As the Islamist Taliban movement searches for “international legitimacy” following substantial territorial gains in Afghanistan, it has found a willing partner in Russia, regional and security experts say. Eager to stem any spillover of instability into Central Asia, a region Moscow still considers its backyard, Russia looks poised to step into the vacuum left by the departure of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan.
In recent weeks, as the majority of U.S. and NATO troops exited the country, Taliban fighters have pushed back Afghan government forces in both northern and southern Afghanistan, taking over border posts, and sending hundreds of Afghan troops scurrying across the northeastern border into Tajikistan. The Taliban claims that it now controls 85 percent of Afghan territory – an assertion that Afghanistan’s U.S.-backed government and international analysts reject.
A map based on press reports compiled by the U.S. non-profit Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Project shows, however, that the Islamist movement controlled just over half (215) of Afghanistan’s 421 districts as of July 10.
The Taliban’s main focus now is “to strengthen their position for that moment when they’ll start real negotiations on creation of a coalition government,” said Rustam Burnashev, an international security expert at Kazakhstan’s German-Kazakh University.
Some other specialists have wagered that the Taliban alone could make up any new government after September 11, 2021, when the U.S. and NATO pullout is complete.
Against that backdrop, the movement’s July 8 talks with the Russian Foreign Ministry provide an insurance policy for the future. Taliban representatives claimed they had come to reassure Moscow, which has designated the Taliban a terrorist organization, that they will not allow Afghanistan to be used as a launch pad for attacks against Russia or its Central Asian allies – Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – that border Afghanistan.
The talks followed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s July 7 offer of military help to Tajik President Emoman Rakhman should Tajikistan, a fellow member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) that houses Russia’s 201st military base of 6,000 soldiers, sense the need. Tajikistan claims that Taliban fighters now control most of Afghanistan’s side of the 1,357-kilometer (843-mile)-long Afghan-Tajik border.
Hundreds of Afghan soldiers have reportedly fled into Tajikistan, which has admitted them, and scores into Uzbekistan, which has not.
In recent weeks, Russian forces have conducted training exercises in both CSTO members. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also has spoken out against any potential U.S. base in a CSTO country for counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan.
The message appears to have been taken. While no concrete evidence shows that the Taliban have an interest in attacking Afghanistan’s neighbors, the Taliban, now experiencing a political “rehabilitation,” does not want to encounter “resistance” from any regional players before it gains political power, Andrei Serenko, an expert at Moscow’s Center for the Study of Contemporary Afghanistan, noted.
“For this reason, the Taliban say what they want to hear in Moscow and what they want to hear in Central Asia,” Serenko said. “But I think you can’t trust these statements, and it’s not worth doing so.”
Nonetheless, to boost its “international legitimacy,” the Taliban’s discussions with countries impacted by the fighting in Afghanistan will likely increase, Burnashev predicted.
Two days after a Taliban delegation visited the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow on July 8, Taliban envoys also held talks in Turkmenistan, where the government has begun to move significant military hardware, including artillery and planes, up to 4 kilometers from its southern border with Afghanistan, and placed reservists on alert, RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service reported. (The Turkmen Foreign Ministry has denied any such transfers.)
In Ashgabat, the Turkmen capital, the Taliban representatives and Turkmen officials reportedly discussed preventing a potential influx of Afghan refugees and ensuring border security as well as the two countries’ “economic and political ties,” according to RFE/RL.
As proof of their own desire for peace, Taliban figures like Mullah Abdul Ghani Birobar cite the movement’s 2020 agreement with the U.S. on the withdrawal of foreign troops and the prevention of attacks against the United States and its allies – a document some analysts consider the primary engine in the Taliban’s global “legitimacy” campaign.
But the international image of the Taliban as a united force that can fulfill its promises is misleading, stressed Burnashev.
In reality, the Taliban movement combines multiple hardline groups that have no ties between them, the professor of international politics said. Those Taliban representatives who talked with the U.S. may or may not have any connection to those now battling Afghan government forces, he cautioned.
The extent of any Taliban envoys’ authority is also open to doubt. The men dispatched to reassure Moscow were more mid-level functionaries within the Taliban’s Qatar office than influential individuals within the Taliban hierarchy itself, stressed Serenko.
By contrast with these envoy’s promises, he said, the movement’s leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, called the “Commander of the Faithful,” and deputy leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, “promise nothing to no one.”
Russian media figures, bloggers, and opposition members widely mocked the Kremlin’s official openness to the Taliban’s promises.
"Everyone here is cursing the MID (Foreign Ministry) for meeting with the Taliban, but, remember, the Taliban also risks its reputation, meeting with the Russian Federation's MID," joked Russian political journalist Oleg Kashin.
A few social media accounts asked whether, in the interests of peace, Moscow would now also start discussions with jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, banned as an “extremist” group this spring.
Others sense confusion in Moscow’s position. On July 2, several days before the Taliban’s arrival, Russian National Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev hosted Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib, to talk counterterrorism, combating the narcotics trade, and security issues.
Serenko charged that the alternating meetings with the Afghan government and Taliban suggest “a certain political schizophrenia” and the lack of a clear policy on Afghanistan.
Moscow’s willingness to build ties with the Taliban is not new, however. In 2018 and 2021, the Russian government hosted both Taliban and Afghan government officials for so-called “Moscow format” peace talks attended by China, Pakistan, and the United States. It has expressed interest in resuming these discussions.
Less peaceful ties with the Taliban also have been alleged. In 2020, The New York Times reported that U.S. intelligence officials had evidence that Russia’s military intelligence agency, the G.R.U., had paid bounties to the Taliban for killing U.S. soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. Russia’s presidential envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, dismissed the report as “outright lies.”
Neither Burnashev nor Serenko believe, however, that Russia’s desire to play a role in shaping the outcome of Afghanistan’s fight with the Taliban would lead to direct Russian military intervention in the country. The “Afghan syndrome” from the USSR’s disastrous 1979-1989 war there runs too strong, they say.
Like any country, others believe, Moscow is simply acting in its own interests by courting the Taliban.
The Kremlin also keeps communication lines open with Afghanistan’s ethnic Uzbek and Tajik communities, noted Kirill Krivosheyev, a journalist for the Russian daily Kommersant with reporting experience in Afghanistan.
Ultimately, Moscow “is trying to strike a balance between all the different forces at play in Afghanistan in order to retain its influence if one of those forces collapses,” Krivosheyev wrote for the Carnegie Moscow Center, an independent think tank.
That aim could be seen on July 9. Asked whether Moscow would recognize any Taliban government, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov hedged: Commenting on any “eventual reasoning” would “hardly be appropriate,” he said.
-This article uses additional reporting by Interfax, Reuters, and TASS.