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Russia’s New Friends in the Afghan Taliban

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In response to growing concerns about the Islamic State’s growing strength throughout Afghanistan, Russia is now pursuing a military alliance with the Afghan Taliban, under the concept that “my enemy’s enemy is my potential ally.”

The Russian courtship of the Taliban began some time prior to Taliban’s dramatic 15-day takeover of the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, which was reportedly facilitated by the delivery of Russian weapons to the group via Tajikistan. Among the Russian-supplied weapons were new AK-47s, PK machine guns and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades).

The US Director of National Intelligence, Gen. James Clapper so much as confirmed the Russian increased role in the Central Asia security situation in February 9, 2016 Congressional testimony, where he stated that “Central Asian states remain concerned about the rising threat of extremism to the stability of their countries, particularly in light of a reduced Coalition presence in Afghanistan. Russia shares these concerns and is likely to use the threat of instability in Afghanistan to increase its involvement in Central Asian security affairs.”

Following the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, the Islamic State sought to exploit factional splits in the group, and dispatched several hundred ISIL operatives to Afghanistan. According to the United Nations, ISIL now has a presence in 25 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, and has as many as 3,000 fighters in the country now, mostly recruited from the ranks of Taliban splinter factions and other militias.

The point man for the Russian outreach to Taliban is President Vladimir Putin’s personal envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov.  Kabulov was in charge of KGB operations in Afghanistan during the period of Soviet Red Army occupation—including the period of the entire Afghan War. He later was Russia’s Ambassador to Pakistan. In 1995 he established personal contact with Mullah Omar, to negotiate the freeing of Russians whose plane flight had made an emergency landing in Kandahar. He retained those contacts, after he later became the Director of the Second Department for Asian Countries in the Russian Foreign Ministry and then in his second current post as Putin’s personal Afghan envoy.

The Uzbek-born Kabulov has handled his negotiations with the Taliban through Dushanbe, Tajikistan, working with a Taliban liaison, Dr. Tahir Shamlazi, the brother of a former Taliban commander. Shamlazi has also represented Taliban in talks with Chinese officials.

In a recent interview with Interfax, Kabulov gave a detailed assessment of ISIL’s planned expansion into Central Asia and Russia. He identified two “beachheads” facing Tajikistan and Turmenistan, where a large number of Central Asian recruits are being concentrated, after receiving training in three ISIL camps inside northern Afghanistan.

In that interview Kabulov said Russian officials were concerned that the routes through which Afghan heroin is smuggled across the Caspian Sea into Dagistan can be used to smuggle ISIL fighters back into the Caucasus region of Russia to launch what he called “a spring offensive” against Central Asia and Russia.

Speaking at a Moscow conference on Afghanistan in January 2016, Kabulov candidly acknowledged that “Taliban interests objectively coincide with ours. Both the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban have said they don’t recognize ISIS… That is very important. We have communications channels with the Taliban to exchange information.”

Russia is not putting all of its Afghan-Central Asian eggs in the Taliban basket. Russia has recently expanded its arms sales to both Pakistan and Afghanistan, negotiating the sale of as many as 20 Mi-35 helicopters to Pakistan, along with surface-to-air missiles. Afghanistan is also planning to purchase Russian Mi-35 helicopters. Russia has also announced first-ever joint maneuvers with Pakistan this year. That was announced on January 22, 2016 by Russian Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Oleg Salyukov.

Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah confirmed on February 3, 2016 that he is coordinating with Moscow on the peace talks with the Taliban. “We expect countries to set aside their grievances for the sake of dealing with the most important challenge that we are all facing. Russia has an interest because of the terror groups from Chechnya and the Central Asian republics.”

Iran is also warming up to the Taliban, as they escalate their surrogate war with Saudi Arabia, which Tehran believes is still backing ISIL. Iran has recently begun training Taliban fighters in camps in Tehran, Mashhad and Zahedan.

It remains to be seen whether these “strange bedfellow” dealings, such as Russia and Iran’s collusion with the Taliban, can be sustained. US intelligence has definitely taken notice of the emerging channels and is carefully assessing the implications, now that President Obama has agreed to retain a residual US training and counter-terrorism force of nearly 10,000 American and allied troops in Afghanistan through past the end of his presidency.

Russia and China have the opportunity to work through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which now includes all of the Central Asian republics, Pakistan and India. Russia and China have both announced their support for Iran to be the next full member of SCO. Iran already has observer status with the organization. And later this year, Russia is scheduled to begin construction on a 1,100 kilometer gas pipeline from Karachi to Lahore that is scheduled to be completed by 2017, and will provide Pakistan with over 30 percent of its natural gas needs. Such projects can only succeed if there is a degree of stability in the area.

Special Envoy Kabulov, however, got to the heart of Russia’s concerns in his Interfax interview. He said: “Better to fight Islamists on Amu Daryan than on the Volga.”