Research Fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences and former Visiting Fellow at the prestigious Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi Alexei Zakharov published a piece in India’s The Economic Times on 25 July titled “View: India and Russia at an Afghan Crossroads”.
The respected expert chronicled the Russo-Indo divergence in Afghanistan from rock-solid anti-terrorist allies in 2000 to the contemporary state of affairs whereby Moscow has begun to pragmatically engage the Taliban in the name of peace while New Delhi still refuses to have any public contacts with the group despite speculation that such backchannels might have already been maintained for years.
In his view, Russia worryingly overlooked some of the strategic risks inherent to its newfound ties with the Taliban. Mr. Zakharov is especially concerned that “the public acknowledgment and dealing with a still-terrorist organization (by UNSC designation) may have an adverse long-term effect on young population in Muslim-populated regions.”
He also warned that “The Taliban a priori cannot guarantee that religious extremism and terrorism will not spread over the region affecting India’s Kashmir and Russia’s Caucasus and other Muslim-populated regions.” Because of this, “[Russia ] has also acquired a new headache since the situation may run out of control posing hard security challenges to Central Asian allies and, by extension, its own territories.”
A shift in Moscow’s approach
I generally disagree with Mr. Zakharov’s assessment and would like to use this opportunity to explain why. Early on he wrote that “Moscow’s approach to the Afghan crisis has seen dramatic change: from episodic collaboration with U.S. under the guise of counter-terror efforts to complete rejection of U.S. presence in the region.” It’s actually unclear whether Russia is truly in complete rejection of the US presence or not. President Putin’s Spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to confirm or deny a report from the reputable Russian business newspaper Kommersant in mid-July that the Russian leader discussed the possibility of the US jointly using Moscow’s regional bases for the purpose of obtaining drone-derived anti-terrorist intelligence in Afghanistan.
Two weeks before that, Mr. Peskov declared that “Of course, after the Americans and their allies pull out of Afghanistan, the situation in that country is a matter of grave concern for us.” With this in mind, it might very well be the case that the reported joint base offer has some degree of credibility to it, hence Mr. Peskov’s diplomatic answer in declining to confirm or deny it. Meanwhile, Russian Special Presidential Envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov said later that month that the US and its NATO allies “should provide Afghanistan with assistance for its socio-economic restoration”. This strongly implies Russian approval of them retaining at least a non-military presence in Afghanistan.
These observations challenge Mr. Zakharov’s assessment that Russia completely rejects the US presence in the region. It appears to be the case that while it’s in favor of the American military withdrawal from Afghanistan, it wishes that it was carried out more responsibly and didn’t leave such a power vacuum for others to exploit. Moscow also seems to be of the view that the US and its allies should retain a socio-economic presence in the region in order to help rebuild Afghanistan. These points are important to keep in mind since they speak to the pragmatic nature of Russia’s contemporary balancing act across Eurasia whereby it aims to facilitate mutually beneficial compromises between various parties as opposed to advancing zero-sum outcomes.
Mr. Zakharov then writes that “The manifestations of this difference in views (between Russia and India) has led to India’s absence in several Moscow-led initiatives and Russian public statements that it is Pakistan who plays a ‘key regional role’ whereas India, due to lack of leverage over Taliban, is less influential.” Those outcomes are entirely due to India’s hitherto inflexible stance towards the rapidly changing circumstances in Afghanistan. I elaborated on them more at length in my recent analysis for India’s The Print titled “Indian experts are wondering why New Delhi has been sidelined in Afghanistan. This is why”. I’ll now share the points that are most relevant to the present piece.
Is Russia forging ties with the Taliban?
Russia’s balancing act, which I consider to be its 21st-century grand strategy, has seen it reach out to non-traditional partners like Pakistan and the Taliban in recent years in pursuit of shared interests. It’s beyond the scope of this analysis to discuss the rapid Russian-Pakistani rapprochement except to mention that it was initially driven by shared security threats stemming from Afghanistan, particularly ISIS-K.
This unexpected development also contributed to Russia viewing the Taliban in a different light since those groups are enemies of one another. Mr. Kabulov said during a recent virtual conference with Russia’s prestigious Valdai Club that “the strengthening of the Taliban can even be a positive factor” for Russia and the region if the group fights ISIS.
The Russian Special Presidential Envoy to Afghanistan also welcomed India’s possible participation in the Extended Troika format of his own country, China, Pakistan, and the US because “[its] clout and its role are rather significant” in Afghanistan, but qualified his invitation stating that “Only countries that have an unequivocal influence on both sides [of the conflict] participate.” Therein lies the problem because India doesn’t have any public contacts with the Taliban.
Mr. Zakharov made a strong point though when he wrote that “the question is why would New Delhi publicise the (reportedly backchannel) dialogue with a Pakistan-backed fundamentalist group before it takes actual power and/or gets internationally approved legitimacy.”
Changing situation in Afghanistan demands changing the established old narratives
My answer is that New Delhi has to publicize those reported backchannel contacts if it’s to accept a public role in the Extended Troika otherwise it can’t participate in that format. It’s of course India’s choice whether or not to do so upon calculating the costs and benefits (mostly domestic reputational and political/strategic respectively) as its leadership understands them to be, but the fact of the matter is that it’s that country’s hitherto inflexible stance towards the rapidly changing circumstances in Afghanistan that’s responsible for it not participating in several Moscow-led initiatives, which has nothing to do with Russia’s own policy. To the contrary, Russia wants India to publicly talk with the Taliban so that it can then participate in that format.
As to his description of the Taliban as “Pakistan-backed”, that’s currently questionable after Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan disclosed in mid-June that his country lost a lot of leverage over the Taliban after the US announced the date of its full military withdrawal. One can debate the extent to which Pakistan previously backed the Taliban and the ways in which this manifested itself over the years, including the role that it played in encouraging them to enter into peace talks in the first place, but the manner in which Mr. Zakharov described the Taliban as presently being “Pakistan-backed” might be interpreted as misleading by some since it doesn’t align with the rapidly evolving reality. Nevertheless, he still has a valid point when it comes to the wisdom of India possibly waiting to talk to the Taliban until it comes to power or gets international legitimacy.
I disagree with Mr. Zakharov assessment that “the public acknowledgment and dealing with a still-terrorist organisation (by UNSC designation) may have an adverse long-term effect on young population in Muslim-populated regions”, which he says that “Russian officials have continuously overlooked”.
Firstly, while the Taliban is still designated as a terrorist group by the USNC, that same international legal body promulgated UNSC Resolution 2513 in March 2020 shortly after the US-Taliban peace deal a month prior which specifically “Calls upon all States to provide their full support to promoting the successful negotiation of a comprehensive and sustainable peace agreement which ends the war for the benefit of all Afghans and that contributes to regional stability and global security.”
Growing ties between Russia and Taliban alarms the world
Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova referenced that document in mid-July when responding to media criticism of her country’s contacts with the Taliban. She reaffirmed that Russia still bans the group per a 2003 decision but is also pragmatically carrying out its international legal responsibilities in the name of peace in accordance with the cited UNSC Resolution.
There is no contradiction in its stance. The Taliban’s political representatives that visit Moscow don’t have any contact with average Russians, and the group’s sympathizers at home and abroad still cannot spread its materials throughout society. Young populations in Russia’s Muslim-populated regions are therefore not at any credible risk of being led astray.
The other major point of Mr. Zakharov’s that I disagree with was when he wrote that “The Taliban a priori cannot guarantee that religious extremism and terrorism will not spread over the region affecting India’s Kashmir and Russia’s Caucasus and other Muslim-populated regions.” This is factually true but not actually that relevant since the same can be said about any country in this digital day and age.
The information-communication technology revolution and the associated proliferation of easily accessible social media platforms throughout global society make it difficult for any country to defend against these ideational threats. Try as they may, they might never fully succeed in this respect.
Nevertheless, technology also enables the authorities to monitor and block the spread of such information. Additionally, traditional border security policies can prevent potentially radicalized individuals from illegally entering their territories. Both are relevant when it comes to defending Russia and India from the religious extremist and terrorist threats that Mr. Zakharov believes that a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan might pose to them.
Even so, those scenarios are extremely unlikely to materialize since the Taliban is solely focused on Afghan domestic affairs. It harbors no foreign expansion plans of an ideational or physical nature and made this clear on several recent occasions. It also promised not to host foreign militants who could carry out those activities.
Mr. Zakharov’s belief that “A Taliban that is gaining an overwhelming control over territories plus international recognition will unlikely be inclined to make any concessions at an intra-Afghan dialogue” is his own and he has a right to express it. Be that as it may, his audience would have arguably benefited had he also mentioned that the Taliban already presented parts of its peace plan in an exclusive interview with the Associated Press in late July, irrespective of whether or not he thinks they’re sincere. I also disagree with Mr. Zakharov’s warning that “If the Taliban are back to power, they may well change the rhetoric and go back on its promises.” That might theoretically happen, but it’s very unlikely for several reasons that I’ll now explain.
The Taliban has massively invested in improving its international reputation in recent years. It would immediately squander its hard-earned goodwill if it returned to hosting terrorists or unprecedentedly started attacking the Central Asian Republics, both of which it previously promised not to do.
There’s a self-interested reason for the group to keep itself in check and that’s the rapidly evolving geo-economic situation in its crossroads of Eurasia. February’s agreement to build a Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan (PAKAFUZ) railway and China’s modernization of eastern Tajikistan’s roads with a presumed view to pioneer a “Persian Corridor” through that country and Afghanistan en route to its new 25-year strategic partners in Iran puts Afghanistan smack dab in the center of the super continent’s two most promising connectivity projects.
The Taliban and all Afghans for that matter stand to immensely gain even if only by profiting from transit fees through their territory, to say nothing of adding value along the way within their borders such as by setting up production and transshipment facilities. Returning Afghanistan into an international terrorist haven would spoil those New Silk Road dreams for everyone, isolate the Taliban from the international community which has been cautiously welcoming it over the past year, and deprive the group of much-needed funds to invest in reconstructing the war-torn country. While it might be naive to automatically assume that all political actors behave rationally, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently described the Taliban as “reasonable people”
after meeting with them several times and thus seems to sincerely believe that they’ll indeed keep their word.
I also disagree with the second part of Mr. Zakharov’s policy proposal that “India would arguably be better off maintaining some form of dialogue with the Taliban for securing its interests on territories under its control, yet preserving some financial and even military aid to Kabul.” It should certainly maintain some form of dialogue with the Taliban and even seriously consider publicizing such contacts in order to participate in the Extended Troika, but while preserving some financial aid to Kabul is pragmatic, it might not be in the region’s best interests to preserve its military dimension, let alone potentially expand it. The Deputy Head of the Russian Embassy in New Delhi Roman Babushkin shared his view in mid-July that “We have got some real experience in Afghanistan but let us be very clear, the situation doesn’t require foreign military involvement.”
Russia and India at an Afghanistan crossroads
This suggests that Russia might not approve of the proposal among some Indian intellectuals for their country to expand its military aid to Kabul following the US’ impending withdrawal from Afghanistan. Of course, Moscow probably wouldn’t publicly chastise its allies in New Delhi if they made such a decision, but it’s implied that the Eurasian Great Power might consider it to be destabilizing and counterproductive to what’s supposed to be the shared goal of encouraging a political solution to the Afghan Civil War. It’s also difficult to predict whether Iran’s incoming principalist (“conservative”) government would approve of the Indian Air Force’s transit through its airspace for the purpose of prolonging a proxy war against the Taliban whom Tehran recently hosted for peace talks in early July.
The last point of contention that I have with Mr. Zakharov is his conclusion that “[Russia ] has also acquired a new headache since the situation (in Afghanistan) may run out of control posing hard security challenges to Central Asian allies and, by extension, its own territories.” Russia is actually strengthening its military ties with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and even holding drills with them near the Afghan border.
Russian officials have also said that they’ll decisively support their regional allies’ response in the event that anyone dares to attack them from Afghanistan. As was earlier explained with respect to Russia’s implementation of traditional border security policies, there’s also close to no credible risk whatsoever that Afghan-based terrorists will infiltrate into its own territory. The hard security challenges that Mr. Zakharov is worried about are therefore unrealistic.
To summarize everything, my disagreements with Mr. Zakharov basically boil down to the spirit of his assessment, which implies some degree of responsibility on Russia’s part for the Russo-Indo divergence in Afghanistan. While Moscow’s policies veritably evolved with time in the face of rapidly changing circumstances, this isn’t anything necessarily negative but is actually natural for a Great Power to do.
New Delhi, by contrast, continues to cling to its original policy out of principle and perhaps also somewhat due to its concern over how the domestic audience would perceive of the incumbent Hindu nationalist government talking to the Taliban. India is therefore responsible for the Russo-Indo divergence, especially since Moscow continues to encourage New Delhi to pragmatically recalibrate its position towards the Taliban, but it must also be said that Russia could have done better articulating the strategic complexities of its evolving Afghan policy to avoid confusion.