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Unbanning the Taliban: Propping up the Afghan regime to boost regional stability, Russia becomes a target for ISIS

Less than two weeks after the devastating Crocus City Hall terrorist attack, which has been claimed by ISIS Khorasan, Moscow is once again talking about removing the Taliban, ISIS’ arch-enemy, from its list of terrorist groups, a prerequisite for deeper cooperation and eventual recognition of the Taliban government. As a result of its long-standing controversial Afghanistan policy and its direct confrontation with ISIS in Syria, Russia has found itself in a situation in which support for the Taliban is perceived as the only possible path towards stability in the region. Should the Taliban fail to cement its grip on power in Afghanistan, ISIS could continue its northward push into one of the Central Asian nations, thus becoming a serious threat to Russia’s national security. However, Moscow’s gamble may not pay off, according to Artemy M. Kalinovsky, professor of history and political science at Temple University in Philadelphia.


A tangle of contradictions

For over three decades, Russia’s policy towards Afghanistan has been plagued with controversy. Even before the collapse of the USSR, the government of the Russian Federation had opened talks with the leadership of the groups that had battled the Soviet military and its allies in Afghanistan for more than a decade. The Yeltsin government believed that the USSR had wasted blood and treasure propping up an unpopular socialist regime, and wanted no part of the “misadventure.” After Kabul fell in April 1992, Moscow continued to cultivate a relationship with the Mujahadeen leaders, and to support them even as they were pushed out of Kabul and towards the northern provinces after 1996.

That relationship with the mujahadeen may have been one of the reasons Vladimir Putin agreed to support the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. After all, the mujahadeen had long proven to be reasonable partners, who could be counted on to support Moscow’s top priority: keeping the post-Soviet Central Asian region stable. During Tajikistan’s civil war in the 1990s, Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, an ethnic Tajik who had led one of the resistance groups fighting the Soviets and their allies in the country, had offered shelter and support to the United Tajik Opposition (UTO). On the other hand, Massoud also pushed the UTO to make a deal with the regime of Emomali Rahmon, in return for which Russia promised Massoud arms to fend off the Taliban. Helping Massoud’s forces (Massoud himself had been assassinated on Sep. 9, 2001) and their allies take Kabul clearly seemed to be in Russia’s interest.

Moscow continued to support the U.S.-led fight against the Taliban long after Putin had soured on Washington and its role in the world. (The US and its allies had relied on the use of Pakistani territory to supply their forces in Kabul, but as relations with Islamabad grew more difficult and concerns grew about the country’s internal stability, Washington sought an alternative route. In the Obama era, this took the form of the “Northern Distribution Network,” which allowed NATO an alternative to Pakistan for moving supplies into Afghanistan. The NDN included the use of Russian airspace as well as Russian and Central Asian rail and land corridors.

By 2017, however, the Russian leadership appears to have changed its mind about the wisdom of supporting the American effort. Moscow decided it would be able to live with the Taliban, and was even willing to help accelerate its eventual return to power. Several developments seem to have augured this shift. First, Moscow no longer saw the government in Kabul as viable, and had instead come to the conclusion that the Taliban were likely to either take power or at the very least to end up as part of a coalition government. Second, it was clear even before Donald Trump’s election in 2016 that the U.S. wanted out of Afghanistan. Once president Trump began holding talks about an exit in Doha, there was no longer any doubt that the Taliban would eventually be in Kabul. Finally, the rise of ISIS-Khorasan demonstrated that there was a much more immediate threat for Moscow than the Taliban. Indeed, Russia’s intervention in Syria was driven as much by its fear of what a group like the Islamic State could do to regional stability as by its long-standing relationship with Bashar-al-Asad.

The rise of ISIS-Khorasan demonstrated that there was a much more immediate threat for Moscow than the Taliban

Russia’s brutal campaign in Syria allowed it to prop up Asad and drive the Islamic State underground. By that point, however, an ISIS offshoot had made itself known in Afghanistan and was busy attacking both Western forces and the Taliban. From Moscow’s perspective, there was no question who was preferable. The Taliban, after all, had never threatened Central Asia, let alone Russia itself. Its ambitions were confined to Afghanistan in its internationally recognized borders, as well as the Pushtun areas of Pakistan. Nor did the Taliban recruit from outside of Afghanistan.

A group like ISIS, by contrast, recruited around the world and was willing to commit attacks far outside its main geographical area of operation. Indeed, one thing that worried Moscow, along with the other governments in the region, was the large number of Central Asians who seem to have been recruited by ISIS to Syria.

The fear that these individuals might eventually come back from Syria to launch attacks in Central Asia or in Russia certainly attracted the time and attention of the Kremlin’s security services in the 2010s. While ISIS-K never demonstrated the explosive growth of the original extremist movement, which in 2014 had taken vast amounts of territory across Iraq and Syria in a matter of months, the potential for trouble seemed greater. Indeed, Moscow no doubt counted on the Taliban to keep ISIS — and any other group with transnational ambitions — in check.

Russian officials gloated after the Taliban takeover of Kabul in August 2021, portraying the chaotic fall of the city as proof that Western policy had failed. While it held off on formally recognizing the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, it met publicly with Taliban leaders and, in 2022, agreed to deliver fuel, gas, and wheat at discount prices. The Kremlin has promised further engagement were the Taliban to fulfill crucial conditions, including creating a government representing different ethnic groups in the country. Notably, Russia has also kept the movement on its list of terrorist organizations — even as most other countries, including Russia’s neighbor Kazakhstan, have removed them from their own lists.

Russian officials gloated after the Taliban takeover of Kabul in August 2021

The Crocus City Hall attack has apparently convinced Moscow to double down on its policy of engagement with the Taliban as a way to stabilize the region. Although having the Taliban on Russia’s list of terrorist organizations has not stopped Moscow from engaging with the group, removing it would make deeper cooperation, particularly on security matters, much easier. Moscow could then scale up intelligence sharing, training, and even supplies of equipment that have become part of the anti-terrorist toolkit — not just arms, but also facial recognition technology and other advanced computing capabilities.

Yet the Crocus City Hall attack has shown the limits of Russia’s Afghanistan policy. Indeed, this is probably the first time since 1989 that Russian citizens have died as a result of Moscow’s policy in that country. Despite the Kremlin’s rather desperate attempts to link the attack to Ukraine or to its “Western backers,” the motivation of ISIS-K is clear enough. Moscow’s support for Asad beat back the group in Syria, and its support for the Taliban has helped keep ISIS in check in Afghanistan. In a grim coincidence, Crocus City Hall was also the site of a major gala, held in February 2019, marking the 30th anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. At the event, General Mikhail Moiseev, former chief of the General Staff of the Soviet army, praised the USSR’s troops for “guaranteeing Russia’s security” by fighting in Afghanistan.

Crocus City Hall was also the site of a major gala, held in February 2019, marking the 30th anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan

Helpless Tajikistan

The March 22 attacks appear to have been carried out by citizens of Tajikistan recruited by ISIS. The brutal interrogation methods employed by the Russian security services during their arrest, and the immediate attempt to link the attack to Ukraine and its Western backers, means we will probably never learn how these men were recruited, who they worked with, or what really motivated them to take part in the attacks (it was almost certainly not the 500,000 rubles that one of the arrested men mentioned). But the attack — and even more, perhaps, Russia’s response, once again highlights the tensions in Moscow’s approach to the region.

Russia positions itself as the guarantor of regional stability in Central Asia, but it exacts a price in return. Since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it has tried to bully these countries into helping it bypass Western sanctions. Despite the fact that most of the regional leaders (and publics) are critical of Russia’s invasion and are aware of the implications that it has for their own countries, they have tried to avoid angering Russia while simultaneously staying on good terms with Western powers. This has meant, for example, continuing to trade with Russia and serving as a conduit for sanctioned electronics while also taking steps such as banning Russia’s Mir payment system, as Kyrgyzstan did most recently.

Since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin has tried to bully these countries into helping it bypass Western sanctions

This has not stopped many Russian commentators and officials from complaining that Central Asians are insufficiently pro-Russian, from alleging that these Russian neighbors have plans to sell weapons to Ukraine, or even to deny the legitimacy of their statehood (as Vladimir Putin himself did with regard to Kazakhstan in 2014).

Meanwhile, Central Asian people living and working in Russia have been subjected to official harassment and racism, a trend that has increased notably since the March 22 attacks. Russia’s dependence on Central Asian labor has only grown as the country has mobilized for war, and yet Russia’s own security services have been arresting and deporting migrant workers en masse. It is notable that Russia’s dependence on Central Asian labor is as substantial as Tajikistan’s dependence on remittances, and yet popular racism and anti-migrant rhetoric exist in Russia at both the official and the societal levels.

Russia’s dependence on Central Asian labor is as substantial as Tajikistan’s dependence on remittances

Russia’s behavior also puts additional pressure on the governments of Central Asia. The government of Tajikistan has largely stayed silent following the attack. In the meantime, Russia has undertaken to expel many Tajik citizens and is proposing new laws aimed at making it more difficult for foreigners to enter the country. The Tajik government does appear to be cooperating with the Russian investigation, conducting its own raid in Dushanbe and in the nearby city of Vahdat.

On the whole, the regime of Emomali Rahmon, who has ruled Tajikistan since 1994, appears to be incapable of interceding with Russian authorities on behalf of its citizens in Russia — let alone of securing a fair trial for its citizens suspected of carrying out the Crocus City Hall attack. Only on April 12 did the Foreign Minister of Tajikistan, Sirojidin Muhriddin, speak out against the use of torture against the suspects, as well as the “ill-conceived information campaign” against Tajiks in Russia.

With Russia’s military bogged down in Ukraine, any serious instability in Central Asia would be an unwelcome distraction, one that would force the Kremlin to divert resources bound for the front line. Cooperation with the Taliban, meanwhile, appears to Moscow the only path to preserving stability in Afghanistan and preventing a spillover north. This dynamic is all the more true after the Crocus attack.

But what if it turns out the Taliban’s hold on the country is just as weak as that of the last few occupants of Kabul? What if the terrorist groups prove difficult to eradicate in Afghanistan, and start carrying out attacks in neighboring states, as ISIS-K did with its attack in Moscow? The Kremlin risks once again making Afghanistan’s problems its own — and becoming its own worst enemy.

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