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Published in Stream:
Syria: December 23, 2015
Press by
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russia Says Taliban's Interests 'Coincide' With Its Own, Even As Moscow Supplies Arms to Afghan Government
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Russia has announced it is prepared to cooperate with the Taliban in Afghanistan for the sake of fighting ISIS -- still known as ISIL in Russia -- reports.

Zamir Kabulov, President Vladimir Putin's special representative for Afghanistan, said in an interview with Interfax (translation by The Interpreter):

"The interests of the Taliban even without stimulation objectively coincide with ours," said the diplomat, recalling that earlier he had already spoken of the presence in Moscow of channels of communication with the Taliban to exchange information.
The news of Russia's secret channel to the Taliban had been broken by The Daily Beast on October 26.

The Taliban are not as lonely as they once were. The pariahs who protected Osama bin Laden and quickly collapsed when the U.S. counter-attacked after September 11, 2001, have been developing contacts with neighboring states and even with Russia, driven out of Afghanistan in 1989.

There’s nothing simple about this picture, and, interestingly, it appears partly tied to Russian efforts to oppose the spread in Afghanistan of groups pledging allegiance to the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. That same concern has helped to forge links between the Taliban and their longtime enemies in Iran.

And the Russian connection is emerging, ironically, at the same time that Afghanistan’s Uzbek warlord and vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, has openly warmed to his onetime allies in Russia and tried to strengthen ties to the former Soviet states on Afghan frontier.

Dostum visited Moscow and Grozny this month and launched an offensive just last week in provinces near the Turkmenistan border. Dostum lumped the Taliban together with Daesh, a common Arabic acronym for the Islamic state, on his enemies list.
At that time, Kabulov, who serves in the Second Department for Asia at the Russian Foreign Ministry, responded to the Daily Beast report, reported

"We have channels with the Talibans, when we want to convey something to them, but what the Daily Beast has in mind, I don't know...There is a channel of communication."
The Beast said it had learned from "a former Afghan Taliban governor and member of the group's military committee" who did not want to be cited by name that “the American global attitude and the threat from ISIS makes for a convergence of Taliban and Russian interests, and we could not rule out further cooperation, depending on the emerging scenario in the Middle East.” 

The contacts were made in Tajikistan, a Central Asian country bordering Afghanistan where Russia has a base and border troops and considerable influence -- a sizable part of the GDP of this poorest of Central Asian countries comes from labor migrants' remittances from Russia.

Moscow's contacts with the Taliban were apparently first established in mid-2013 to obtain the return of a Russian pilot captured after he made an emergency landing in an area near Kabul under Taliban influence. Then in May, the Taliban was supplied with weapons from Tajikistan in exchange for releasing 4 Tajik border guards they had captured while they were cutting wood across the river that marks the border.

There were other signs of contact, said the Beast:

At a peace conference in Qatar last summer, according to Qustad Qari Bu-Rahman, who attended on behalf of Hizb Islami Afghanistan (the Hikmatyar group), “A Russian who spoke perfect Pashto was there as an observer. He was called on demand of the Taliban, so there’s no doubt about the Taliban and Moscow having contact.”
In October, the Wall Street Journal also reported that the Afghan government had asked Russia to supply artillery, firearms and Mi-35 combat helicopters -- after the US and its allies withdraw a large number of troops from the area and reduced financial aid. That put Moscow and its neighbors in the position of "playing a double game or at least keeping their options open," said the Beast.

At 16:32 Moscow time, Interfax published the news that Russia had agreed to supply weapons to Afghanistan; the admission of the "coincidence of interests" between Russia and the Taliban over ISIS then followed a minute later at 16:32.

Kabulov said: 

"We're prepared to send weapons there [to Afghanistan] but we will do this carefully and mainly on a commercial basis."
Was the Foreign Ministry now pushed into admitting the relationship to the Taliban by the The Daily Beast's report? It seems unlikely given that the article was published two months ago, and other indications of the connections have appeared. It's more likely Russia wants to place pressure on the US and its allies in Afghanistan as it increasingly asserts itself in Central Asia and the Middle East.

In October, the US decided to extend troop presence in Afghanistan through 2016, and to reduce the current force of 9,800 to 5,500 in 2017. This week six US service people were killed in a suicide bomb attack in Bagram as they were patrolling jointly with the Afghan army. Two other US military and 1 contractor were wounded.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick