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Andrey Kazantsev

Doctor of Political Science, Director of the Analytical Centre of Institute of International Studies, MGIMO University

For more than 40 years, Afghanistan has seen non-stop military hostilities, with ten years of the Soviet war in the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, another ten years of civil wars—first between the victorious mujahedeen, then between the mujahedeen and the Taliban—with the following twenty years taken up by the military presence of the U.S. and NATO. Today, Afghanistan is reminiscent of a disturbed wasps’ nest.

The key issue connected with ensuring security for the post-Soviet Central Asia is whether the Taliban will interact with ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the many ethnic groups linked to these two terrorist organizations and include post-Soviet space natives. The Taliban has repeatedly claimed their opposition to ISIS, stating that they would not attack the Central Asian states. They repeated that statement at the press conference in Moscow on 8 July. We shall not forget that this does not apply to Al-Qaeda or ethnic post-Soviet groups.

On the one hand, most experts agree there are significant ideological differences between the Taliban and ISIS, which makes the ISIS ideology alien to Afghanistan in general and its Pashtun population in particular. The Taliban follow the fairly moderate Hanafi Islam that allows folk traditions. Moreover, along with Islam, a key part in the Taliban ideology is played by the traditional Pashtun code of honor (Pashtunwali). ISIS members are the most hard-core and intransigent Salafists who reject all folk traditions and customs in the name of “pure” Islam.

Besides, ISIS and the Taliban have significant political differences. The Taliban’s goals are generally confined to Afghanistan. It is essentially a nationalist Pashtun movement, be they Afghan or Pakistani Taliban. The Taliban’s goal is to establish a Pashtun Islamic emirate, expelling foreigners and ensuring Pashtun domination of non-Pashtun territories in Afghanistan. ISIS represents the most radical Jihadism and Salafism, and its goal is to establish a global Islamic caliphate, which requires all-out war against outside infidels and domestic “heretics.” Moreover, the essence of ISIS ideology is expecting the impending “end of the world”, a tenet making Taliban’s nation-building tasks rather pointless.

Yet, does this mean that the Taliban and ISIS cannot cooperate at all? A closer scrutiny of their ideologies and political goals uncovers a large number of indirect links. As improbable as an alliance between individual groups within the Taliban and ISIS might appear at first glance, it is in fact quite likely.

Importantly, as Russia aids Central Asian states in ensuring their security, it also assists in ensuring Europe’s security. Afghanis already constitute one of the three main refugee groups in Germany (together with Syrians and Iraqis).

The article was originally published in Russian on August, 10—before the hasty U.S. military withdrawal and the subsequent takeover of the country and its government by the Taliban. Some parts of the article may therefore contain somewhat outdated vocabulary.

For more than 40 years, Afghanistan has seen non-stop military hostilities, with ten years of the Soviet war in the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, another ten years of civil wars—first between the victorious mujahedeen, then between the mujahedeen and the Taliban—with the following twenty years taken up by the military presence of the U.S. and NATO [1]. Today, Afghanistan is reminiscent of a disturbed wasps’ nest.

In India, they call Afghanistan “the heart of Asia” as often as not, since the country stands at an intersection point of many regional and global issues. This is potentially fraught with many security problems for Russia and for those post-Soviet Central Asian states whose security is guaranteed by Moscow either because of their CSTO membership (Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan) or because of close bilateral ties (Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan). In early July 2021, Tajikistan officially applied to the CSTO for assistance in protecting its border with Afghanistan.

Here are the three principal episodes in Russia’s recent military history connected with Afghanistan:

  1. The well-known Soviet-Afghan war (1979–1989).
  2. Separating the parties in the 1990s during the civil war in Tajikistan; subsequently, Russian border guards were involved in skirmishes on the Afghan-Tajik border. The most dramatic episode involved militants killing 25 Russian border guards on 13 July 1993 at Border Outpost 12 of the Moscow Border Detachment. Khattab, future leader of Chechen militants, was one of the militants’ commanders in that battle.
  3. Russia’s involvement in the 1999 Batken Conflict in Kyrgyzstan under the CIS Collective Security Treaty. During that mini-war, members of the Al-Qaeda-related Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a terrorist group, attempted to break through into their native country following large-scale terrorist attacks in Tashkent, and became bogged down in the Batken Region of Kyrgyzstan [2].

We might also add here the close ties between the more radical wing of North Caucasian militants and the Taliban via Al-Qaeda [3]. The latter was actively involved in the last two Chechen wars. The bombers who carried out many of the terrorist attacks in Russia had been trained by Al-Qaeda instructors sent from Afghanistan. The key person liaising between Afghanistan and Chechnya was the mentioned above Amir ibn al-Khattab, a well-known warlord and Shamil Basaev’s main ally; previously, he had fought against the USSR in Afghanistan (1987–1992), then he transferred his “jihad” to Tajikistan (1993) and Chechnya (1994–1995).

Additionally, before our very eyes, the militants who fought against Russia in Syria (primarily, post-Soviet space natives) are forming a new connection with Afghanistan via the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISIS – Khorasan Province), an ISIS territorial unit in Afghanistan, as well as via ethnic terrorist groups with ties to Al-Qaeda.

Russia inevitably perceives growing threats in Afghanistan and in Central Asia in the context of the above events.

Interconnected threats of international terrorism in Central Asia, Afghanistan and the Middle East

As the U.S. withdraws its troops and the civil war grows progressively bitter, the instability in Afghanistan is creating major security problems for Central Asian states.

Even if we take the many Taliban statements at face value, believing that they will refrain from attacking the Central Asian states (the latest such statement was made on July 8, 2021, in Moscow), there is still a threat posed by the many extremist ethnic groups consisting of the post-Soviet space natives, who are currently based in the north of Afghanistan, close to the borders with Central Asian states. The Taliban’s recent offensive and its approach to the borders of states in the region has done nothing but exacerbate the problem. Moreover, this is inevitable since Northern Afghanistan is the historical lands of the Emirate of Bukhara populated by Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens and Kyrgyz, just like the lands on the other side of the former Soviet border. Regional actors are already being pulled into the Afghan conflict.

On July 8, 2021, Taliban representatives claimed in Moscow that they controlled over 90% of Afghanistan’s borders and 85% of its territory (although control over many districts and administrative centers was contested). According to Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security, the Taliban had seized control of over 70% of the 1,430-kilometre Tajik-Afghan border. The Taliban offensive forced over 2,000 Afghan troops into Tajikistan. About 1,500 residents of Badakhshan also fled to Tajikistan to escape the Taliban, and they were not only ethnic Tajiks but Kyrgyz as well. These events made Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon, speaking at the Security Council, order mobilization of 20,000 reserve troops to strengthen the defense of the border with Afghanistan. Sergey Shoigu, Russia’s Defense Minister, said Russia was ready to provide military assistance to Tajikistan should any threats emerge from Afghanistan.

The danger for Russia is increasing as terrorist groups defeated in Syria and Iraq (ISIS in particular) are showing a growing interest in relocating to Afghanistan and Central Asia (and Africa). Sergey Shoigu said, “We, certainly, very much hope that some consensus and national reconciliation will be achieved in Afghanistan. Yet, we also see ISIS units very actively moving, relocating there from various regions, including Syria and Libya”.

There is also the issue of “terrorist emigration” by militants of Central Asian origins who might either return home from the Middle East (posing a threat of terrorist attack in their home states), or else go to fight in the neighboring Afghanistan. Central Asian militants present a regional and global terrorist threat. In 2017 alone, they carried out four major terrorist attacks in the U.S., Turkey, Sweden and Russia. Russia, just like the global community as a whole, is therefore interested in preventing terrorist groups from taking root in Central Asia and Afghanistan.

As per the Soufan Centre report, militants from Central Asia fighting in Syria and Iraq number over 5,000. By country of origin, they form the following picture: Kazakhstan – over 500 (11.90%), Kyrgyzstan — over 500 (11.90%), Tajikistan — 1,300 (30.95%), Turkmenistan – over 400 (9.52%), Uzbekistan — over 1,500 (35.71%). Central Asian militants, together with China’s Uighurs and militants from Russia’s Northern Caucasus, fought on the side of ISIS in the Middle East [4]. Central Asia natives also supported several smaller Middle Eastern terrorist groups banned in Russia, such as Imam Bukhari Jamaat, Jaish al-Muhajireen, Sayfullakh Shishani’s Jamaat, Tawhid Wal Jihad, etc.

Another threat is posed by cross-border criminal groups fighting for control over contraband flows, particularly over drug trafficking along the “Northern Route” from Afghanistan via Central Asia to Russia and then to Eastern and Northern Europe. The latter development is particularly important since drug profits are among the sources used to finance terrorism [5].

In addition to these problems, the following factors enhance the Afghanistan- and Central Asia-related threat to Russia:

  • Extensive Islamic propaganda in Central Asia using the latest means of communication.
  • The regional identity crisis that emerged after the collapse of the USSR. Kadyr Malikov, an eminent Kyrgyz theologian, notes, “The crisis stemmed from disappointment in secular authorities and in the traditional clergy. The traditional clergy are unable to respond properly to current political issues and confine themselves entirely to performing rites. They are not competent to answer questions about politics or jihad. In addition, we might mention the high level of corruption, particularly in law enforcement, unjust courts, the overall weakness of the state and social problems. All these have a certain impact. In that respect, Central Asia has all the conditions for radicalization.”
  • There is a “risk group” for Islamist recruiting that includes migrant workers, millions of whom travel from Central Asia to Russia to earn money. These people are particularly vulnerable to jihadist propaganda.
  • Several factors categorize some regional states as “fragile” ones. Their “fragility” (see, for instance, the Fragile States Index) creates a potential for them to become “failed states.”
  • There is an obvious connection between the region’s rampant corruption and drug trafficking, transport of drugs from Afghanistan to Russia along the northern route. The endemic corruption among the region’s secular institutions is the principal target for Islamist propaganda.
  • Poverty is spreading among the agrarian overpopulation, overlapping with a shortage of water and fertile soil, while Soviet-era education, healthcare and social security systems are falling apart. Population density in the Fergana Valley is among the world’s highest, having grown 32% over the last ten years. Today, Salafism and Wahhabism are popular in the valley, and foreign preachers and recruiters are very active there.
  • Major conflicts between states, particularly in the Fergana Valley, including those between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which exacerbated in the spring of 2021 and resulted in large-scale military clashes.
  • In some cases, going underground and further radicalization are the only way to survive for proponents of political Islam. In Kyrgyzstan, the authorities permit Pakistan’s Tablighi Jamaat to function, though this Islamic organization banned in many CIS states.
  • The Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated the problems of inefficient governance in some regional states.

ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and the Danger they pose to Central Asia

The danger for Central Asia’s post-Soviet states is typically linked with the activities of the most sinister global terrorist groups, ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Let us then consider an ISIS penetration into Afghanistan and a step-up in Al-Qaeda activities. We will look at these developments specifically in connection with the situation in the north of Afghanistan and on the borders of Central Asian states.

Small individual groups supporting ISIS appeared in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the autumn of 2014. The first extremist ideologues in Afghanistan were probably foreign militants from among Pakistanis, Chechens, other natives of Northern Caucasus and Central Asia (Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz) and of China (Uighurs). At the next stage, groups that had split off from Pakistan’s Taliban played an important role in the entrenchment of ISIS in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Pakistan’s military conducted the massive Zarb-e-Azb operation. As a result, large numbers of Pakistani Taliban and other terrorist groups were pushed from Pakistan’s Waziristan and Baluchistan into Afghanistan, thereby spurring a massive penetration into Afghanistan by ISIS-connected militants and making some Pakistani Taliban change allegiance. Pushed into Afghanistan, large numbers of Pakistani Taliban pledged loyalty to the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Russian and Tajik experts noted in their report, “Now, in Afghanistan, one frequently hears and reads that, in the spring and summer of 2014, the first Pakistan’s intelligence agency (ISI) and CIA members, and then the ISI and leaders of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban concluded a secret agreement on redeploying militants. Allegedly, as armed groups are “pushed out” of Pakistan, they are, under this agreement, offered a corridor to retreat to Afghanistan; they are even encouraged to move to north-eastern, northern and western provinces of Afghanistan.” [6]

Over a very short period, ISIS largely managed to become entrenched in Afghanistan as well as turn into an important local actor. In the assessment provided by Dr Mirwais Balkhi of Afghanistan’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs, [7] ISIS – Khorasan Province differs from other terrorist groups, including the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, in that it is more belligerent and better at ensuring its economic independence, recruits mostly educated young people, is more pragmatic on a whole range of issues, forms more efficient and decentralized terrorist networks, and is more active on the Internet.

As militants were pushed out of northern Pakistan into Afghanistan in the winter and spring of 2015, new logistics corridors were created for providing supplies to these groups. Members of the Afghan power structures are convinced that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has a hand in ISIS militants appearing in Afghanistan and supports them. Abdul Qadeer, Deputy Speaker of the Lower House of Afghanistan’s parliament, states that militants had been transported by unmarked mysterious helicopters. In January 2016, four unidentified helicopters landed in a district of Afghanistan’s Ghazni province controlled by the militants. In the summer of 2021, Sergey Shoigu said, “ISIS movements appear to be fairly well organized.”

Massive funding from the Middle East became an important recorded factor behind the penetration of ISIS militants into Afghanistan. In particular, Zamir Kabulov, Russian Presidential Envoy to Afghanistan, said that ISIS receives up to 70% of its funding from abroad, while profits from its activities in Afghanistan (including drug trafficking) cover about 30% of its spending. Many Afghan observers note ISIS’s excellent supplies. For instance, Abdul Zahir Qadeer, First Deputy Speaker of the lower house of Afghanistan’s parliament, voiced concern over how well-armed the militants in Nanganhar province were. As he said, they had everything apart from tanks and helicopters.

ISIS did not penetrate into Afghanistan incidentally or spontaneously. This process has been supported by major regional and possibly global forces. It is, therefore, impossible to ignore the factor of ISIS-Khorasan Province as the key threat to regional security. There are many conspiracy theories in this respect in the region itself as well as in the East and in the West; we shall not analyze them now, as a separate study would be needed for this.

Several groups of foreign militants were particularly inclined to abandon the Taliban for Al-Qaeda, especially groups connected with post-Soviet states. In August 2015, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, previously believed to be part of Al-Qaeda, published a video with some of its members announcing they were joining ISIS. Part of the Jundallah group—previously financed from Saudi Arabia and based in Pakistan—pledged allegiance to ISIS, with this playing an important role in this terrorist group’s penetration into Kunduz Province. In late 2015, there were reports coming from Baghlan Province (Borka District) of ISIS militants appearing there, whereas Jundallah militants played an important part in this development as well.

Besides, Afghanistan authorities connected ISIS’s interest in the north of Afghanistan with the Russian Aerospace Forces’ operation in Syria. In October 2016, Abdul Rashid Dostum, Afghanistan’s Senior Vice President, citing reports by special services, warned that ISIS was planning to move thousands of militants from Iraq and Syria to the north of Afghanistan by the spring of 2017. Dostum said they were mostly natives of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and the North Caucasus [8]. Both in the north and in the east of Afghanistan, foreign militants play a major part in ISIS penetrating into the country. Governor Mohammad Omar Safi believes that militants from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey and the North Caucasus have, in particular, been seen in Kunduz Province.

Following its defeat in Syria and Iraq, ISIS is currently expressing a growing interest in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Essentially, the growing instability in Afghanistan provides ISIS with an opportunity to regain a territorial base it had lost in the Middle East.

As was noted by Russian Presidential Envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov, several northern Afghan provinces have militant training centers connected with various international terrorist groups. The latter are affiliated with the Taliban, ISIS, Al-Qaeda, various ethnic groups (natives of Central Asian states and the Caucasus, Uighurs, Arabs).

Even Afghanistan’s formerly trouble-free north is subject to increasing chaos, as is confirmed by reports by various anti-government units periodically exchanging the Taliban’s white flag for the ISIS black flag and vice versa. This change of flags depends on various situational factors—particularly, money coming in from outside sponsors—or on other short-term political interests.

Various ethnic groups connected with Al-Qaeda present, alongside ISIS, a no less serious danger for the post-Soviet space. Such groups are also gathering in Northern Afghanistan. In this connection, we should note that the Afghan authorities and representatives of the international coalition spoke about Al-Qaeda stepping up its activities in Afghanistan as far back as 2015–2016, while Russian and Central Asian experts confirmed this. Currently, there are also many reports of Al-Qaeda militants fighting against Afghanistan’s government armed forces in the north of the country, among other regions. The Taliban never officially announced it was cutting ties with Al-Qaeda, while the latter’s representatives in Afghanistan repeatedly pledged allegiance to the Taliban leaders.

Will the Taliban oppose ISIS and Al-Qaeda?

The key issue connected with ensuring security for the post-Soviet Central Asia is whether the Taliban will interact with ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the many ethnic groups linked to these two terrorist organizations and include post-Soviet space natives. The Taliban has repeatedly claimed their opposition to ISIS, stating that they would not attack the Central Asian states. They repeated that statement at the press conference in Moscow on 8 July. We shall not forget that this does not apply to Al-Qaeda or ethnic post-Soviet groups.

If the Taliban is, indeed, able and willing to oppose ISIS effectively, this could be very positive for Russia as an aspect in resolving the Afghan problem, as was particularly pointed out by Russian Presidential Envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov.

Afghanistan’s future is hard to predict. We can only attempt to list the takeaways from expert discussions concerning confrontation or, on the contrary, cooperation between the Taliban and ISIS.

As the militants pushed out of Pakistan made their way to Afghanistan, ISIS launched a propaganda campaign to convince the Afghani Taliban to pledge allegiance to ISIS. On January 25, 2015, ISIS “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called the Taliban leader mullah Omar “an illiterate and uneducated militant.” ISIS subsequently announced it was establishing ISIS–Khorasan Province spanning Afghanistan, Pakistan, parts of India and Iran, the post-Soviet Central Asian states and China’s Xingjian.

Following the appearance of ISIS–Khorasan, some Taliban units went over to its side owing to, among other factors, the influx of funds from the Middle East, support for ISIS along logistics channels from northern Pakistan, and conflicts between various Taliban units over control over the profits from poppy plantations and heroin-producing labs. Terror and intimidation by former Taliban militants played an important role in their transfer to ISIS.

Currently, the global expert community is debating the fundamental factors that hinder former Taliban militants from joining ISIS ranks or, on the contrary, encourage them to do so.

On the one hand, most experts agree there are significant ideological differences between the Taliban and ISIS, which makes the ISIS ideology alien to Afghanistan in general and its Pashtun population in particular. The Taliban follow the fairly moderate Hanafi Islam that allows folk traditions. Moreover, along with Islam, a key part in the Taliban ideology is played by the traditional Pashtun code of honor (Pashtunwali). ISIS members are the most hard-core and intransigent Salafists who reject all folk traditions and customs in the name of “pure” Islam.

Besides, ISIS and the Taliban have significant political differences. The Taliban’s goals are generally confined to Afghanistan. It is essentially a nationalist Pashtun movement, be they Afghan or Pakistani Taliban. The Taliban’s goal is to establish a Pashtun Islamic emirate, expelling foreigners and ensuring Pashtun domination of non-Pashtun territories in Afghanistan. ISIS represents the most radical Jihadism and Salafism, and its goal is to establish a global Islamic caliphate, which requires all-out war against outside infidels and domestic “heretics.” Moreover, the essence of ISIS ideology is expecting the impending “end of the world”, a tenet making Taliban’s nation-building tasks rather pointless.

Yet, does this mean that the Taliban and ISIS cannot cooperate at all? A closer scrutiny of their ideologies and political goals uncovers a large number of indirect links. As improbable as an alliance between individual groups within the Taliban and ISIS might appear at first glance, it is in fact quite likely.

Point 1. Just like Al-Qaeda and ISIS, the Taliban, when in power, did fight “non-Islamic” folk traditions and cultural monuments—the large-scale destruction of historical monuments and the Buddhas of Bamiyan are worthy of particular attention.

Point 2. Both the Taliban and Takfiri Salafists have never shied away from using mass terror against their opponents within Islam. For instance, they treated Afghanistan’s Hazara Shiites and certain other representatives of non-Pashtun minorities with particular cruelty. ISIS penetration into Afghanistan tends to go hand in hand with active terrorist attacks against Shiites (particularly the Hazaras, with their Iranian connections).

Point 3. In Afghanistan, ISIS is already becoming “Afghanized” and “Pashtunized.” The leaders of “Khorasan Province” are Pashtuns rather than Arabs (primarily, of Pakistani origin). In this “Pashtunized” form, ISIS ideology and practices prove far more acceptable for Afghani Pashtuns.

Point 4. Predecessors of the Taliban and ISIS have long been engaged in cooperation and subject to mutual influence; historically, these two structures are closely linked. We are talking about the multiple training camps set up in Pakistan by bin Laden during the war against the USSR. In the Arab world, Al-Qaeda ultimately grew out of these camps while ISIS emerged from Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Similar camps in Afghanistan were the predecessors of the Taliban already in the 1990s. Both Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were initially closely connected with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and with sponsors from among radical Arab Islamic foundations. Al-Qaeda shares many elements of ISIS ideology (historically, ISIS split off from Al-Qaeda). Simultaneously, Al-Qaeda quite successfully co-operates with the Taliban.

Point 5. The claim that the Taliban wish to confine themselves to Afghanistan and Pashtun lands in Pakistan is quite debatable. Short-term, the Taliban were not strong enough for anything else but they did have expansionist plans (at least, indirectly by aiding Al-Qaeda) [9]. Officially, the Taliban claim they will not wage war against Central Asian regimes (this claim was repeated during the Taliban representatives’ visit to Moscow in the summer of 2021). Indeed, there had been no direct Taliban incursions into Central Asia in the 1990s, when the Taliban approached the borders of the former Soviet republics. Yet, the Taliban, via Al-Qaeda, have always actively supported the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and other Central Asian extremist groups, maintaining an allied relationship with them throughout the years. And those groups, in turn, carried out incursions and terrorist attacks in Central Asia (suffice it to recall the terrorist attacks in Tashkent and the Batken Conflict in Kyrgyzstan in 1999).

Point 6. ISIS, as Al-Qaeda before it, has certain advantages over the Taliban in the north of Afghanistan and in Central Asia. This terrorist organization might appeal not only to Pashtuns; it could thus attract people from non-Pashtun ethnic groups in Afghanistan as well as numerous international terrorists coming to Afghanistan (particularly, after being pushed out of the north of Pakistan). Therefore, ISIS in the north is becoming a valuable ally for the Taliban, and it is no accident that these two organizations are locked in conflict only in the east of the country.

Point 7. There are already suspicions that the Taliban and ISIS are vying for control over drug trafficking in only a very small area, namely, in the east of Afghanistan (in the lands populated solely by the Pashtuns). In the non-Pashtun north, there is no confrontation between them; rather, both organizations there oppose the government forces and the remainders of the Northern Alliance. Most Russian experts are in agreement on this. Essentially, even Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, acknowledged this fact in September 2015. At a multimedia roundtable in Kabul, he noted, “There are places where there are actually fighting between the Taliban and ISIS because they do not share some of their belief systems in the way things should be done and then there are other places where there doesn’t appear to be fighting and so these are all things that we are going to have understand in the future.”

Point 8. Both ISIS and the Taliban receive supplies along the same logistics corridors passing through Pakistan, and these corridors are generally most likely to be held by the Taliban rather than ISIS. So, an ISIS unit appearing in any Afghanistan district—particularly, so far away from Pakistan—means that ISIS members have at the very least reached agreement with the Taliban on letting their weapons-carrying caravans through Taliban-controlled lands. This provides grounds for the many rumors circulating in Afghanistan about collusion between ISIS and the Taliban.

Viewing the situation in dynamics, we see that the existence of ISIS and Al-Qaeda additionally stimulate the Taliban’s radicalization. If the Taliban leadership concludes a peace agreement with the government, the Taliban’s most radical part—primarily, its younger members—might go over to ISIS in droves.

Last Argument of Kings

What could and should Russia do to combat the threat of instability around Afghanistan and Central Asia?

Once prime minister of France, Cardinal Richelieu ordered that the words “Ultima ratio regis” (Latin for “Last argument of kings”) be inscribed on French cannons. The meaning of this inscription is that every diplomatic avenue should first be explored to prevent a conflict, so weapons become the final argument only if diplomacy fails.

As Russian Presidential Envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov recently noted at a RIA Novosti briefing, the threat to Russia from Afghanistan will only materialize if nothing is done to counteract it.

A rational analysis of Russia’s stance on Afghanistan reveals two levels of effort to neutralize this threat.

The first is the efforts made by Russia’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs to resolve the tangled net of global and regional knots that has tightened around Afghanistan so that the exacerbating conflict surrounding this country would not affect Russia. This is an extremely complicated task requiring both wisdom and flexibility.

We shall briefly describe the complexity of the tasks Russian diplomacy is facing. Afghanistan found itself at the center of regional differences between 1) the U.S. and Russia and 2) China and the U.S. There are several regional conflicts adjacent to Afghanistan: 1) the India–Pakistan conflict; 2) partially, the conflict between India and China (as Pakistan’s key ally); 3) the conflict between Iran and the Persian Gulf monarchies, Shiites and Sunnis in the Greater Middle East; 4) contradictions between the Pashtuns and Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities, with Tajiks playing the key part, and the problem of the Pashtun people divided between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Contradictions between the U.S., on the one hand, and Russia and China, on the other (particularly when Moscow and Beijing agreed to connect China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the EAEU, which is particularly important for Central Asia) are well-known. Less so are regional frictions that are fraught with a big war of “all against all”, like in Syria or Libya.

For instance, with Iran’s help, Afghanistan’s Hazara Shiites established the Fatemiyoun brigade, a highly battle-worthy militia. It is battle-tested (in Syria, in particular) and can be used against the Taliban since the Hazaras had a very negative experience of terror against Shiites during the Taliban’s short-lived rule. During the war with the Americans (this is a debatable question since the Taliban themselves rather speak of ISIS in this context), the Taliban frequently carried out terrorist attacks against Shiites in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Sunni-Shia conflict can thus easily spread from the Middle East to Afghanistan—owing, among other things, to the money that regularly flows into Afghanistan from the Persian Gulf states.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are the two countries divided by the conventional Durand Line drawn by the British colonial authorities. The majority of Pashtuns (Afghanistan’s titular ethnic group) live in Pakistan. Consequently, Islamabad is interested in a government in Kabul that would not broach the question of Pashtunistan’s independence. In turn, India will, to the bitter end, support any Afghan government that will steer an independent course in relation to Pakistan. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is a special actor, and its different branches are connected with such variegated forces as China, the U.S., and the Persian Gulf states (where many Pakistani military serve in local armies by way of a “side hustle”) [10]. Hence comes the tendency of Afghan political forces to blame all their country’s problems on Pakistani intelligence.

Afghanistan is being riven by inter-ethnic problems between the Pashtuns and ethnic minorities. Should the situation destabilize further, a new confrontation might develop between the Taliban and the renewed Northern Alliance. Different forces will turn to different actors for assistance. Pashtuns, for instance, will turn to Pakistan, possibly also to China, the U.S. or the Persian Gulf states; the Hazaras will turn to Iran; Tajiks will turn to Tajikistan, Russia and possibly India; Uzbeks will turn to Uzbekistan, Turkey and Russia. Such developments already took place in the 1990s during the civil war between Tajik and Pashtun mujahedeen and then between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.

The second direction in Russia’s Afghanistan policy is the efforts undertaken by the Defense Ministry and the CSTO to strengthen the defense of Central Asian states whose security is guaranteed by Russia. This means shaping a sort of external “rampart” to protect Russia should the situation in Afghanistan suddenly exacerbate. Given all the difficulties with the diplomatic settlement, this direction is of crucial importance.

In the CSTO, Russia delivers arms to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan at subsidized prices or even gratis. Members of the military from the CSTO states are given training at subsidized prices. Russia has military bases in Tajikistan (base 201, former Division 201) and Kyrgyzstan (the airbase in Kant); there are also other military facilities in the CSTO states. The CSTO holds regular exercises intended to counter militants possibly breaking through the border (the Border exercises) and to combat drug trafficking into Russia, which could also be used to finance militants (the Channel exercises).

Recently, there has been a rapprochement between the stances of Russia and Uzbekistan. In particular, there are the August 5–10, 2021 joint exercises by the militaries of Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan at the Kharb-Maidon range 20 km from the Tajik-Afghan border.

Importantly, as Russia aids Central Asian states in ensuring their security, it also assists in ensuring Europe’s security. Afghanis already constitute one of the three main refugee groups in Germany (together with Syrians and Iraqis). So far, the waves of Afghani refugees have not affected the northern (Russian) direction. Yet, this is a possible development in the event of a major destabilization on the borders of Afghanistan and Central Asia (as already happened in the 1990s when first the supporters of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan and then refugees from the Tajikistani civil war fled to Russia). Tajikistan is already getting ready for this new wave of refugees, with the U.S. having specifically inquired whether Central Asian states could take some of the refugees. In this case, a new wave of refugees will most likely overrun Europe as well.

1. The Taliban is a terrorist group banned in Russia.

2. The terrorist group Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is banned in Russia.

3. Al-Qaeda is a terrorist organization banned in Russia.

4. Particularly zealous ISIS warlords included Abu Omar al-Shishani, who was half-Georgian and half-Chechen, and former SWAT Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, a Tajik.

5. See: Andrey Kazantsev. Scenarios and Trends in Central Asian CSTO Collective Security After 2014. IIS MGIMO: Analytical Papers 2 (37). July 2013. (in Russian)

6. Akbarsho Iskandarov, Kosimsho Iskandarov, Ivan Safranchuk. A New Stage of the Afghan Crisis and Tajikistan’s Security. A Report. Valdai Discussion Club. Moscow. August 2016. P. 3, 4-5.

7. Report on the situation in Afghanistan delivered at ICWA, New Delhi, 2016.

8. Reported in the Hashte-Subh newspaper, 16 October, Kabul.

9. For more detail, see: W. Muzhdah. Afghanistan in five years of Taliban’s sovereignty. Nay Publication, Tehran, 1382/2004.

10. Andrey Kazantsev. International Jihadism Networks: Central Asia, Caucasus, Middle East, and Afghanistan. Moscow: MGIMO University, 2019. (in Russian)


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