Russia’s View of the Endgame in Afghanistan

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 23 February 2021

Russia’s presidential envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov

Russian ruler Vladimir Putin’s current special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, spoke to Sputnik’s Tajik service on 17 February, and a translation of the interview is published below with some interesting sections highlighted in bold. Kabulov was the KGB resident in Kabul in the 1980s and early 1990s, and later in the 1990s, during the Taliban’s reign over Kabul and much of the rest of the country, he was an adviser to the United Nations peace envoy.

The Sputnik interview with Kabulov is wide-ranging, giving insight into the Kremlin’s (quite reasonable) contemptuous view of the ongoing American-led “peace process” in Qatar and of the Taliban as a legitimate national movement that should be part of a future Afghan government. The Taliban’s claim to sole legitimacy as the “Islamic Emirate” is formally rejected, though Kabulov seems split on this matter. At times, he downplays this claim as mostly a negotiating tactic, whilst elsewhere acknowledging that the Taliban told Russian officials directly in Moscow that they would not parley with the Afghan government since they do not recognise it, and Kabulov rather lucidly explains the ideological motives of the Taliban and dismisses with scorn analysts who cannot see the movement’s cohesive command structure.

There are interesting signs of a division of view with Iran: Russia has proposed an “expanded troika” of themselves, the U.S., and China, with Pakistan and Iran as adjuncts, to manage Afghanistan going forward, and the Iranians are refusing to sit with the Americans. Equally interesting is Kabulov’s contention that Pakistan does not have total control of the Taliban.

When it comes to terrorism—an area one would assume is a core part of the “common understanding” Kabulov claims Russia has with America on some issues in Afghanistan—the signals are actually rather discordant. Kabulov hints broadly that America is in some way colluding with the Islamic State’s Khorasan (IS-K) branch, at least as a means of weakening the Taliban—which is the literal opposite of the factual circumstances. And Kabulov does not really contest that the Taliban is continuing lockstep cooperation with Al-Qaeda; he simply declares this fact and Al-Qaeda’s threat to the region to be insignificant, a rather notable departure from Russian state messaging.

 

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INTERVIEWER QUESTION: I would like to clarify the issue of the status of the Taliban. It periodically pops up, but doesn’t garner much attention. The Taliban fancy themselves “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” as the government. But who are the Taliban to Russia?

KABULOV REPLY: Regarding our perception of the Taliban, if you look at the chronology, then the movement arose in the mid-1990s on the bones of the Mujahideen, which came to power and collapsed, providing the impetus for the emergence of the Taliban movement. Having seized Kabul, they declared themselves the Islamic Emirate. We view the contemporary Taliban as a political and military movement in Afghanistan that is an integral component of Afghan society.

I will not touch on the question of how acceptable or unacceptable their ideology is to us, although this is a very important question. We view [the Taliban] as a national movement with its own political and ideological goals. Like any national movement, it has the right to exist, especially given that over twenty years of war in Afghanistan, including against foreign troops, the Taliban have demonstrated their viability and importance.

That they have positioned themselves as the ultimate and essentially the sole force is another matter. But we see this as posturing.

We believe it has a pronounced power base in Afghanistan, though of course not throughout the entire country. We openly tell them that we, the Russian Federation, do not recognize the exclusive claims of the Taliban to leadership of the country. Our position is that the Afghans themselves, a portion of whom are Taliban, must agree among themselves about the future form of government. What the future of Afghanistan will look like following a political compromise between at least two of the sides is a purely Afghan issue. If through mechanisms recognized by Afghanistan and the international community such a state structure is agreed upon by the Afghans themselves, then by all means, this is their internal affair.

So, we view the Taliban as a relevant political and military force that is currently trying to achieve its objectives primarily through military means, but we are in favor of this movement finding a purely political settlement.

Such a long-winded explanation is necessary because it is difficult to understand otherwise. You, journalists, when you mention the Taliban, you need to write parenthetically “banned in the Russian federation,” which is quite true, because when the anti-Taliban U.N. [United Nations] Security Council resolution was adopted in 2001, which is binding on all UN members, the Russian president adopted a decree prohibiting the Taliban movement. Until the decree is cancelled, you must write that way. We, diplomats, approach this differently.

We need to look for ways to help both Afghan parties to achieve peace, so we communicate with them. Several of the Taliban that have come to us are on the UNSC’s sanctions list, but with our support the UNSC adopted a special resolution that temporarily removes some figures involved in international efforts from the sanctions list.

 

At a press conference in Moscow in late January, the Taliban announced that Moscow was ready to facilitate the Taliban’s removal from the sanctions lists. According to the Doha Agreement, the procedure was supposed to begin at the end of May, provided that the intra-Afghan negotiations began on March 10. However, this did not happen. The negotiations started in September. In terms of removing the Taliban from the sanctions lists, some steps were taken by Moscow, the intra-Afghan negotiations are behind schedule, but started, the prisoners were released. What else needs to be done?

A small clarification. This is what happened: when they signed the Doha Agreement with the Americans, the Security Council adopted a resolution welcoming the agreement. In one of its sections, it said that after the start of intra-Afghan negotiations—you are quite right—on March 10, the Security Council would begin the procedure for delisting the persons involved in the sanctions lists.

Relying on the decision of the Security Council, we said that we’d support it, but only after intra-Afghan talks began. This months-long vanity in Doha cannot be deemed the start of intra-Afghan talks. The parties are only trying to approach the beginning of the intra-Afghan negotiations; they have not been able to agree on the agenda for several months. I mean, at least agree on an agenda so that it’s clear to us. This is something to go on. It is no longer just necessary to agree on an agenda, but to sit down and begin to agree on each item on the agenda. They don’t even need to agree! They just need to at least start a conversation. Then the moment will come for the U.N. Security Council to begin the procedure for removal from the sanctions lists.

Or they will decide to completely repudiate the previous resolution and adopt a new one that allows them to be removed. There are just over a hundred people on there. This is hardly a critical amount. This will have political, symbolic, and moral significance for the Taliban. Twenty years they’ve been on these lists and it’s been fine. We support this approach.

 

So, in your opinion, what’s happening right now in Doha are not intra-Afghan talks?

Of course not. These are endeavours to begin intra-Afghan talks.

 

As you know, the talks in Doha are currently at an impasse. According to media reports, the Taliban left the negotiating table. Maybe they need to be nudged towards one another? Do you plan to hold an intra-Afghan dialogue in Moscow or the Moscow format of consultations with the participation of other countries involved in this process and interested in a peaceful settlement?

You are right. The negotiations in Doha have for all intents and purposes been physically suspended. More precisely, these aren’t even negotiations, but rather contacts between both Afghan parties. The Taliban, as they explained in Moscow, do not see any prospects for negotiations with a delegation sent by Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, because they believe that this delegation is only engaged in sabotaging negotiations at the direction of its leader. Such negotiations are pointless. They believe that as long as the Kabul delegation does not change its approach, they need not waste time on this.

To your second question. We are in no hurry to transfer these negotiations to the Moscow platform, although such ideas are raised by both the Taliban, as well as part of the political establishment of Afghanistan: not by the Kabul administration, but from politicians, mainly from the legal opposition.

We believe that everything possible should be done to stimulate the start of truly meaningful negotiations. In this case, I address primarily the Kabul administration. We are ready to use other mechanisms and formats, in particular the Moscow format you mentioned. It’s valuable in that it has pushed the process of the U.S.-Taliban negotiations. Therefore, we are thinking about such a meeting. We must consult with other partners.

Perhaps we will take this step. But for this we have another mechanism, which has emerged over the past two years—by the way, at the initiative of the Americans, and which we supported—to form a small group of states that have the greatest influence on the Afghan processes, which, in addition to Russia, the United States, and China, naturally includes Pakistan and Iran.

We created the “expanded troika” format because the three great powers—Russia, China, and the United States—agreed that our troika should play a leading role in all circumstances. Both Iran and Pakistan have their own nuances in their approaches that can hamper the dialogue between us, but the troika have a common understanding of the need to strive by all available means to start negotiations and end the civil war.

Iran refused to sit at the same table with the Americans because of tensions, although we do not see much logic in this, because the Iranians participated in the Moscow format, where the Americans were also present. Iran is allergic to Americans, and for the time being it is difficult for them to yield. They cite public opinion. We understand these challenges and we respect them.

Several meetings have already taken place without the participation of Iran, although we informed the Iranians. My leadership has been tasked with finding ways that will facilitate the start of inter-Afghan talks through consultations within the framework of the “expanded troika”. We agreed on such a meeting with the American special envoy [Zalmay] Khalilzad. It might take place in Moscow.

 

But when?

Next week I am flying to Islamabad for consultations with our Pakistani partners. We keep in touch with our Chinese partners through the embassy in Peking. Currently there are very tight restrictions in China due to the pandemic. They are closed. But I think that when it comes down to it, our Chinese partners will join us. Without them, this will be very difficult to resolve. If our Pakistani partners agree, we will meet in Moscow, I hope, before the end of the month.

This time we have invited our Iranian partners. They are considering it. I very much hope that they will give a positive answer. Then these five most influential states will gather, we will be able to agree on a collective mechanism, how we can influence both Afghan parties so that they sit down at the negotiating table, start negotiations, and declare a ceasefire at least for the period of the negotiation process.

 

The meeting is being planned without the participation of the Taliban or representatives of the Kabul administration?

Traditionally, we do not invite both sides to such meetings, although the Kabul administration is offended, asserting that they are the State, the officially recognized government.

To which we calmly and in a businesslike manner reply that in this case they are one of the parties to the conflict. If they are very insistent, we can consider this possibility, but then we will have to invite both them and the Taliban. If we do not do this, then we, as brokers, will lose the trust of one of the conflicting parties. I would rather this not happen.

From a political and propaganda point of view, it would be interesting to hold a meeting of the expanded troika with the participation of both sides. But we have reasonable fears that then this conversation may turn into an emotional channel, and we want to conduct it in a professional manner. We first need to understand for ourselves what we can do, what steps we aspire to. Maybe after that, then it is possible to assemble the Moscow format, because in addition to all of the above-mentioned states, the five Central Asian countries and India participate in it.

 

I would like to return to the question of the status of the Taliban. There is a certain contradiction between the way they present themselves and the perception of them. Don’t you think that in the future this may lead to difficulties and problems in negotiations?

Diplomacy is rife with contradictions. If we stop because of ideological clichés and contradictions, we will never achieve anything. You need to be flexible. The Americans have shown flexibility in signing an agreement with the Taliban. But they insisted on the inclusion of a sentence that the U.S. government would not recognize the Islamic Emirate.

This is a semantic game. We know how to play, and we will. The most important thing is a conclusive end to the bloodshed in Afghanistan. We told the Taliban in no uncertain terms that we do not like the insistent rhetoric about the Islamic Emirate, because it is disruptive.

 

And how do they respond?

I’ll tell you, although these are our internal conversations. They say that their fighters spilled blood for so many years and gave their lives for the Islamic Emirate. Should they give it up right away? Can they really just give this up out of hand? Their fighters would not forgive them. There is logic in this, even with a ceasefire.

Yes, the Taliban are not only using continued hostilities to put pressure on the Kabul administration to show flexibility and constructive engagement. There’s another vital, fundamental thing—Afghan traditions.

Afghans fighting for the Taliban are fighting according to the laws of jihad. If a jihad is declared and there’s a war, then in their understanding all the faithful should wage a war for the faith. If a truce or ceasefire is suddenly declared, then the same norms of jihad require disbanding their forces and going home. The Taliban cannot do this. How will they disband if the Kabul army and police remain?

 

The other day, an Afghan expert, Vasily Kravtsov, said that any peace negotiations begin with a ceasefire. Who should declare a ceasefire and at what point? Perhaps a ceasefire should have been declared before the start of the inter-Afghan talks, or is this simply not applicable to Afghanistan?

Vasily Borisovich is correct. In the classic sense, negotiations begin with a ceasefire. The ceasefire is respected as long as negotiations continue. This is the typical scheme. But it doesn’t work here. Therefore, we insist that they sit down at the negotiating table as soon as possible, agree on an agenda, start talking, and a ceasefire immediately follow. No other option will work for the reasons I mentioned earlier.

As soon as the Taliban end the war, the Kabul administration will use this to regroup and reinforce. The Kabul administration has already done a lot of stupid things: it delayed the start of negotiations in anticipation of a change of administration in Washington, thinking that another administration would behave differently. Of course, they are waiting—there are hints of a review [of the Doha Agreement].

This delay in starting real negotiations led to the Taliban expanding their zone of influence and now control three quarters of the territory of Afghanistan, taking advantage of Kabul’s unwillingness to conduct a substantive dialogue. All areas around the capital region are under their control. What did they gain? The Kabul administration was playing for time and got a Taliban that further strengthened their negotiating positions and, naturally, will exert pressure.

If the new [Biden] administration decides not to withdraw, it will violate the agreement with the Taliban. This won’t help anyone. They will give the Taliban the strongest argument that one of the negotiating parties is not complying. The Taliban have already announced that they will fight. There is too much talk about the withdrawal of these unfortunate 2,500 troops who are sitting in their bases, flying in planes, not really showing themselves. Nothing will change. There were 100,000 troops just counting the Americans, and they brought the situation to what it is today.

This [troop withdrawal] has a moral and symbolic meaning for those who hold onto these bayonets. They no longer play any serious role. The Taliban held out against 100,000 American troops plus 50,000 others. This is not a military problem for them. The Taliban adhere to the agreement for all intents and purposes flawlessly—not a single American soldier has died since the agreement was signed—which cannot be said about the Americans. They repeatedly hit the Taliban under various pretexts.

More often than not such airstrikes were carried out at a time when the Taliban were fighting against ISIS [the Islamic State in Khorasan]. By some curious process the airstrikes did not hit the positions of ISIS, but the positions of the Taliban. Such facts are suggestive.

 

You just touched on the issue of the Taliban’s implementation of the agreement and said that they adhere to the agreements. According to the U.S. Treasury, in line with reports of the Security Council Committee on IS and Al-Qaeda, the Taliban are maintaining contact with Al-Qaeda. The Taliban have denied any relationship with the group. Who is telling the truth and who is being disingenuous?

The Al-Qaeda affair is very similar to the American withdrawal. According to our estimates, and the Americans agree with this, there are now about five-hundred Al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan. Five-hundred militants do not play any role. I will not even touch upon the question of whether there are contacts or not. What of this? I put this question directly to Khalilzad, pointing out the existence of another threat, more serious than Al-Qaeda: ISIS. It was clearly explained to me that the United States entered Afghanistan under the banner of fighting Al-Qaeda, which organized 9/11 in New York, and it is politically impossible to remove this from the agenda. This is such a petulant fancy. These same Americans should be afraid of ISIS, a more dangerous international terrorist organization.

Do the Taliban have contacts with [Al-Qaeda]? How does this influence them? It’s psychologically unpleasant. The Taliban cannot just suddenly abandon them—they fought together. Now, those same Taliban who abandoned the global jihad after the fiasco of cooperation with Al-Qaeda are today positioning themselves as a national movement with a national agenda.

If we felt that Al-Qaeda was a serious threat to the stability of the region, we would do something. This is the desire of our American colleagues, and we do not want to play along.

[Editorial note: The Russian government perhaps more than any other in the last few years has insisted in its public messaging that Al-Qaeda remains a major threat. In Syria, Russia has used the pretext of Al-Qaeda—and America allegedly not taking Al-Qaeda sufficiently seriously or even supporting Al-Qaeda—to justify its policy of supporting Bashar al-Asad’s regime. Moscow has claimed to be under domestic assault from Al-Qaeda, most notoriously with the 2017 Metro bombing, a case rife with oddities that will probably now never be resolved. So, it is interesting to see Kabulov dismiss Al-Qaeda’s significance in this way.]

 

Why are reports of the Taliban’s ties to Al-Qaeda emerging right now?

The new administration—and those who want to stay in Afghanistan, the Defence Department and other stakeholders—are looking for an excuse to explain why they are preparing to violate the agreement with the Taliban.

 

Is the Taliban a unified organisation or a heterogenous one? How do they operate? Is there some sort of core or is it fragmented?

The Taliban are still a unified, vertically structured organization. The Supreme Shura of the Taliban, where the most influential leaders and field commanders are present, including Mullah [Abdul Ghani] Baradar and others, oversees the entire movement. In addition, there are “wings” of movement. The Haqqani Network, led by the sons of the late former Mujahideen commander [Jalaluddin] Haqqani, enjoys military autonomy within the Taliban movement and is politically and militarily responsible for eastern Afghanistan.

Their command center is located in Pakistan on the border of Afghanistan. They are considered semi-independent, but in reality this is not the case. Haqqani’s son [Sirajuddin] has entered the Supreme Shura and coordinates with the other leaders. Because the ability to control the entire movement is highly complex, they give substantial autonomy to their commanders who operate in the field, which makes it seem like not everything is coordinated.

About a third of the militants and field commanders, mainly the young generation, have not had their fill of war and are not fighting for financial interests, but believe that they are fighting for Islam, and for the independence of Afghanistan and its liberation from foreign invaders. These are true to the ideas of global jihad.

The other two-thirds, which include field commanders, believe that some kind of compromise should be sought. This can give the impression that they do not have a common line and the organization is not cohesive. I think this is an erroneous point of view, because despite these discussions and internal divisions, they act as a single organization, especially when it comes to military affairs.

 

After the Taliban’s visit to Moscow, experts said that a part of the Taliban leadership involved in the negotiations broke away from those who express extremist ideas. Is this true?

No. Some experts accept external manifestations as a reality. Those people charged with negotiating should talk about a political settlement. This distinguishes them from field commanders; their task is to fight. That’s why people see this discrepancy.

 

So, you’re saying that we won’t see any split when the Taliban enter Afghanistan as a mainstream force?

They do not need to enter anywhere; they are in their homeland. If we are talking about twenty Taliban in Doha, this is their venue for conducting negotiation. If we are talking about the Taliban seizing all power, then this is a terrible scenario. God forbid it comes to pass. We prefer the scenario that [the parties] come to an agreement and a transitional coalition government is established, in which the Taliban will take a suitable place corresponding to their real weight in Afghan society and among the people.

 

How much is that?

This is a bargaining chip. Let’s leave it to the Afghans. I may have ideas, but this is a question of talking to Afghans. This will be the notorious bargaining, as we say, of the “Friday bazaar in Kabul”.

Let’s recall Vietnam and the United States before withdrawal. Ho Chi Minh signed the Paris Agreements and the entire Vietnamese army, whether northern or southern, stopped fighting. This may not happen for the Taliban due to the above reasons and the views of individual field commanders.

Some part of the Taliban may continue fighting for a while despite the peace talks. The situation will be alleviated by the fact that the bulk of the Taliban will agree to peace talks, and it is their direct responsibility to calm the rest. They will deal with their radicals themselves. There will be no instant peace—signed today, in force tomorrow—in Afghanistan.

 

So, you’re saying that in the end it is Moscow’s opinion that there should be a transitional coalition government?

This is classic in civil wars. During the first stage, a coalition government that controls the coercive capabilities of both the warring sides so that they restrain each other is needed. And then it is necessary to form a new governing administration that needs to solve a whole slew of problems.

 

What is the role of Pakistan in the Afghan war and in the Afghan peace settlement?

Pakistan is the country that has the greatest influence on what happens in Afghanistan. It would be a mistake to believe that Pakistan can do whatever comes into their heads. For all the closeness of Islamabad to the leadership of the Taliban movement—they have supported them and provided them with refuge—their influence is not unlimited. This is a very simplified view. Pakistanis always try to carefully consider the positions of the Taliban and never allow themselves to cross red lines in the bilateral relationship.

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