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The Taliban, once a pariah, now finds itself courted by several powerful regional players. Even Russia, the group’s historical enemy, has recently turned to the group for intelligence sharing against a common foe: the Islamic State (also called ISIS). Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, recently said, “Taliban interests objectively coincide with ours.” Kabulov, a former KGB officer who negotiated with Taliban leaders in the mid-1990s after the group captured a Russian plane and took seven Russians hostage, rationalized the new cooperation by adding that “the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban have said they don’t recognize [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi as the caliph; that is very important.” However, such a shortsighted alliance carries critical security risks for Afghanistan and the region.
Russia has long fretted that jihadists from its Caucasus region and the former Soviet republics would join ISIS’ ranks in Syria in Iraq and then return home with new skills and weapons. In Afghanistan, in particular, Russia sees as a threat the local affiliate of ISIS, known as the Islamic State in Khorasan (an old reference to a vast territory comprising parts of Afghanistan, Iran, and Central Asia that featured prominently in Islamic teachings). ISIS’ Afghan affiliate is made up of renegade members of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, and it was recently designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States, a year after its creation in January 2015. Accordingly, the Pentagon has now authorized the U.S. military to go on the offensive against ISIS in Afghanistan.
In the past year, the group has challenged the Taliban leadership through turf wars and recruiting, maintaining presence in 25 out of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, according to the United Nations. It has picked up scores of senior Taliban advisers and foot soldiers (which is not surprising given that the salaries it offers new recruits are two to three times higher than those offered by the Taliban). Recently, the group even launched a radio station, the Voice of the Caliphate, to disseminate its propaganda in a daily 90-minute broadcast in both Pashto and Dari to boost its popularity. There is little information about how strong the group is, where it gets its material and financial support from, how many members it commands, and how much control ISIS’ core leadership exercises over it. The group’s popularity does seem to be growing, though; in December, John Campbell, the commander of international forces in Afghanistan, said that it has between 1,000 and 3,000 fighters in Afghanistan and that its influence would grow if left unchecked. Janan Mosazai, who served as the Afghan ambassador in Pakistan until last month, claimed that ISIS fighters enter Afghanistan through Pakistan.
For Moscow, it is concerning that ISIS is growing in strength in Russia’s own backyard, especially after, late last year, Russia launched an air campaign to bolster its ally in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad, and target ISIS’ main branch. To have such a group appealing to disaffected Muslims so close to home is too big a risk to bear. Nearly 16 million Russians are Muslim; the bulk are Sunni and are based mainly in the northern Caucasus region. An estimated five percent of Russian Muslims are Salafi or Wahhabi, the ultraconservative forms of Islam that ISIS has espoused.
In the Caucasus region, two militant factions have especially irked Russian leaders: the Caucasus Emirate or Imarat Kavkaz, which is closely linked to al Qaeda’s al-Nusra Front in Syria, and the Caucasus Province of the Islamic State, which is an offshoot of ISIS. Although Russia initially perceived the spread of ISIS as a boon because it distracted the United States from the mess in Ukraine and attracted militants out of the Caucasus, now it is a liability. Russian intelligence estimates show that about 2,400 people from the Caucasus have joined ISIS. (Other estimates indicate that between 5,000 and 7,000 volunteers from Russia and Central Asia had joined the group.) If those fighters chose to flee the Russian bombing campaign for greener pastures, they will likely head East to return home. And that path could go through Afghanistan.
Unlike in the Middle East, however, where Russia has struck intelligence-sharing agreements with Iraq, Iran, and Syria, Moscow’s reach and capabilities in Afghanistan are limited. It simply doesn’t have something like the United States’ elaborate web of human and technical intelligence and surveillance. It is this lack of resources that led Russia to seek an unusual partner in the Taliban, instead of collaborating with the Afghan government to jointly counter the ISIS threat. In the past few months, the Taliban have intensified their violent campaign against the Afghan government. The group temporarily seized the Kunduz Province, launched a bloody offensive in Helmand, killed Afghan media personnel, and demanded protection tax from Afghan telecom companies. Meanwhile, the group has demanded that the United Nations remove its sanctions as a condition for peace talks, which would enable its leaders to travel freely and to unfreeze their financial assets.
For its part, the Taliban has shown interest in working with Russia for some time, even though some Taliban leaders maintain close links to the mujahedeen groups that drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan. The Daily Beast quotes one Taliban leader saying, “If we could talk to the West, what’s wrong talking to Russians and Afghanistan’s neighbors in north?” Surely, the Taliban sees Russia’s cooperation as a route to political legitimacy and an upper hand over ISIS.
The ongoing exchanges between Russia and the Taliban, which reportedly began in 2013, are kept in close circles, and it remains unclear which specific Taliban faction Russia is working with, since the group has splintered into several warring parties. For now, the talks between the two sides are conducted through backchannels in Tajikistan, whose intelligence services have been Russia’s clients. Reports suggest that, in return for its help, Russia has supplied the Taliban with large caches of arms, claims Moscow has rebuffed. At the same time, the Taliban has formed and deployed a 1,000-member special forces detachment, arguably equipped with Russian-supplied intelligence, to fight ISIS. Time will tell whether Russia will boost its support to the Taliban still further.
Russia’s genuine security impulse aside, its alliance with an insurgent group that wants to upend the Afghan government runs contrary to Afghan interests and risks straining Moscow’s relations with Kabul. More significantly, Russia’s dealings with the Taliban could strengthen the insurgency against the Afghan government, further complicating efforts to wipe out radicalism in the region. Meanwhile, there is a glaring contradiction in Russia’s approach to tackling ISIS. One the one hand, it feeds critical intelligence and perhaps weapons to the Taliban, a group long designated by Moscow a terrorist organization, but, on the other hand, it continues to provide weapons and military hardware to the Afghan government to fend off extremist groups like ISIS and the Taliban.
Russia’s security needs should not be taken lightly, but neither should the larger risk of bolstering one extremist group against another. For one, Afghans are, understandably, concerned about further insecurity. According to a recent Asia Foundation survey, nearly two-thirds of Afghans fear for their personal safety. Ordinary Afghans see no difference between ISIS and the Taliban, mainly because the groups have employed similar tactics and are the principal actors behind growing insecurity in the country.
For now, Russia and the Taliban are allies of convenience against ISIS, a threat big enough to overshadow years of bad blood between the two sides. Nevertheless, there will be ample opportunities for this nascent Russian-Taliban alliance to fracture or go sour with dangerous repercussions for Afghanistan. In the end, the politics of desperation does make for some strange bedfellows, but it should not be at the expense of gambling Afghan stability and regional security.