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Does the Road to Kabul Run Through Moscow?

5 MINS READApr 14, 2017 | 07:17 GMT
Russia's meddling in Afghanistan's affairs could give the Kremlin an advantage in the troubled region.
(KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (R) welcomes his Afghan counterpart, Salahuddin Rabbani, during a meeting in Moscow. International rivalries are playing out in Afghanistan, which occupies a strategic crossroads in the region.

As the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump works its way toward a policy on Afghanistan, Russia is wasting no time getting involved in America's longest-running war. Moscow is hosting talks April 14 aimed at jump-starting negotiations on the conflict in Afghanistan, the third such attempt since December. Officials from China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan will be in attendance. The United States, a key stakeholder in Afghanistan, is conspicuous in its absence. The talks are coming at an especially relevant time given that the Taliban usually launch their annual spring offensive in mid-April.

Aspirations aside, peace is not one of the expected outcomes of the negotiations. The real significance of the talks is in highlighting the international rivalries playing out in Afghanistan, which ultimately undermine the very opportunity for conflict resolution such discussions are meant to present.

The talks specifically illustrate how Moscow is trying to gain leverage against Washington by deepening Russia's involvement in another theater of war beyond Syria. That said, Russia has legitimate national security interests driving its involvement — the Kremlin wants to prevent transnational extremist groups such as the Islamic State's Khorasan chapter and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan from using Afghanistan as a springboard to launch into Russia's Central Asian periphery. These are not unfounded concerns: Khorasan launched high-profile attacks in both Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2016. Moscow also wants to stem the inflow of drugs from Afghanistan into Russia as part of its campaign to curb domestic heroin abuse. Thus, with the new U.S. administration still vague on its Afghan policy, and with Pakistan pivoting to Russia for support as its ties with the United States cool, Moscow has identified an opportunity to step in. 

Taliban-controlled and Taliban-contested districts in Afghanistan

Exposing Deeper Issues

The talks highlight a central conundrum for Afghanistan: The country's location makes it a bridge between the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia and China and a locus of great power rivalry. These very rivalries, however, serve to undermine negotiations to end the ongoing conflict, therefore enabling the transnational jihadist threat to endure. This, in turn, sustains external involvement in Afghanistan and perpetuates the vicious cycle. 

The United States has become newly suspicious of Russia's involvement in Afghanistan, accusing Moscow of meddling in the conflict by arming the Taliban. Russia, meanwhile, claims that its contact with the Taliban is for negotiation purposes. Just days ago the police chief of Uruzgan province claimed to have seen 11 Russians in his neck of the woods, accompanied by four armed Taliban guards. This is partly why Washington chose to skip the talks despite Moscow's invitation.

Yet because the United States is the largest external stakeholder in the country, contributing the majority of the 13,000 NATO troops still stationed there, its nonattendance means the talks will be a non-starter as far as promoting negotiations with the Taliban goes. It is also worth noting that the Taliban were not invited, though the group expressed interest in joining the talks. Russia is taking the long view, setting itself up to play host to future talks, which will give Moscow influence when it comes to shaping the terms of eventual negotiations to end a war that Washington has no desire in prolonging. It is also an opportunity to one-up the United States, which failed to jump-start its own talks with the four-nation Quadrilateral Coordination Group dialogue last year. 

India, Pakistan and Strategic Depth

The rivalry between Washington and Moscow that is playing out in Afghanistan is nothing new. During the 1980s, U.S.-armed jihadist proxies filtered through Pakistan to fight Soviet troops in the decadelong Soviet-Afghan War. In an ironic turn, that conflict sowed the seeds of the transnational jihadist movement that threatens Russia today. Beyond Russia and Washington, however, rivalries in Afghanistan extend to include India and Pakistan. Both nations will be present in Moscow, and neither can agree over Afghanistan. 

Pakistan, for one, continues to host elements of the Afghan Taliban in hopes of gaining influence in a post-conflict Kabul. It is anticipated that by ending the war, the Taliban will be allowed to govern as part of a power-sharing agreement. Islamabad seeks to prevent Afghanistan from falling into India's orbit. For Pakistan, an India-centric Afghanistan could bring about the nightmare scenario of a two-front war on Pakistan's major borders. India, on the other hand, views a potential pro-Taliban Afghanistan as advancing the broader transnational jihadist menace in South Asia. This threat manifests through cross-border militant attacks in Jammu and Kashmir as well as incidents such as the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai. This is why, since 2001, India has sought to check Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan by investing more than $2 billion in aid, including financing the construction of the Afghan parliament building on the outskirts of Kabul. 

India and Pakistan's conflicting strategic imperatives add a complicating layer to the Russo-American tussle over Afghanistan, though all involved have an interest in extinguishing the transnational extremist threat. Beneath the sanguine desire for peace, these underlying geopolitical dynamics explain why negotiations will sputter and why Afghanistan will remain mired in conflict for the foreseeable future.

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