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Russia is looking to engage with the Taliban. Here’s why.

- January 15, 2018
A U.S. soldier patrols in Asad Khil village east of Kabul, Afghanistan, on April 17. As the Trump administration weighs whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, the 16-year war is in a bloody stalemate, with few signs pointing toward a negotiated peace settlement with the Taliban. (Rahmat Gul/Associated Press)

In December, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Indian diplomats that Moscow supported diplomatic engagement with the Taliban.

Lavrov’s justification for this bold pronouncement? He argued that no Afghan peace settlement could proceed without the Taliban’s participation — and that dialogue with the Taliban would reduce the risk of terrorism diffusing from Afghanistan to Central Asia.

That’s just part of the story, though. My research on Russia’s Afghan strategy suggests that Moscow’s diplomatic engagement with the Taliban actually aims to challenge internationally accepted rules of engagement with the Islamic extremist organization.

Russian policymakers support engagement with Taliban factions that support a diplomatic settlement in Afghanistan, while eschewing factions that seek to destabilize the war-torn country. Moscow’s selective engagement strategy toward the Taliban contrasts markedly with Washington’s historical resistance to engagement with the Afghan militant group.

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This suggests that Russia is seeking to build an international consensus around its approach — and bolster its status as a counterweight to U.S. hegemony.

Russia’s engagement is selective

Officially, Russia continues to label the Taliban a terrorist organization. Since 2007, however, Moscow has unofficially maintained diplomatic links with Taliban members. This contradictory policy results from Russia’s belief that the Taliban can be divided into two main camps.

The first camp consists of moderate members who are willing to participate in peace talks and defeat transnational terrorism. The second camp, in contrast, consists of obstructionist members who seek to undermine the authority of Afghanistan’s legitimate government.

Russian policymakers distinguish between these two camps by analyzing the strategic interests and policy preferences of midlevel and senior Taliban leaders. In particular, they look to cooperate with Taliban factions that wield considerable political influence in regions with high concentrations of Islamic State fighters — and who oppose drug trafficking.

As the Taliban and ISIS are ideological enemies, Russia views Taliban fighters in areas of western Afghanistan with large ISIS footholds, such as Khorasan, as useful military allies. In December 2015, former CIA counterterrorism expert Philip Mudd stated that Russia frequently shares intelligence with anti-ISIS Taliban members. Russia has also allegedly supplied small arms to Taliban fighters in Khorasan, and backed Iran’s pro-Taliban military training efforts in this region.

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Moscow has concerns about drug-related crime from Afghanistan to Central Asia — so Taliban members who oppose drug trafficking have emerged as pragmatic partners. As Ekaterina Stepanova, an Afghanistan expert at Moscow’s Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), noted in our recent interview, Russian officials strongly supported Mullah Omar’s July 2000 crackdown on opium production. Russia regards Taliban members seeking to revive this policy as constructive partners in the struggle against the diffusion of narcotics from Afghanistan to Central Asia and Russia.

Is Russia optimistic about the Taliban?

Russian officials view successful collaboration with Taliban factions on counterterrorism and counter-narcotics as a useful foundation to help incorporate the leaders of these factions into a peace settlement. This optimistic assessment is based on Russia’s historical dealings with the Taliban.

Russia’s presidential envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, cited Moscow’s successful resolution to the 1995-1996 hostage crisis to justify his argument that dialogue with moderate Taliban members can achieve positive results. Current Russian diplomatic overtures toward the Taliban aim to repeat this success, and create a model for diplomacy with Islamic extremist groups that could apply to other conflict zones.

There’s a broader goal of building an international consensus — one that leaves out the U.S.

 However, there is a second motivation for Russia’s Taliban links. Building an international consensus around Moscow’s selective engagement strategy bolsters Russia’s international status as a conflict arbiter. Since December 2016, Moscow has hosted regular diplomatic talks on resolving Afghanistan’s political crisis. These talks include direct appeals to moderate Taliban factions to participate in peace talks with the Afghan government.

The United States has refused to participate in these talks because of its reluctance to engage diplomatically with the Taliban. However, the expansion of these talks from a three-nation summit with Russia, China and Pakistan in December 2016 to an 11-nation gathering, involving Central Asian states, Iran, India and Afghan representatives in April 2017, suggests that Moscow’s selective engagement strategy with the Taliban is gaining traction.

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European leaders are reluctant to admit to diplomatic dialogue with the Taliban, but pro-Russian Afghan politicians have drawn attention to synergies between European and Russian engagement strategies with the Taliban. Kremlin-aligned former Afghan president Hamid Karzai announced in April 2017 that Norway and Germany have a long history of holding talks with the Taliban, and argued that Western criticism of Russia’s Taliban links constitutes a double standard.

Pakistan has urged the United States to cooperate with Russia’s Taliban engagement efforts, while India has sought to bridge the gap between U.S. and Russian positions on Afghanistan. Russian policymakers are hoping that the growing popularity of its selective engagement strategy with the Taliban will prompt the United States to change its position on diplomacy with the Islamic extremist group.

There’s a precedent. As the United States held clandestine talks with the Taliban in 2012, Russian policymakers think that international pressure and a stagnant military situation in Afghanistan could cause Washington to return to Obama-era engagement strategies.

If the United States follows Russia’s lead and accepts the need for diplomacy with the Taliban, international perceptions of Russia’s great power status would rise substantially. Moscow’s responses to international crises such as those involving Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea are aimed at establishing Russia as a counterweight to the United States. This suggests the success or failure of Moscow’s Taliban engagement has profound implications for these status aspirations.

In short, Russia’s selective engagement with moderate Taliban members challenges U.S. negotiating strategies toward the Afghan militant group. And by facilitating a peace settlement in Afghanistan and gaining international acceptance for its diplomatic engagement with the Taliban, Russian policymakers can help bolster Moscow’s status as a great power and indispensable arbiter in crisis situations around the world.

 Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in international relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Diplomat and National Interest magazine. Follow him on Twitter @SamRamani2.