The Taliban is still a terrorist group for Russia. However, Russia views the Taliban as a potential ally in the fight against ISIS. At the same time, it opposes the revival of the “Islamic Emirate” in Afghanistan.
Russia sees the Taliban as a powerful group that controls most of the country while defeating US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Zamir Kabulov recently said that the Taliban have the potential for military domination and seizure of power by force. Therefore, in the eyes of Russian officials, the Taliban is one of the three main parties in the Afghan issue that should be included in the next government. The other two sides of the issue are the Afghan government and its opposition groups.
The Russians are pursuing a format known as the “Moscow Format” to break the deadlock over peace talks in Afghanistan. In this format, representatives of the three main parties (government, political opposition and Taliban) must agree on the future of Afghanistan. The Taliban are also in favor of this format.
Russia is a member of the Extended Troika Mechanism. Other members of the mechanism are the United States, China and Pakistan. The Russians are trying to expand this mechanism with the membership of Iran, India, Turkey and Afghanistan’s northern neighbors. Sergei Lavrov has said that he has entered into talks with Iran in this regard.
Russian officials believe that the Afghan government is responsible for the outcome of the peace talks in Afghanistan. The officials have repeatedly expressed the Taliban’s tiredness of the war and stressed the group’s readiness to find a political solution to the Afghan issue. For this reason, Zamir Kabulov recently stated in an interview with Deutsche Welle that the key to peace in Afghanistan is in Kabul. According to Russian officials, the Afghan peace convoy will not start until opposition groups enter into negotiations as an independent party and power is transferred to an interim government.
Thus, the Russians are more in support of the Taliban. But what worries the Russians at the height of the war between the government and the Taliban is the threat of ISIS. The UN Security Council recently announced that ISIL fighters had fled to Nuristan, Badghis, Sar-e-Pul, Baghlan, Badakhshan and Kunduz provinces after being defeated in Nangarhar and Kunar. According to the announcement, the Khorasan branch of ISIL is currently recruiting and is likely to recruit up to tens of thousands of fighters.
Russian officials claim that ISIS fighters have been flown by helicopter to northern Afghanistan in recent years with the cooperation of the United States and NATO. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova recently said they had enough evidence to substantiate their claim.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last Friday that the Taliban had pledged to fight ISIS in Afghanistan. The pledge was made during a Taliban delegation’s trip to Moscow in May, led by Mawlawi Shahabuddin Delawar.
The threat of ISIS infiltration into Central Asian countries is serious. The security vacuum that currently exists in Afghanistan’s border districts with Central Asia has exacerbated the threat. Russia is currently strengthening its base in Tajikistan to combat the threat. Tajik border guards are also on standby.
Turkmenistan discusses ISIS threats with Taliban due to its declaration of neutrality in the war, it is not ready to host the troops of any country to fight these threats. Uzbekistan will also refuse to host Russian troops due to a ban on establishing a foreign base on its territory. Thus, Russia has only Tajikistan’s territory in Afghanistan’s neighborhood to fight ISIS directly.
Russia, along with other preparations to fight ISIS infiltration into Central Asia, has also engaged with the Taliban. Additionally, the country shares its concerns about ISIS’s activities in northern Afghanistan with Kabul. However, Russia sees the Taliban as a potential ally in the fight against ISIS in northern Afghanistan. According to this perception, the Taliban may be removed from the list of banned groups in Russia and may enter the war against ISIS on its behalf.
The reality, however, is that the Taliban are not separate from al-Qaeda and ISIS. The notion that the Taliban can help Russia in its fight against ISIS has no solid basis. It is now clear that part of the Taliban’s war with the government is being waged by ISIS fighters. The Taliban are also to blame for the proliferation of ISIS in the north due to a security vacuum.
It is appropriate for Russia to strengthen its level of security cooperation with the Afghan government and to implement the previous agreements between the two sides for the exchange of security information. Relying on a fundamentalist and extremist group can cause new troubles for Russia and Central Asian countries because the Taliban have relations with Islamic extremist groups such as the Islamic Movement of East Turkestan, the Islamic Movement of Tajikistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Jamaat-e-Tablighi, and dozens of other radical and fundamental Islamic groups. However, it is Afghan government alone that can help Russia contain the threats posed by terrorist groups, including ISIS.