove the Taliban from Russia’s list of designated terrorist organizations. The Taliban has been on that list since 2003, along with groups like al-Qaeda, for backing separatists in the North Caucasus back then.

Kazakhstan took a similar decision in December 2023, although it only started speaking about it publicly in June. In another key country in Central Asia, Uzbekistan, the Taliban has never been designated as extremist. Indeed, Uzbek diplomats have taken a leading role in pushing for the Taliban to be recognized as a regional power.

When the Taliban entered Kabul in August 2021 amid the chaotic exit of Western armed forces, many wondered whether it would be capable of running the country. While a stability of sorts has been maintained, that is less down to the Taliban’s management skills and more to the fact that billions of dollars of humanitarian aid continues to flow into Afghanistan. In addition, the Taliban’s isolation and the readiness of Afghanistan’s neighbors to maintain control of their shared borders without taking in refugees has helped ensure the country’s tragedy remains a domestic one.

None of the developments feared most in the region—that new terrorist groups would establish themselves in Afghanistan, that the Taliban’s growing popularity would inspire other Islamists, and that the drug trade would boom—have come to pass. There are few foreign supporters of the Taliban, and even for the most dangerous extremists, Afghanistan is not an appealing place to make a home. While opium production ballooned as the Taliban was establishing control, it collapsed when strict measures were adopted.

It is true that Afghanistan-based cells of the Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K) extremist group have gotten stronger, though it’s disputed whether the Taliban is responsible for that. The deadly attack on Moscow’s Crocus City Hall in March showed ISIS-K’s international reach.

While the Kremlin officially blames Kyiv for that attack, Moscow’s frequent contact with the Taliban and the removal of the Taliban from its list of terrorist groups suggest it is seeking closer cooperation with Kabul in the battle with Islamic State. But that will be difficult to achieve—not least because the Taliban denies that there are any militants on its territory.

Aside from security issues, Moscow also harbors hopes of developing economic ties with the Taliban. Russian officials have again begun speaking about using Afghanistan as a transit hub—for exporting Russian natural gas to India, and other goods to ports in Pakistan. However, this requires a gas pipeline to be built through the mountains, and a railroad, which currently ends at Mazar-i-Sharif at the Uzbek border, to be extended.

While the North–South Corridor from Russia to the Indian Ocean via Azerbaijan and Iran has a chance of becoming reality, the railroad from Afghanistan to Pakistan is a pipe dream that is being pursued simultaneously by everyone (Uzbekistan, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Afghanistan)—and no one.

There’s a lot that remains unknown when it comes to Afghanistan’s economic ties with its neighbors. According to the World Bank, Afghanistan’s imports were worth $7.8 billion in 2023 and its exports—$1.9 billion: tiny amounts for a country of over 40 million people.

The Russian Business Center in Afghanistan estimates Russia’s trade with Afghanistan at about $1 billion (over five times more than in 2021). Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Overchuk has given the far more modest figure of $560 million. It’s impossible to assess the reliability of these numbers: not only is Russia’s customs data classified, but much trade with Afghanistan involves multiple border crossings and is settled in cash.

Still, data from Uzbekistan, the world’s main window onto Afghanistan, provide some clarity. Uzbekistan’s trade with its neighbor hit just $784 million in 2023, and it is highly unlikely that trade with Russia is higher.

The extent of the economic ties between Kazakhstan and Afghanistan is also unclear. While Astana claims its trade with Afghanistan is already worth $1 billion, the Taliban has said that the country only received $340 million worth of goods from Kazakhstan in the year from March 2022. Still, the future looks brighter for Kazakhstan and Afghanistan than it does for Russia and Afghanistan. Above all, Afghans need flour, grain, and oil products—and Kazakhstan can provide these more quickly and cheaply than Russia can.

A lot of empty rhetoric has been spouted by officials about Afghanistan being a treasure trove of natural resources. In May, a Taliban delegation visited the Russian city of Kazan to discuss investment in the oil and gas sector, but nothing concrete was agreed. Similarly, Russian engineering company KER-Holding has been promising (and failing) to start building a power plant in Afghanistan for several years.

It would be strange if Russia were investing more in Afghanistan than China is, given that the latter not only has more resources, but also shares a land border with Afghanistan. Yet even Beijing has been reticent about putting money into Afghanistan in recent years. The only known major Chinese investment is the $49 million that Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Co. has spent on developing oil fields near Herat. There’s no doubt this is a significant project for Afghanistan, but it’s small change for China.

Investment remains a challenge in Afghanistan, because despite being in power for three years, the Taliban has created little in the way of functioning state institutions, and it’s not even clear who runs the country: the Taliban’s supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada is rumored to be dead. Despite promises of a more liberal approach, the Taliban has maintained strict restrictions on women and the access girls have to education.

Nevertheless, Russia, Kazakhstan, and the other Central Asian states have little choice but to lift restrictions on the Taliban—and they are not alone. The Taliban’s interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani is wanted by the FBI, which is offering up to $10 million for information about his whereabouts. Yet earlier this month, the UN Security Council lifted travel restrictions for him and three other Taliban leaders to allow them to travel unimpeded to Mecca.

After the flurry of international interest in 2021, Afghanistan disappeared from the headlines. It’s now inconvenient to retain the extremist designation for the country’s de facto rulers. Even so, the legalization of the Taliban by Afghanistan’s neighbors is not guaranteed to lead to a rush of joint economic ventures, or booming bilateral ties.

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