For the last decade and a half, Russia and the United States have had largely similar aims in Afghanistan: preventing chaos and the reemergence of a safe haven for terrorists. That convergence has allowed the two countries to work together. But beneath the surface, there are important differences. Although both want stability, they define it in very different ways. The U.S. approach is founded on creating a strong central government in Kabul and a well-equipped and well-trained national security force; Russia, meanwhile, works with a wide range of actors, some of which compete directly with the government in Kabul. Moscow has even reached out to the Taliban, legitimizing a group that continues to threaten the security of both the Afghan government and U.S. and NATO forces.
Over the last couple of years, the gap between the Russian and U.S. strategies has grown. Russia increasingly believes that the United States’ approach isn’t working and that political will in Washington for continued engagement will run out before long. It is convinced that it must be prepared to deal with an unstable Afghanistan on its own. For Russia, this presents a serious challenge. But it also offers an opportunity to undermine the United States—by playing kingmaker while Washington flounders.
When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, U.S. and Russian interests there were largely aligned. Both countries wanted to rout al Qaeda and its affiliated terrorist groups and prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a haven for terrorists. Ever since Soviet forces withdrew at the end of the Soviet-Afghan war in 1989, Moscow had feared that a political vacuum would emerge, allowing extremism to flourish and terrorist threats to fester. Moscow was wary of the prospect of a long-term U.S. military presence, but it tolerated U.S. and NATO operations in the hope that they would help bring stability to South and Central Asia. Cooperation between Russia and the United States in Afghanistan reached its height during
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