The Taliban Against Russia? Neither Alliance, nor Fight

The victory of the Taliban was carefully prepared by Moscow: for a long time already, the Kremlin had been maintaining communication channels with this group officially recognized by the Russian state as a terrorist organization. In the short term, Putin seems to have completed a form of safe-conduct for his diplomats, who are now in some way under the “protection” of the Islamist movement. Moscow certainly has every reason to be concerned not only for its Caucasus oblasts, but also for its near abroad in Central Asia, which it intends to keep in its orbit, despite some of these countries’ desire for greater independence. The new power in Afghanistan may not be an easy and reliable partner for the Kremlin, but it would be a mistake for the West to think that Russia could be an ally in Afghanistan—as elsewhere.

The departure of American troops from Afghanistan, which meant de facto acceptance by Washington of the Taliban’s domination of Kabul, as we have reported elsewhere, appeared to many as a godsend for Moscow and the other revisionist powers (China, Iran). The spectacle of the stampede and chaos that followed the capture of Kabul, without even a fight, by the terrorist group was a divine surprise for them: no one would have thought a few weeks ago that America could have been so greatly humiliated and ridiculed in the face of the world, its credibility so durably damaged and its confidence so profoundly challenged by its own fault. Coming after the weakness shown by Joe Biden in his meeting with Putin in June and his concessions to Moscow on Nord Stream 2, sealed during his meeting with Merkel in mid-July, both events heralding the voluntary weakening of the United States on the world stage, the debacle in Afghanistan brought the first seven tragically disastrous months of the Biden presidency full circle. Even the most pessimistic, of which I was not one, could not have imagined a sequence so favorable to the Kremlin and the Chinese Communist Party.

The rationality of Moscow and Beijing

Both sides jumped at the opportunity, and this was a logical move. Both developed a whole narrative, one mainly towards the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, but also, more indirectly, towards its near abroad, the other mainly towards Taiwan and the countries of Southeast Asia, to show how much credibility Washington had lost, and that they would therefore do well not to “provoke” Moscow and Beijing, since they could not expect too much.

Even without having hoped for an American policy that would have been so generally favorable to them, they had, not without discernment, anticipated the coming to power of the Taliban. They were less in denial than many Westerners. All in all, this victory was predictable in the short term: the American withdrawal had been announced under Obama, who was unable to carry it out, sealed under Trump with the Doha agreement of February 2020 (the first de facto recognition of the Taliban despite the denial at the top of the agreement), and carried out under Biden — even though he could have perfectly well taken the opposite direction from his predecessor’s policy. An objective assessment of the situation in Afghanistan showed that the Taliban already controlled a large part of the country and that they would have no difficulty in getting their hands on Kabul.

The early discussions with the Taliban on the part of Russia and China corresponded to a form of realism on the part of these countries, given the nature of their regimes, where the defense of principles and human rights were never really driving forces. For them, it was a question of killing two birds with one stone: weakening the positions of the Americans and the Allies and trying to protect their medium-term interests, since they had analyzed the Taliban’s victory as almost certain. However, the situation was somewhat different for Moscow and Beijing. The former intended above all to try not to find itself in the worst situation in terms of security, while the latter, less directly threatened—the only threat being that of support for certain radical Islamist groups in Xinjiang — also saw its advantages in geostrategic terms: strengthening its Pakistani ally and consequently weakening its Indian rival.

Moscow has had the Taliban on its list of terrorist organizations since 2003, but has, according to its leaders, been in discussions with them for the past seven years and openly since at least 2019. Since President Biden’s announcement of the withdrawal of U.S. troops, contacts have intensified, mainly to obtain guarantees for their embassy in Kabul and to ensure that terrorist operations would not be conducted against Russian interests from Afghan territory. The Kremlin, however, while stressing the “rationality” (sic) of the Taliban and the existence of encouraging signals, shows no eagerness to formally recognize them, let alone remove them from their blacklist, even though Sergei Lavrov has referred to them as a “recognized political force”. But as Le Monde’s journalist Benoît Vitkine summarized it well: “That such recognition contradicts the Russian doctrine of support for legitimate states is secondary here.”

An illustration of the limits of Russian power

The reality is that Russia, like the West, does not know what to expect from the new leadership in Kabul. Its own debacle in Afghanistan, which led to the withdrawal of its forces in 1989, is still fresh in its mind; the previous reign of the Taliban (1996-2001) is not a good memory either. Unlike Beijing, which, albeit with great caution, considers economic opportunities in terms of exploiting raw materials (copper, rare earths) for its own benefit, it has no direct economic interest in Afghanistan, nor does it have the resources to look at this possibility realistically. The exploitation that it is making and will continue to make of Western weakness will not find its point of application in Afghanistan, but in Europe, or even in part of the Middle East.

Above all, Moscow has the same questions as the democracies of the West. It knows that the Taliban power is not united and that it does not control all its components. It also sees the prospects of strengthening groups linked to Al-Qaeda. If the Taliban are clearly opposed to ISIS, the latter, although weakened in Afghanistan, could once again find fertile ground and benefit from the reinforcement of dissident Taliban factions. In any case, as I have insisted elsewhere, the nebula of Islamist terrorist organizations is a shifting and changing entity. It also fears that the likely chaos in Afghanistan will encourage terrorist groups to strengthen their own terrorist movements within the Russian Federation, mainly in the Caucasus, as well as in its near abroad (mainly Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan).

The military drills it has undertaken with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are a way of reassuring itself and its allies. On the one hand, Moscow hopes to get closer to some of the Central Asian countries at a time when some had tried to show a relative distance towards the capital of the former empire. It should be recalled that Dushanbe, Tashkent and Bishkek did not wish to join the Eurasian Economic Union. On the other hand, Russia could suffer, mutatis mutandis, the same kind of setback in terms of credibility as the United States if it did not manage to offer these countries a credible security guarantee. It is not certain today that the reinforcement of military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan will be enough. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), of which Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are members, had already suffered a loss of credibility when its Council of Ministers refused to apply its Article 4 on collective defense — a sort of equivalent to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty—when Armenia, a member of the organization, was attacked by Azerbaijan.

Moscow knows perfectly well that its resources are quite limited and could hardly be mobilized in case of major terrorist attacks on the territory of its Central Asian allies. It is even more difficult to see it getting involved in a second war in Afghanistan for sufficiently clear reasons. Its troops are already partly occupied in Ukraine and on its border, and in Syria. Its mercenaries could face more difficulties in Afghanistan than they have in their other hunting grounds—and crime fields. On the domestic front, the episodes, as tragic as they were monstrous in their management, of the hostage-taking at the Dubrovka theater in Moscow (October 2, 2002) and that at the Beslan school (September 1-3, 2004), continue to haunt memories, despite the Russian authorities’ denial of their responsibility for the terrifying death toll. Their renewal would not be without consequences on the domestic level.

Banishing illusions: a lesson for the West

The situation in Afghanistan, which is perfectly avoidable, leaves all countries with anxious questions for the future. However, we should not act as if the situation created by the departure of American troops should lead Europe, in particular, to a form of new alliance in the region with Russia or, for that matter, with China and Iran. One agreed upon view is that Moscow could be our ally in the fight against terrorism. Apart from the fact that, as Jean-Yves Le Drian, then the French Minister of Defense, pointed out, in Syria the Kremlin has only marginally fought against ISIS, and that, moreover, no one will ever be able to whitewash its war crimes there, such a belief lacks solid foundations. It is true that the Western services must help any state, including Russia, to prevent attacks on its soil—this must be considered undeniable and they have already done so — but we must be careful that in the name of the fight against terrorism, Moscow’s criminal acts and destabilization operations are being ignored.

On the other hand, Westerners cannot look on the major security risks facing the countries of Central Asia with indifference. Beyond a universal concern for human life, the strengthening of terrorism in one region always tends to spread to others. It remains exceptionally sanctuary to a territory and everyone knows the global ramifications of al-Qaeda, especially in Asia. While the departure of American troops will make intelligence gathering in Afghanistan much more difficult, Western countries have every interest in strengthening their ties with Central Asian countries that are far from being entirely in Moscow’s orbit. Even though the dominant perception is that of unreliable Allies, it is urgent to demonstrate the opposite, including to these countries.

The fall of Afghanistan is certainly not good news from the Russian point of view, and the game of seduction with the Taliban is more like a game of cat and mouse — the mouse here being Moscow. It is certainly also a disaster for the West, but they have, despite everything, more means to try to overcome it. It is quite possible that, in view of the unrest in the Alliance caused by the American departure, the Kremlin is seeking to further strengthen its work of undermining and dividing, in particular by playing some Europeans against others. In both cases, the risk exists. On the one hand, the Europeans, in particular, may be satisfied with limited and ad hoc responses to the terrorist risk—and indeed, it will take some time for them to be able to develop a coherent strategy for Afghanistan, as the situation over the next six months and even the next few years is currently unpredictable. On the other hand, feeling a sense of abandonment by Washington, they may seek accommodations with Moscow and Beijing, as these two capitals hope, because of this sense of loss of confidence in America. In both cases, we must not give in to such temptations, which could only be fatal.

International and security affairs analyst, former head of department at the General Planning Commission, lecturer at Sciences-Po Paris, author of three official reports to the government and 22 books, including Quand la France disparaît du monde (Grasset, 2008), Le Monde à l'horizon 2030. La règle et le désordre (Perrin, 2011) and, with R. Jahanbegloo, Resisting Despair in Confrontational Times (Har-Anand, 2019)

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