The oft-quoted proverb: “My enemy’s enemy is my friend” has had an unfortunate history whenever put into practice. Despite being repeatedly quoted and applied as a legitimate strategy, in most cases, the ‘enemy of my enemy’ has ultimately proven to be an enemy.
Presently, Russia’s fear of the growing threat of ISIS and its diplomatic overtures towards the Taliban (despite its less than amicable history with the group) are emblematic of the same proverb.
It is important to recall: Russia wasn’t always on the Taliban’s side.
In 2001, Russian President Vladimir Putin backed the Bush administration’s decision to overthrow the Taliban government. However, as Washington continued to struggle in Afghanistan and US-Russia relations deteriorated under President Bush and then President Obama, Putin changed his views on the Taliban. Russia began highlighting the role of the US military in destabilizing Afghanistan. This pushed Moscow closer to the Taliban-the Afghan government’s most dangerous foe-under the idea that the Taliban could act as a check against the US.
After the US war in Afghanistan ended in 2014, Putin continued diplomatic outreach to Taliban maintaining that peace in Afghanistan can only be brought about by engaging the Taliban in a dialogue. On December 8 of last year, Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Alexander Mantyskiy announced that the Russian government has initiated a diplomatic outreach to Taliban leaders.
Policymakers in Russia no longer consider the Taliban as a major threat to Russia’s security. Instead, Russia views engagement with the Taliban as necessary for the preservation of political stability in Afghanistan. This position is in stark contrast with the Russian Foreign Ministry’s stance in 2001 when it held that the involvement of the Taliban in Afghanistan’s politics can compromise the creation of a multi-ethnic democratic state in Afghanistan.
Russia’s stance on the Taliban has not only impacted its relationship with the Afghan government but also has become a cause of concern for New Delhi and Washington alike.
Russia has argued that the Taliban is a necessary bulwark in the war against the Islamic State. Russia’s argument hinges on the belief that ISIS is a “global” force to be reckoned with, while the Taliban is just a “local” nuisance. The Taliban have revealed on numerous occasions that their ideology and interests are only limited to Afghanistan and that they fully respect geographical boundaries. In seeking to relax any nervousness neighboring countries may have concerning the emergence of ISIS, the Taliban have taken steps to set themselves apart from the group.
Russia continues to believe that the Taliban can be trusted to further its counter-terrorism objectives. Not only that, Moscow claims that the Taliban can also act as an effective partner in striking deals on drug trafficking and can become a means to counter US’s growing influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
The Taliban consider themselves as a government-in-exile. With Russia expanding its diplomatic outreach with the Taliban, the group stands to gain international legitimacy which could jeopardize any ongoing efforts to negotiate a political solution for peaceful reconciliation in Afghanistan. The Taliban have previously been considered a pariah, and treated as such. They have for long intervened in and manipulated “peace” negotiations with the US and Western powers as a pretext for removing international sanctions on the mobility of their members.
Presently, the Taliban are being courted by several powerful regional players that are steadily working to revive the hope for a negotiated settlement. The group itself has significantly widened its diplomatic relations mainly to counter the influence of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s regional outreach. After establishing its political commission and then its political office in Qatar, the Taliban have moved on to expand contacts with regional and extra-regional players.
Interestingly, their advances have been well-received in many countries.
Iran is keen on keeping its links with the Taliban open. The former Afghan Taliban leader Muallah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour visited Iran several times. Tayyeb Agha, the head of the Taliban Qatar office, was also called by Iran to a conference. Tehran has reached out to the Taliban as a result of the rising anti-Shia ISIS threat that endangers Iran’s interests in Syria and Iraq.
Taliban also shares good relations with Turkmenistan. According to multiple Taliban sources, the head of Taliban’s political office, Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai, was present in Turkmenistan when Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India signed the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India Pipeline (TAPI) project in 2015. Taliban’s agreement was needed to protect the TAPI project; hence steps were taken to take the Taliban into confidence. As a return gesture, the Taliban issued a statement pledging to protect national and transnational projects.
Despite the state of internal conflict in Afghanistan, China is hedging its bets when it comes to foreign policy; it enjoys good relations with the Ghani government and has also had Afghan Taliban representatives pay several visits to China, where they have been received with diplomatic protocol.
Turkish President Recep Tayyeb Erdogan is the first foreign leader to visit Kabul after the formation of the National Unity Government. Ghani and Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum have also made frequent trips to Turkey. At the same time, Turkey is also home to some Taliban leaders. While Turkey does have a military presence in Afghanistan, it generally does not fight against the Taliban.
Saudi Arabia’s relations with the Afghan government are much stronger than those with the Taliban. However, in wake of the ISIS threat and growing Iranian influence in Afghanistan it can be expected that relations will improve in the coming future.
Furthermore, when Moscow hosted Chinese and Pakistani emissaries to discuss the war, the trio of nations urged the world to adopt a “flexible approach to remove certain figures from sanctions lists as part of efforts to foster a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban movement.”
Negotiations with regional and international powers can surely help improve the Taliban’s international standing. So far, the Taliban have managed to establish good relations with several countries, despite Ghani’s efforts to have neighboring countries back the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces against the group. Other reasons for the Taliban stepping up diplomatic efforts could also include financing and diplomatic support. The immediate aim that the Taliban seem to be working towards is, however, finding ways to bring about a change in international opinion on the character of the group.
As President Ghani’s regional outreach continues, the Taliban have sped up their own diplomatic and military efforts. Given all this, the role of the Taliban in diplomacy can only be expected to intensify in 2017- with potentially dangerous consequences for regional stability and security. President Trump’s policy on Afghanistan will have a great impact on the evolving situation given his remarks on curtailing US military and economic aid and ‘eradicating ‘radical Islamic terrorism’.