On February 5-6, Moscow hosted an inter-Afghan meeting attended by around 40 famous Afghan politicians and tribal leaders. 10 of them represented the Taliban movement banned in Russia. Commenting on the outcome of the meeting, the representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry Zamir Kabulov said that Moscow would lobby for the lifting of sanctions against the Taliban and would provide political support to the movement. The reasons that have made Russia engage in dialogue with the terror organization lie in the fact that Afghan radical movements and ethnic groups are extremely diverse. The highly complex system of public relations in Afghanistan drives not only Russia but also other representatives of the international community to non-trivial solutions. The current dynamics in Afghanistan’s political life has not been changed since the Soviet invasion in 1979. It is the activity of the USSR and the USA in Afghanistan, from the history of which we should begin, that turned this country into a “boiling cauldron” of various ideologies and movements including the terror ones.

The storming the Afghan Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin’s palace by Soviet special forces can be considered the event that marked the beginning of political turbulence. Amin nicknamed “bloody” was an extremely ambitious leader and, as noted by his contemporaries, used all possible methods to achieve his own goals. At that time, a civil war was brewing in the country due to the confrontation of clans and political radical movements. Punitive operations of “bloody” Hafizullah against the opposition only added fuel to fire. Several thousand people were killed as a result of his actions. The expression “to be rolled under the bulldozer” was used then in Afghanistan in its literal meaning. Such Amin’s actions kept the Soviet leadership on their toes. All doubts about the need for Soviet intervention in the situation vanished when it became known that Amin, who turned out to be a CIA agent, killed a Soviet loyal Afghan leader Taraki.  Moscow decided to eliminate Amin. Initially, a KGB agent in Amin’s entourage working as his personal nutritionist was planned to carry out the operation. She put poison in his lunch.The government, trying to save the poisoned leader, asked the Soviet Embassy for held and the doctor who arrived there saved the dying President having no slightest idea that the KGB operation was taking place. The storming of the Afghan leader’s palace thus became inevitable.

Shortly before that, as a gift from the Soviet leadership, Amin received fighters from the so-called Muslim battalion (“musbat”), formed by the GRU of Tajiks and Uzbeks, who joined personal guard of Amin and quickly managed to blend in with the Afghans. The storming was conducted on December 27, 1979, and “musbat” ensured that the two GRU assault units Zenit and Grom entered the palace’s territory. The operation was named “Storm-333”. The explosion of the well where all the communication hubs were concentrated served as a signal to attack. The maneuver cut off Amin’s palace “Taj Bek” from help.

More than 50 people including Amin himself were killed during the several-hour-long storming, and Babrak Karmal came to power with the help of the Soviet leadership.

The next period of time of the country’s history is still called the “Golden age” among the Afghans largely due to the direct contribution of the Soviet Union to the Afghan infrastructure. More than 200 major facilities were built across Afghanistan in different periods: from a bread factory, highways, bridges, urban power grids, and oil depots in Mazar-e-Sharif to residential homes, kindergarten, technical schools and a 1,200-student Polytechnic University in Kabul. The strengthening of the USSR in Afghanistan brought about concern on the part of Washington. Therefore, the US with the help of Pakistani intelligence ISI begin to recruit rebels and allocate unprecedented funds for the armed struggle against the USSR. The program of the American special services was called “Cyclone”. It has become one of the longest and most expensive secret CIA operations. Its funding started at $20-30 million per year and by 1987 reached $630 million per year.

President Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in a 1998 interview to the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur said, ” We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would… That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, essentially: ” We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.” As it has recently emerged from declassified archives of the Pentagon, “Cyclone” began before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Arab mercenaries of CIA had already received their training, and the American weapons had been transported across the border with Pakistan. There were plans to use it in the upcoming civil war, which was brewing in Afghanistan and which the Soviet Union delayed, although for a short period.

The Afghan war[1] was indeed one of the most difficult, not only in terms of tactics, location, intelligence operations but also in a political sense – yesterday’s allies were becoming today’s enemies. It was as part of the Cyclone operation that the CIA began to support Osama bin Laden.  When the war finally rocked the situation in the region causing concern of such players as Iran, India, and China, Washington thought that it was impractical to support any of the parties, whether Mujahideen or al-Qaeda. Gorbachev viewed this as a prospect to end the conflict, and on February 15, 1989, began the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.

After Babrak Karmal, a skilled diplomat and politician Mohammad Najibullah came to power in 1986 announcing a program of national reconciliation, which involved negotiations with the rebel movements’ leaders. However, it was impossible to implement the plan without the support of the Soviet Union, which at that time was already on the verge of collapse, and India, which was suffering an acute economic crisis. After the withdrawal of Soviet troops, the civil war gained new life. In April 1992, the rebels entered Kabul and the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan ceased to exist. Najibullah had to hide from the civil war on the territory of the UN mission in Kabul until 1996 when he was captured and executed by the Taliban.

With the departure of Najibullah, there were several successive leaders and presidents, until in 2001 the US invaded Afghanistan in response to the September 11 attacks. During the operation “Enduring Freedom”, Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and a number of other strategically important cities were reconquered, and the Taliban regime was de facto defeated. In December of the same year, the international community (mainly NATO countries) undertook joint efforts to stabilize the situation. That is why the Bonn conference was held resulting in the emerging Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (IRA) with its interim administration headed by Hamid Karzai.

His government consisted mainly of the Northern Alliance representatives (an Alliance of Afghan Tajiks, Mujahideen, and warlords), which opposed the Taliban during the 1992-1996 civil war. A number of assassination attempts had been carried out against the president, so his personal security was staffed by American fighters. The Taliban controlled most of the country, and the US de facto effectively managed the official government. However, when Karzai won the elections in 2004, the drug trade increased significantly and Europe began to consume “goods” from Afghanistan instead of “distant” Columbia. The economic importance of drug trafficking and the encouragement of such business by the highest leaders under the formal imitation of the fight against it is reflected at least in the fact that drug barons began to get appointed to decision-making positions. For example, the brother of President Abdul Kayum Karzai was considered the biggest drug lord of Kandahar province in 2005.

Meanwhile, Washington’s distrust to Karzai grew, numerous accusations of corruption and inability to resolve the ethnic conflict undermined Washington’s authority in the international arena. The country became increasingly involved in the Afghan conflict, while terror organizations around and inside Afghanistan only expanded. This forced the US to promote new politicians, such as Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah.

Having felt a chill in relations with the USA, Karzai flips the direction of foreign policy. It was illustrated by the symbolic decision of the Afghan government to support the Crimea’s accession to Russia (the main US geopolitical rival), comparing it with the way the Pashtuns were divided by the Durand line[2] as a result of Great Britain’s colonial policy.

The Afghan leader almost regularly criticized Washington in the media, and closer to the presidential elections demanded that the White House, which led the international military contingent in Afghanistan, support his brother Kayum Karzai in the elections, release the Afghans in Guantanamo and stop the flights of unmanned aerial vehicles over Afghanistan. In response, the US threatened to withdraw its troops and leave Karzai to solve the Taliban problem alone, however, the main demand of the Taliban was actually to withdraw foreign occupiers, and Karzai thus tried to gain Taliban’s trust and support.

As a result, the US refused to withdraw the contingent and strengthened support of Ashraf Ghani’s (the Pashtun) candidacy for the presidential post and Abdullah Abdullah (Afghan Tajik) for the post of Prime Minister. With their coming to power after the presidential elections of 2014, the situation in the country changed once again. Domestic policy saw a further divergence over the conditional border between the territories controlled by the Taliban and the territories of the IRA government. There were also divisions within the Pashtun tribes themselves, as the current president belonged to the Durrani and his predecessor – to the Ghilzai. The situation was aggravated by the vigorous action of the terror organization Islamic State (ISIS), which literature began to appear in some of the Afghan provinces. The Pakistani wing of Taliban also proclaimed itself an ISIS ally, as had already done a number of Afghan warlords with historical experience in organizing extremist activities.

Another factor provoking the demarcation of the country by the conditional border was the interest of the US administration in the process, which was faced with several possible scenarios:

1.    To continue the war against terrorists. In this case, however, the problem of saving the budget funds wouldn’t have been solved as the US spent $770 trillion on the Afghan campaign within the period from 2001 to 2014 (according to nationalpriorities.org). Also, the reduced financial support and approved by President Barack Obama declaration, according to which 10 thousand military personnel should have been left in Afghanistan for training and consultation, clearly contradicted the tactics to suppress the rebel forces.

2. Full withdrawal of the military contingent from the territory of Afghanistan. At the same time, in the above-mentioned conditions and with the weak combat capability of the national army, a new civil war would remain highly probable, which could become a threat to the stability of the entire region and in reality, would strengthen the position of the Islamic State.

3. Negotiations and the prospect of the Taliban joining the coalition government. However, this option was not acceptable, as the militants consecutively winning the guerrilla war were willing to talk only from a position of strength.

Thus, Obama’s advisers perceived the actual division of the Afghan territory followed by the end of the military presence in the country as a way out of the situation, perhaps assuming that the Taliban would be satisfied with the borders drawn officially.

In 2018, the balance of forces involved in Afghan politics shifted again. The Russian operation against ISIS undermined the positions of many allied Islamic terror groups. The US military pressure and the strengthening of the Afghan government troops, along with the attempts of Ashraf Ghani to establish a negotiation process, weakened the Taliban currently controlling not 70, but 55% of the country. Against the background of Trump’s statements on his plans to end the Afghan campaign, many Taliban field commanders expressed their readiness to contact the official authorities and resolve the conflict politically. One of the key factors demonstrating the readiness for dialogue was the opposition of the Taliban remaining in Afghanistan to the ISIS ideology and the fight against them for financial flows from Arab countries, which use various groups to solve their geopolitical tasks. The Pakistani Taliban also have no consensus on this issue. The leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Shahidullah Shahid, who swore to ISIS, was dismissed by the leadership of the movement for supporting competitors.

Currently the Taliban are trying to spread the risks of their political activity and are accessing promising partners. In January, the movement held several meetings with White House officials and obtained US support on the issue of the Taliban admission to the elections in Afghanistan. Ashraf Ghani, trying to maintain a fragile truce, agreed to provide the Taliban with an office in Kabul. Nevertheless, the Taliban fear that Washington will be reluctant to lose control over the strategic areas of the country and will replace the military contingent with various private military companies (PMCs). The Taliban had to give Washington an official warning against the “privatization” of the war by deploying the PMC Academi[3]. In the light of this, contacts with the Russians, according to the political wing of the Taliban, can become the missing part of the structure that should contribute to a peaceful settlement creating a balance between the interests of various ethnic, religious, financial, political and many other groups.

These ties are also extremely relevant for Russia. In addition to the exceedingly important geopolitical location of Afghanistan, Russia needs to assert its influence in the post-Soviet space and in Central Asia in general.

Heading a number of regional organizations based on security and economic cooperation, the RF is responsible for protecting allies and neighbors from “Afghan threats” (terrorism, drug trafficking, etc.). This role strengthens its position in the eyes of the Central Asian elites unable to control the spreading extremist movements.

In the nearest future, Central Asia with its ethnic differences, insufficient water supply and poverty will become another region of tension, which can be regarded as a threat to the RF border stability. Therefore, the “Afghan policy” and the expansion of cultural and diplomatic ties, not only in the form of bilateral relations, but also in the form of existing international organizations, is now becoming one of the important directions in Russia’s foreign policy.

Alexander Minin – Vice-President of the Center for socio-economic and geopolitical studies (St. Petersburg), written expressly for IAC

[1] The Afghan war (1979-1989) is a military conflict in the territory of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan between the government forces of Afghanistan supported by the Soviet troops on one side and the armed formations of Afghan Mujahideen, supported by NATO countries and the Arab world on the other side. The internal political crisis in Afghanistan began de facto in 1973, and after 1978 reached its critical stage.

[2] The Durand line is an unmarked 2,640-kilometre border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, emerged as the result of negotiations following the three Anglo-Afghan wars during which Britain tried to expand British India. The Afghan government refuses to recognize it as a border.

[3] Academi (formerly Blackwater) is the world’s largest private military company from North Carolina (USA). It receives most of the income from participation in military conflicts. 90% of orders come from the US government.