BACKGROUND: Russia has been beating the drums that terrorists are threatening Afghanistan and Central Asia, and that Afghanistan’s government is incapable of prevailing in its war with the terrorists. The terrorist organization calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS) has now replaced the Taliban as the focus and rationale for Russian defense policy in Afghanistan as Moscow estimates that 5,000-7,000 recruits from Russia and Central Asia have flocked to ISIS’ banners.
Meanwhile, it is clear that terrorists in Afghanistan, belonging to both the Taliban and ISIS, have enjoyed sanctuary in Pakistan, mainly due to the influence of Pakistan’s armed forces. Moscow, however, is seeking to increase its arms sales to Pakistan and is now conducting joint military exercises with the Pakistani army. This is substantially the same contradiction as in Russia’s relationship with the government in Kabul.
Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, argues that “Taliban interests objectively coincide with ours.” This is allegedly because “the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban have said they don’t recognize [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi as the caliph; that is very important.” Yet Kabulov omitted to mention that ISIS also pays two to three times better than does the Taliban.
Despite being a victim of terrorism, Russia is perfectly willing to abet foreign terrorists or to commit what can only be labeled as terrorist acts abroad. Indeed, Russian law sanctions hits abroad on opponents of the regime, as demonstrated by the British investigation of the Litvinenko case. In Ukraine, Russian-backed forces have not only conducted, by their own admission, acts of terrorism in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, but also sponsored terrorist bombings in Odessa and Kharkiv. Russian arms are also known to flow freely, either directly or through Syrian and Iranian middlemen, to Hamas and Hezbollah. Nevertheless, Russia claims these organizations are not really terrorists because they were elected in the case of Hamas, or because they are allies of Russia’s allies in the region. Domestically, Russian forces are guilty of regularly conducting abductions and similar actions against innocent residents of the North Caucasus in order to extort money from them.
Russia therefore follows a well-established practice of taking a wholly instrumental view of terrorism as a legitimate tool of military operations and/or state interest. It should come as no surprise that its collaboration with the Taliban has evidently been ongoing for 2-3 years and is based on the pure consideration of expediency and state interest. This begs the question of how Russia can justify collaborating with terrorists as well as their enemies at the same time and credibly claim to lead an anti-terrorist campaign in Syria and Central Asia as well as the North Caucasus. Russia tries to do so even as this latest revelation of intelligence sharing with the Taliban highlights Russia’s purely instrumental attitude towards terrorism.
IMPLICATIONS: In Syria and elsewhere, Russia states that it wants to lead (or, in the Middle East, share leadership with the U.S.) in the anti-terrorist coalition even as it insists on having a free and lone hand in Central Asia and the North Caucasus. In Syria, at any rate, Moscow wants to proceed without preconditions, i.e. nobody questioning Moscow’s policies, practices, or modus operandi. Given the record sketched out above (and it is by no means the whole story) this is obviously a shaky claim to leadership. But Russia will not have it any other way. It clearly used its influence to keep Central Asian states from responding favorably to a Saudi call for an anti-terrorist coalition. And it is equally clearly determined to check Turkey’s participation in any coalition in which it takes a leading role and block Turkish influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Russia’s announcement of its long-standing collaboration with the Taliban will also surely have repercussions in Central Asia. The Afghan government will be extremely loath to collaborate on anything with Russia after this. Even if the Taliban has splintered into quarreling factions, they remain mortal enemies of the government in Kabul and now Afghan officials cannot be sure that anything they say to Moscow will not be forwarded to the Taliban. Russia’s behavior also suggests that should circumstances warrant doing so, Moscow would cooperate with ISIS. After all, most of Russia’s attacks in Syria are not against ISIS, whom Assad also refrains from attacking, but against Assad’s pro-Western and pro-Turkish adversaries.
Indeed, taken in tandem with Russia’s new-found collaboration with Pakistan, those two governments have possibly reached some sort of secret but shared understanding about what the future outline of Afghanistan’s politics and territory should look like. This is of concern to New Delhi, and particularly to Central Asian capitals who have presumably counted on Russian security guarantees for a generation.
Tajikistan was aware of the fact of the Russo-Taliban discussions, if not their content, because it has hosted them since 2013. But did other Central Asian states know about them? That seems quite unlikely. They must now consider to what degree they can count on the reliability and fidelity of their Russian guarantors to long-standing agreements if trouble breaks out in their homelands. Inasmuch as this is becoming a time of severe economic and hence political challenges for Central Asia, this is not an idle question. Clearly it is not beyond Russia to do in Central Asia what the Obama Administration did to Hosni Mubarak in 2011, namely pull the rug out from under them in the event of a major upheaval or insurgency at home.
By the same token, to what degree is Russia’s commitment to the defense of Central Asia against terrorism to be taken seriously? Russia has also just downgraded the status of its forces on the Tajik-Afghan border to that of a brigade although it appears not to have diminished its capabilities. Nonetheless, Russia has consistently been hyping the terrorist threat, first form the Taliban and now from ISIS, as the primary rationale for these forces. Yet even as Moscow invokes ISIS as the greatest threat to its own security, as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Director of the Security council Nikolai Patrushev respectively did in 2015, the recent revelations seems to show that in fact Moscow is less concerned than its rhetoric might otherwise indicate.
Moscow’s tactical flexibility and willingness to entertain collaboration with terrorists certainly manifests itself once again in practice, rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding. Could Moscow be willing to countenance or even covertly support terrorist organizations operating within Central Asia, including Afghanistan, against these governments? Russia’s credibility as a leading provider of anti-terrorist security must now come under renewed scrutiny. The same can be said of the belief held by other governments, not least in the U.S., that there is or was a community of interest with Russia in Afghanistan and Central Asia on the basis of fighting terrorism.
Moscow wants to decide for itself who are the terrorists so that it can leave open the option of collaborating with them at any time if its interests so dictate. This fact casts a shadow over Russia’s security policy across Eurasia, for it goes to the heart of the credibility of Russian commitments to Eurasian and other foreign governments.
CONCLUSIONS: Moscow’s opportunism and unprincipled behavior is perfectly consonant with its overall foreign and defense policies but it makes collaboration with Russia on the basis of anti-terrorism a decidedly more risky affair than was previously thought. Importantly, this makes the U.S. and allied mission in Afghanistan much harder than it was before. Among other things, it displays Russia’s lack of faith both in the NATO operation there, which it has not criticized as severely as it has NATO’s other activities, and in the Afghan government.
Finally, together with the reorientation towards Pakistan, what does this revelation tell us about the future trajectory of Russian foreign policy in Central Asia? While it is too early to see the specific consequences of the highly dynamic situation there, it should be clear to dispassionate observers that thanks to Russia’s opportunism, Central as well as South Asia will live in interesting times for even longer than we might have expected.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow with the American Foreign Policy Council.
Image Attribution: img.rt.com, accessed on March 9, 2016