By Allison Fedirka
With all the talk of Washington’s expelling Russian diplomats, it’s easy to overlook Afghanistan, an area in which Russia and the United States have butted heads for years. The list of things that confound their cooperation there is long, but perhaps no issue is more important now than the Islamic State.
The United States and Russia have profoundly different views on just how strong, and therefore what kind of threat, the Islamic State in Afghanistan poses. Russia’s foreign minister described it as “rather serious,” noting that the group’s ranks have swelled into the thousands, aided in part by an influx of foreign fighters. The United States disagrees. Washington understands that there is an IS presence in Afghanistan but maintains that most of the fighters were already in the country fighting for groups like the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Washington says they simply fight under a new banner. The distinction may seem trivial, but the way each country frames the IS presence in Afghanistan corresponds with its strategic interests.
An Abiding Peace
Russia has two objectives in Afghanistan. The first is to prevent Islamist extremism from consuming Central Asia. Moscow already fights jihadists in the Caucasus, so the last thing it wants is to open up another and much larger front to the east in a region that is predisposed to extremist activity. For the past 25 years or so, strong central governments have largely kept extremists in check, but there are signs that that may soon change. Kyrgyz media recently noted that the number of extremist and terrorist subjects in Kyrgyzstan has increased literally exponentially in the past eight years. Kazakhstan recently allocated $840 million over the next four years to a state program meant to counter religious extremism and terrorism.
This may not be much, but any counterterrorism assistance is welcome news for Russia, which can do only so much to tackle the Islamic State in Afghanistan head on. The government has no desire to enter yet another military conflict, bogged down as it is in Syria, and it has even less appetite for the domestic blowback such a campaign would incur. And that is to say nothing of how difficult it is to subdue Afghanistan even with a fully supported campaign.
This is partly why Russia advocates the Taliban’s participation in the Afghan peace talks. Supporting the Taliban, even informally, props the group up as it fights the Islamic State itself. The Islamic State is particularly active in the provinces of Jowzjan, Kunduz, Badakhshan and Takhar, all of which are near the border of Tajikistan, where Russia holds military exercises.
The other reason Russia supports the Taliban dovetails nicely into its second objective in Afghanistan: preventing the U.S. departure there for as long as possible. Russian can’t really compete with the U.S. military, so it practices a foreign policy of disruption, inserting itself into areas and conflicts not to win them outright but to preoccupy Washington and gain leverage in areas that are more important to its interest, such as Ukraine. The longer the U.S. remains in Afghanistan, the longer its military resources will be spent in the very area Russia wants extremism to be relegated to. By emphasizing the threat of the Islamic State, Moscow is sounding an alarm that attracts the attention of the rest of the international community and forces the U.S. to address yet another security issue.
It’s a simple but effective ploy. The past few years have demonstrated that where there is the Islamic State, there is cause for international involvement, and international involvement demands that the United States remain in Afghanistan when it would rather leave. The desired outcome for Washington is a negotiated settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, one that would enable the U.S. to save face in ways it did not in Iraq, where a power vacuum created a more formidable enemy than the government Washington deposed, and would allow it to keep a limited military presence in the country. Such a presence would give Washington the option of helping to keep jihadists in check and, perhaps as important, give it enhanced strike capability over nearby targets in the future.
The more parties get involved in Afghanistan, the more difficult it will be to reach a peace settlement that everyone can abide. Washington naturally wants what’s best for Washington, so it needs near-unilateral control over Kabul’s military and political operations – hence its version of events in Afghanistan. Saying the Islamic State is just the same old fighters in a new uniform downplays the threat it poses, obviating the need for the involvement that parties hostile to U.S. interests may offer.
Waiting in the wings is Iran, which of course has interests of its own. Iran wants to expand throughout the region and needs to protect its eastern border from any threats originating in Afghanistan. It must therefore consider what a settlement in Afghanistan may look like, especially if it entails a U.S. withdrawal, however remote a possibility that may be. Tehran, constituted as it is by Shiites, does not want to see a Sunni government take control in Kabul, let alone one with U.S. ties. Iran cannot prevent that from happening, but it can create a buffer space or a proxy force near the border to secure its territory. In fact, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps already operates in Farrah province alongside the Taliban. Moreover, Tehran has been actively recruiting Afghan fighters for the Fatemiyoun brigades, which fight in Syria. Both of these moves sow the seeds of a future Iranian proxy group to operate in Afghanistan (or in a potential conflict in Pakistan).
Then there is China, which is likewise preparing to capitalize on any potential peace agreement. As with Russia, China’s primary interest in Afghanistan is to make sure extremism stays in Afghanistan. It can ill afford militants crossing the border into Tajikistan, where they could then move into China. The East Turkistan Islamic Movement seeks to establish an Islamic state in the territory of East Turkestan and parts of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in China. The Chinese government has Xinjiang effectively on lockdown, but it is still keen to prevent local militants from organizing abroad or finding support from beyond Chinese borders. To that end, it signed an agreement with Tajikistan in 2015 for the construction of 10 border posts along the common border with Afghanistan and one training center for Tajik border troops. Some reports also indicate plans to build a Chinese military base in the Afghan province of Badakhshan.
Stability in Central Asia also benefits China commercially. Beijing’s One Belt, One Road initiative and its special economic corridor to Pakistan both run through Afghanistan. Moreover, several of Beijing’s mining operations in Afghanistan have been delayed because of instability, and China, which consumes vast amounts of natural resources, is keen to bring them back online.
With so many countries engaged in Afghanistan, it’s little surprise that the shared desire to start settlement talks is gaining traction. Even the Taliban have openly expressed an interest for the United States to enter into peace talks – even if it was just to get Washington out of the country. The Afghan government, for its part, has expressed its interest in reaching some degree of political solution with the Taliban and has welcomed Russian calls for a trilateral meeting between the Russian, U.S. and Afghan governments. But U.S.-Russia relations could get in the way of a resolution. Partly that is by design. One way or another, their differences will need to be either overlooked or overcome before any settlement can be reached.