Russia's interest in developing contacts with the Taliban in Afghanistan on the pretext of countering Daesh may be a ploy to not only block fighters from entering Central Asia, but to also frustrate plans of the U.S. and NATO in the region, experts say.
On Feb. 25, the website Russian Planet quoted Russian Special Envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov telling the Afghan media that Russia was ready to support any force fighting Daesh in Afghanistan, which clearly outlined the country’s position on prospects of engaging with the Taliban.
Kabulov was quoted as saying that Russian may find it "better to fight the Islamists on Amu Daryan than on the Volga”, implying that an early engagement far afield from domestic borders is a much preferable option for Russia politically and economically.
This also looks like seeking assurances against any backdoor entry of fighters returning to Central Asia using Afghanistan’s borders with Tajikistan or Turkmenistan.
Davide Frattini, an Italian reporter with newspaper Corriere della Sera, wondered in an article published on Feb. 17 if Kabulov was advising Russian President Vladimir Putin to increase his administration’s interaction and influence over the Taliban in Afghanistan.
“These strategies are similar to that implemented in Syria. Namely to fill in the gap which is left open as a consequence of uncertainty by the West; make deals with those locals with whom it is possible to negotiate; and, project the influence thus gained at the global level,” Frattini noted.
“All this will be aimed at two objectives, to resist and counter any advances of Daesh; frustrate the plans of the Americans and NATO, who remain indecisive whether to reinforce their commitment on ground or pull out from Afghanistan all together,” he added.
It seems Russians are ready to open a window for negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. “On their part, the Taliban too consider Daesh as their enemies [and they] are ready to line up fighters in 25 out of the Afghanistan’s total of 34 provinces where they have a presence,” noted Frattini.
Both Russia and the Taliban desire a quick rollback of the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Kabulov does not hide the fact that contact has been made with the Taliban. Some analysts suspect that such Russian overtures are less about confronting Daesh, but has to do more with Russia’s apprehensions over the presence of U.S. and NATO tropes on their southern flanks and also because they do not encourage a pro-U.S. leader to run Afghanistan.
According to Didier Chaudet, head of the French Center for Foreign Policy Analysis, the Kremlin is seeking to prevent destabilizing forces from thriving in Afghanistan and spread towards Eurasia and eventually to Russia. These concerns have prompted Russians to establish a limited dialogue with some Taliban, Chaudet wrote in Le Huffington Post on Feb. 10.
Writing for the French newspaper Liberation, analysts Bayram Balci and Jeremie Berlioux have drawn attention to fighters from Central Asia, who traveled to fight in Syria and Iraq. Based on varying estimates it is believed that between 2,000 to 4,000 individuals from Central Asian states such as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan traveled to territories under control of Daesh, the Liberation noted in its Feb. 17 edition.
Balci and Berlioux pointed out that primarily it is Russia which serves as the main recruiting ground for such disaffected central Asian young men, where millions of young central Asians immigrate to seek a decent livelihood.
According to the authors, the promise of an Islamic order appeals to some Central Asians who see themselves as victims of authoritarianism and an uneven distribution of economic wealth in their states. Moreover, some of them find travelling to Syria easier and cheaper than going to Afghanistan and Pakistan to wage war.
The Liberation also questioned whether such youth should be taken as “a real threat or as a new myth which the regimes in central Asia can use to indefinitely delay the essential political reforms and which could also allow Russia to advance its objectives.
“In realistic terms, these central Asians who have moved to Middle East are very marginal and these phenomena are less than 0.01 percent of the central Asian population. Moreover, those expatriates may never have the opportunity to return home,” it said.
Furthermore, “the Central Asian governments and Russia have issued tough statements to tackle such elements. The security apparatus is expanding under the pretext to fight against violent extremists. At a time when crucial reforms are required to bring these states out of their economic difficulties, their governments are pursuing the politician from the opposition in a heavy handed manner,” it added.
The authors suggest that it is Russia which has benefited most from such alarmist rhetoric. Moscow took the opportunity to strengthen its presence in the region, increasing its troops in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. They noted that Russia is using the threat of Daesh in an attempt to maintain its waning influence in the region.