How to Stabilize Afghanistan

What Russia, Iran, and the United States Can Do

Afghan soldiers taking a break in Baghlan Province, March 2016.  Omar Sobhani / REUTERS

The Afghan military, backed by some 8,400 U.S. troops, is struggling to shore up its ranks after a devastating attack killed over 100 soldiers on a military base in Mazar-i-Sharif, marking a morbid beginning to another summer fighting season. This time around, though, the Afghans and their American partners have two more forces to contend with: Russia and Iran

Both countries stepped up their support of the Taliban over the winter, possibly as a hedge against persistent American indecision about how deeply to stay involved, and for how long. Left unchecked, Russian and Iranian support could enable the Taliban to win the long-term occupation of a provincial capital this summer, which would further erode Afghan government legitimacy. To head off such an outcome, the new Trump administration must consider an approach that brought some success in the aftermath of the 2001 U.S. invasion: rebuilding a regional consensus with Russia and Iran—as well as China, India, Pakistan, and the Gulf states—to stop funding proxies and support stability in Afghanistan.

Russia’s support for the Taliban has altered the regional dynamic that fuels the war. Since the end of 2016, Russia has reportedly been providing arms to the Taliban operating in northern Afghanistan. Russian officials have also reportedly met with Taliban representatives in Russia and Tajikistan. Meanwhile, over the past year Moscow has held discussions with Islamabad and Tehran about their mutual interests in supporting the Taliban. Russia’s sudden cooperation with the Taliban is particularly surprising, given the bloody fighting between their Soviet and Mujahedin predecessors in the 1980s. 

Russia claims that its motivation for supporting the Taliban is to fight the Islamic State’s Afghan offshoot, prevent Central Asian terrorist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) from destabilizing the region, and control drug trafficking through Central Asia into Russia. But the real reason may be to cause trouble for the United States.

A U.S. soldier manning a gun in a helicopter over Kabul, April 2017. Jonathan Ernst / REUTERS

Although there are indeed foreign fighters in northern Afghanistan, the threat is overblown and the Russian

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