The Russians have claimed that they are in contact with the Taliban. If true, this would represent a significant shift by Russia. First, since its defeat in Afghanistan, Russia has sought to remain clear of the complexities of Afghanistan’s internal politics, usually succeeding. Second, having intervened in one area of American interest, Syria, maintaining contact with the Taliban would be an expansion of Russian activities, quite openly to another area. It would also be interesting from an Afghan point of view, where the Russian invasion in the 1980s is still remembered without fondness. Therefore, the Taliban’s involvement with Russian intelligence, while of value to both sides, would still potentially weaken the Taliban’s position in Afghanistan, as it would be seen as collaborating with a historical enemy.
The Afghan Taliban denied that they are sharing intelligence with Russia regarding their rival jihadist force, the Islamic State. While acknowledging that it was in negotiations with Moscow, an unnamed Taliban spokesman told Al-Jazeera on Dec. 25 that IS fighters are represented by only a small faction in the eastern Nangarhar province and thus are not much of a concern for the Taliban. Instead, the talks with the Russians were focused on how to ensure the departure of foreign military forces from their country. These remarks come two days after President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov said that there was a convergence between Russian and Taliban interests vis-a-vis the Islamic State and the two sides were in communication.
All things being equal, Russia would not have anything to do with the Taliban or any other jihadist force that represents a threat to not just the Russian sphere of influence in Central Asia and the Caucuses but also the Muslim regions within Russia proper. Moscow spent over a decade fighting Islamist insurgents (the predecessors to the Taliban and al-Qaida) in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Indeed, for the longest time, Russia aligned itself with anti-Taliban forces – both in the form of the Afghan government built by the United States and its Western allies in the aftermath of the 2001 fall of the Taliban regime and regional warlords, especially those in the northern parts of the country.
However, two developments in recent years have forced a rethink of the Russian position. First, in the light of the NATO drawdown from Afghanistan, it has become clear that the Afghan regime and the traditional warlords are a weak force – despite all the Western efforts to prop up an anti-Taliban camp. The Taliban have demonstrated that while they may not be able to take Kabul, which sustains Western backing, they can seriously limit the regime’s writ to pretty much all the various regions. Aiding the Taliban in this effort is the fact that the anti-Taliban camp is bitterly divided.
Second, the Islamic State, while still a smaller phenomenon in Afghanistan, represents the much bigger threat to Russia. From the Kremlin’s point of view while the Taliban is a jihadist entity, it does not have ambitions beyond Afghanistan. Thus, the Taliban’s nationalist jihadism can serve as an effective counter to the supranational caliphate project of the Islamic State. This key difference, coupled with the fact that Afghanistan cannot be managed without cooperation from the Taliban, explains the Russian decision to go public with its communications with the Taliban that have been quietly taking place for some time now.
For the Taliban, the move is a risky one because it could undermine their position. With dissident factions within the movement already present, the Islamic State and even al-Qaida are accusing the core Taliban group led by Mullah Omar’s successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, of having betrayed Islamic principles. There is a reason for the Taliban denial of sharing intelligence with Russia regarding the Islamic State. The Afghan jihadist movement cannot afford to lose its legitimacy, which could create more space for transnational jihadists.
Therefore, it will not be enough for the Russians and other international stakeholders such as the United States, Pakistan, Iran, China, Turkey, Qatar and others to nudge the Taliban and their traditional opponents to the negotiating table. The conundrum is how to work with the Taliban to block the Islamic State and not weaken the Taliban lever in the process.