Moscow’s aim is to provoke the West to fight on several fronts.
Afghanistan is known as an old and, in a way, permanent conflict zone in the Middle East. Alexander the Great (ruled 336–323 BC) encountered problems there that were somewhat similar to those the Soviet forces faced at the end of the 20th century (including issues in administering and pacifying the conquered areas) and which caused Alexander and his generals a lot of headaches.1 When Alexander arrived in Afghanistan with his troops nearly 2,350 years ago, it was also a battleground for nomadic tribes and foreign conquerors. The Achaemenid Empire, Alexander’s Greek-Macedonian troops, the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire, Parthian kings, the Sasanian Empire, the Arabs, various Turkish tribes, Mongols, the British, the Russians and others have tried to conquer and control Afghanistan. Anyone who went into Afghanistan as a foreign conqueror ended up in trouble and was unable to leave quickly.
It is difficult to conquer this complicated, mountainous, inaccessible region, where local tribes and ethnic and religious groups are constantly fighting, where feudal relations, sharia norms, Islamist extremism and modern technology exist side by side.
In many respects, Afghanistan remains such a conflict zone and battleground for foreign conquerors at the beginning of the 21st century, but the 20th century gradually added Islamist extremism and terrorism to the mix, which has to a considerable extent been caused by foreign conquerors (mainly the Soviet invasion in 1979).2
One of the consequences of the invasion by the Soviet army and the opposition to this aggression was the creation of al-Qaeda, which operates in Afghanistan. The Taliban is also a product of this era.3 The terrorist and extreme Islamist Taliban became a long-standing ally of al-Qaeda. In 1996–2001, the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. It was in this period that Afghanistan became the second home for the world’s number one terrorist, Osama Bin Laden (1957–2011). The Taliban’s supremacy in Afghanistan was overthrown by the international coalition in 2001.4 But it did not disappear and has remained a force to be reckoned with in Afghanistan, with which the Western coalition has been in a long military confrontation. In addition to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, so-called Islamic State has now entered Afghan territory. The US and its allies have so far been involved in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan for 16 years.
The Kremlin’s Geopolitical Games and Hybrid Warfare as an Instrument
It is known that the Kremlin has major geopolitical interests and ambitions in the Middle East and Asia as a whole.5 Russia’s main intention is to expand its sphere of influence in the Middle East, restore the power of the former Soviet Union at least in the foreign policy sphere, disrupt the existing international order and security architecture, and reduce the spheres of influence of the Euro-Atlantic alliance. Russia uses asymmetric methods to achieve this. Hybrid warfare6 has become a weapon in Moscow’s hands for changing the current world order. Russia calls it new generation warfare7 and although Russian military theorists and experts have also developed the theory of this field8 then in practice, Russia has already used non-linear methods of warfare in Transnistria, Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, and probably intends to do the same in Afghanistan.
The Taliban is now moving more and more into Moscow’s sphere of interest. It does not bother Moscow that the extreme Islamist Taliban has cooperated (and cooperates) with al-Qaeda and was declared a terrorist organisation by the UN in 2003. It is also not worried that the Taliban has largely grown out of the anti-Soviet fighters, called mujahideen, who actively fought against Soviet forces in the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979–89.
According to several sources, Moscow has turned its attention to the Taliban and is arming and providing training for them.9,10
This has been indirectly confirmed by Vladimir Putin himself, who said in an interview on TV channel Mir 24 on 12 April 2017 that “it is necessary to develop relations with all forces in Afghanistan, including the Taliban.” Putin also said:
Of course, there are many radical elements. But, just like our partners, including the representatives of the UN, we always proceed from the fact that we need to develop cooperation with any forces in Afghanistan based on at least three principles: acknowledgement of the constitution of Afghanistan, disarmament, and complete national consensus!11
Putin also stressed the presence of Russian military forces in Afghanistan’s neighbour, Tajikistan: “It is not a coincidence that our 201st military base is located [in Tajikistan] and operating in Afghanistan. This is an important element of stability in the region. Therefore, the first threat is, of course, terrorism and it is serious in Afghanistan.”12
Putin’s statement clearly indicated that Afghanistan is still important to Russia, which does not intend to forgot extending its sphere of influence to Afghanistan, and probably also towards Pakistan and India, as well as confirming that there is a power struggle between Russia and the US in the region.
Is Russia Making a Comeback in the Middle East?
The Kremlin wants to create the impression of the Russian Empire’s full-scale return to the world stage as a major power, as during the Cold War. According to the laws of biology, though, all life-forms are born, age and end with death. People go through different stages of life, from childhood to old age. This model can also be applied to countries and empires. Every empire in history has gone through the following stages: a young and rising empire, an empire at its peak (i.e. mid-life empire), an aging empire and, finally, destruction. But there are empires that try to prolong their life and fight aging. One example is Russia, which is desperately clinging to its imperial legacy and is unable to give up expansionism, dreaming of being a great Eurasian world power.13
Putin’s neo-imperialist regime wants to show the world that Russia’s geopolitical ambitions are much bigger than simply to wield control over Syria or influence the former Soviet territories (including Ukraine, Georgia, Central Asia, Moldova and Belarus). For this purpose, Russia is intervening in Libya and Afghanistan but also elsewhere (e.g. its interference in the Israel-Palestine conflict). However, the aging “pop star” (Russia) no longer has the stamina that the Soviet Union used to have, and Russia is unable to sustain a direct conflict with the West and NATO. This does not prevent the Kremlin from creating a propagandistic bubble and advertising that, right now, Russia is omnipotent and a superpower equal to the US. Putin proceeds from the principle that the most important thing is to stay in the picture. This is why Forbes magazine has selected Putin as the most powerful person in the world several years in a row.14 But how do you stay in the picture if the economy and demographic situation in Russia are bleak? The only possibility is to constantly create new problems and use old open wounds to escalate conflicts.
Why Does Russia Need the Taliban?
However, why is Russia looking at Afghanistan again? Why is it arming the Taliban? In short, it could be said that the Taliban has recently become a “useful idiot” for Russia, as has so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, Hezbollah, and some populist and extreme right-wing politicians in Europe. What are the possible reasons for the Kremlin focusing on Afghanistan again?
Reason 1: “Revanchism” and “Neo-imperialism”
Dr Holger Mölder writes that “after the Saur Revolution and intervention of the Soviet troops in 1978–1979, Afghanistan became a satellite of the Soviet Union”.15 The invasion ended badly for the Soviet Union in 1979 and, as Dr Mölder correctly notes, it became the “Soviet Vietnam”.16 It devastated the already fragile and stagnant economy of the Soviet Union and accelerated the collapse of the Soviet system. Less than three years after the end of the Afghan War, the Soviet Union collapsed. It was a devastating shock to the nostalgic Russian leaders, who dreamed of an empire. A comparison can be drawn with Germany, which lost power, prestige and territories as well as colonies at the end of World War I. Russia experienced a similar situation with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Another comparison: 1920s–30s Germany and Putin’s Russia saw the rise of resentment, fear and anger against their enemies and an increasing desire for revenge. In Germany, this brought Adolf Hitler and the Nazis to power, and they immediately began to restore the “empire”; in Russia, the figures of revanchist ideology are Vladimir Putin and his supporters, who are also trying to create an “empire” on the ruins of the Soviet Union.17 The band of oligarchs that rules the Kremlin is troubled by nostalgia for the lost power of empire, just like the revanchists in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Russia, the legal successor of the Soviet Union, senses clearly that it lost the Cold War to the West mainly due to the war in Afghanistan, which became one of the catalysts of the Soviet Union’s downfall. This is why Afghanistan is not a coincidental choice.
Putin stressed in an interview in April 2017 that “today, one-third of Afghan territory, agricultural areas, is controlled by the Taliban”. Putin also mentioned that the forces of the international coalition, mainly the US army, were forced to participate in combat activity and the return of the full US military contingent to Afghanistan was being discussed.18 The war in Afghanistan, which began in 2001, is one of the longest wars to involve the US and its allies. Here, Putin’s regime aims to challenge the position of the US and the Western countries in the Near and Middle East as a whole and to discredit them. This is why Moscow has intervened in the Syrian civil war,19 is attempting to interfere more and more in the Israel-Palestine conflict, supports Hezbollah, and is developing cooperation with Iran, Turkey, and so on.
Reason 2: “History and Tradition”
What does this mean? It must be borne in mind that Russia has long historic and traditional relations with this region. The Russian Empire tried to establish its influence in Afghanistan.20
When Ivan the Terrible (1533–84) conquered Kazan, the Russian state gained access to the Caspian Sea; the conquest of the Astrakhan khanate in the 16th century gave Russia the opportunity to establish relations with Iran and Central Asia. With Peter the Great’s expansionist policy, Russia’s interest in the Middle East increased. In the 18th century, Russia was very interested in Iran, Central Asia and Afghanistan. During the era of the shahs of the Qajar dynasty (1781–1925), Iran waged several wars against the Russian Empire. Wars with the aggressive and powerful Russian Empire were not much of a success for a weakened and technologically backward Iran, and Tehran lost many territories in Caucasia and Central Asia, which Russia annexed and incorporated. The 18th and 19th centuries were not favourable for Iran. European powers, primarily Great Britain and Russia, intervened in its internal affairs and contended for spheres of influence in the East. The British gained control over India and Afghanistan; the Russian tsars wanted to control Central Asia and Caucasia. The 19th century and the early 20th saw a geopolitical struggle (also known as the Great Game) between the Russian and British empires over spheres of influence in South and Central Asia.21
In a sense, this Great Game continued after World War II during the Cold War, but the US entered as a new player in place of the British Empire and the Soviet Union replaced the Russian Empire. The Kremlin thinks that the time has come to recommence the Great Game. In the 19th century, Afghanistan became a buffer state between the Russian and British empires. When, in October 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, relations between Moscow and Kabul became warmer—in 1919 Russia established diplomatic relations with Afghanistan and in 1921 Soviet Russia and Afghanistan signed a mutual non-aggression pact. The Soviet Union provided financial support and sent weapons to Afghanistan. Soviet interest increased even more in the 1950s and cooperation thrived. The Soviet Union pumped vast amounts of money into Afghanistan. A revealing example is the financial, military and other support for Afghanistan by the Soviet Union between 1954 and 1978, when Moscow’s monetary support alone to Kabul amounted to more than one billion US dollars.
The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union meant the end of the Great Game for Russia in the Middle East.
Now, however, Putin thinks it is a good time to start a second round of the gambit in the Middle East. The Kremlin believes the time is right also because the general security situation in the world has become more fragile, the threat of terrorism is increasing, and hatred and fear of US influence is spreading in the Near and Middle East. The Kremlin is taking advantage of this based on its past experience and long-time traditions of relations with the Middle East. This, however, is only one of the reasons why Putin is intervening in Afghanistan. Since the Kremlin does not want to participate directly in combat activity there, it has chosen another way—arming the Taliban.22
Reason 3: Causing and Spreading “Chaos”
Russia wants to break the current world order because it does not correspond to Putin’s wishes. In order to do this, Russia is creating “chaos” by exaggerating the refugee crisis in Europe and Turkey, extending conflict zones, and causing and spreading chaos. This fits well with the principle of “manageable chaos”, which Russia has used as one of the basic weapons of its policy and which is also used as a weapon by ISIS.23 Russia has made manageable chaos its modus operandi to achieve its goals, and uses it to accomplish its geopolitical interests. Syria and Ukraine are only two of the battlegrounds where Russia is implementing this strategy. Now Afghanistan is becoming a playground for the principle.
Russia wants the West, whose troops have been in Afghanistan since 2001, to keep its forces there as long as possible. This would mean additional costs to NATO and the US, additional problems in the security sphere and so on, and, of course, further postponing the long-awaited peace in the country.
In the 1980s the West used Islamist extremists in Afghanistan (i.e. future Taliban militants) in the war against the Soviet Union, and now Russia is trying to do the same by arming and supporting the Taliban so that it can regain its strength. It is no coincidence that Russia chose the Taliban, because the Taliban has had long-term relations with al-Qaeda since the 1980s. Fighting using others’ weapons, proceeding from the principle of “divide and conquer”, is one of the main characteristics of Putin’s policies.
What can we conclude from all this? Why is the Kremlin arming the Taliban?
It must be kept in mind that it is the forceful intervention of the Russian Federation in Syria that has pushed the conflict in eastern Ukraine into the background; it is simply not discussed as much. Interference in Afghanistan would divert the attention of Western countries even more.
In addition, Russia is provoking the US and NATO member states to intervene more heavily in Afghanistan in order for the West to keep its troops deployed. If the West’s involvement were even deeper—for example, if additional troops were deployed—Putin would do everything to ensure it becomes “another Vietnam”, so that the US and NATO would get stuck there up to their necks and spend huge amounts of money, just like the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the past. In this sense, the Kremlin wants to “get back” at the West in the same place that Moscow suffered a great failure.
The Kremlin also needs the Taliban for other reasons. One of these is to destabilise the situation, escalating the security crisis—this is the Kremlin’s new tactic for breaking the current fragile international order and widening the chaos in the Near and Middle East. The “manageable chaos” strategy is one of the Kremlin’s weapons in modern hybrid warfare, which Moscow is waging on several fronts with different opponents.
1 Frank 2012.
2 Landan 2001: 23.
3 Bodansky 2002.
4 Fatima 2014: 35-46
5 “Russia has long-term ambitions in Middle East: Israeli Official” – www.breibart.com.
6 Galeotti 2015: 157-164; Gorbulin 2016; Magda 2017.
7 Berzins 2016
8 Chekinov, Bogdanov 2011: 3–13; Chekinov, Bogdanov 2013: 13-24.
9 Totten 2017.
10 Gibbons-Neff 2017.
11 Putin pointed out the need to build relations with the Taliban; Putin: the problem of Afghanistan cannot be solved without contact with the Taliban (Путин указал на необходимость выстраивать отношения с талибами; Путин: Решить проблему Афганистана без контактов с талибами нельзя)
12 Exclusive interview with President of Russia, Vladimir Putin (Эксклюзивное интервью президента России Владимира Путина)
13 Eltchaninoff 2016: 99–113; Johnson 2014.
14 Forbes (www.forbes.com/profile/vladimir-putin/).
15 Mölder 2014: 129.
16 Mölder 2014: 117.
17 Tabakov 2016.
18 Exclusive interview with President of Russia, Vladimir Putin (Эксклюзивное интервью президента России Владимира Путина)
19 Sazonov 2015.
20 Казем-Заде 2004.
21 Khalid 1980: 49–56.
22 Gibbons-Neff 2017; Totten 2017; “U.S. Concerned Russia Supplying Arms To Afghan Taliban”.
23 Mubashir Noor 2015.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.