The Kremlin’s comeback

Thirty years after the Soviet Union’s humiliating defeat in Afghanistan, Moscow wants back in.
Soviet troops haul equipment on the outskirts of Kabul in October 1986 during the Soviet-Afghan war. (Viktor Habarov/PhotoXPress)

Russia has been cultivating ties with the Taliban to increase its influence in Afghanistan three decades after Moscow’s humiliating defeat there helped hasten the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Understanding Russia’s global influence

Russian engagement with the militants drew attention, and some flak, when the Kremlin invited Taliban representatives to Moscow for a meeting in September. That invitation was rescinded — at least temporarily — after the Afghan government objected, saying it must take the lead in any talks.

Soviet troops haul equipment on the outskirts of Kabul in October 1986 during the Soviet-Afghan war. (Viktor Habarov/PhotoXPress)

But the diplomatic kerfuffle laid bare the Kremlin’s effort to reassert itself in Afghanistan, an initiative that has included discreet contacts with Taliban leaders and a military buildup along the country’s northern edge.

Moscow has also sought to reclaim its role as regional power broker, convening secret discussions with the United States, Iran, Pakistan, India and China and seeking to ensure any finale to the conflict suits Russian interests.

It is part of a strategy, analysts said, to protect Russia’s southern flank from the Islamic State’s emergence in Central Asia and hedge against the possibility of an abrupt U.S. exit from Afghanistan after 17 years of war.

The Russian gambit is a relatively modest political investment that could yet yield outsize dividends as Moscow seeks to prove its global heft. “Supporting the Taliban in a small way is an insurance policy for the future,” said Artemy Kalinovsky, a scholar of Central Asian history at the University of Amsterdam.

Gen. John Nicholson Jr., who recently stepped down as commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said Moscow is trying to “drive a wedge” between the United States and its coalition partners.

“We know that Russia is attempting to undercut our military gains and years of military progress in Afghanistan and make partners question Afghanistan’s stability,” he said in a recent interview.

As Russia has increased its profile, there have been allegations, unsubstantiated but persistent, from Nicholson and other senior U.S. officials that the Kremlin has provided small arms to the Taliban, or at least tolerated a supply of Russian weapons to the militants from Central Asia. Russia has denied the accusations.

U.S. officials doubt that Moscow is trying to help secure victory for the militants, the successors of the mujahideen guerrillas who battled the Soviet troops in the 1980s. Instead, the officials said, Russia is trying to strengthen its own position without provoking the United States — and a few crates of Kalashnikovs can facilitate meetings and establish relationships without altering the battlefield.

Russia’s return comes as the Trump administration struggles to reverse a prolonged Taliban resurgence and push the militants toward a deal. While a more expansive military mission has helped Afghan forces defend populated areas, vast swaths of the country remain no-go zones.

In August, militants temporarily overran a provincial capital, underscoring the fragility of the Afghan government’s grip on the country.

Against that backdrop, U.S. officials fear that the Kremlin’s intervention may complicate if not damage the effort to foster peace talks by giving the militants new avenues of support, thus reducing their incentive to cut a deal.

“The Taliban needs to feel the Russian pressure to negotiate rather than feeling emboldened by another patron,” said a senior Trump administration official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive policy. “That is the concern.”

Troops in tanks, waving Soviet flags, rolled out of Afghanistan in 1989 as Moscow withdrew from its costly, decade-long war with mujahideen guerrillas.
‘First warning call’

Russia’s inroads with the Taliban represent a striking turnaround 30 years after the Soviet army was beaten by the Afghan guerrilla force.

The 1979-1989 war, which aimed to prop up an allied Communist government, ravaged Afghanistan, killing an estimated 1 million Afghans and destroying the country’s infrastructure and farm sector. It also exacted a heavy toll on the Soviets, draining Moscow’s coffers and leaving at least 15,000 of their soldiers dead, many of them killed by an Islamist force armed covertly by the United States.

Soviet veterans, or “Afgantsy” as they are known, were seldom given a hero’s welcome when they returned home. Instead, they were seen as an embarrassment, their lack of battlefield victory symbolizing disillusionment with the Soviet state.

When the United States and other NATO nations moved into Afghanistan after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Moscow threw its support behind the coalition as it battled al-Qaeda and its Taliban hosts.

But Russia grew frustrated with the U.S. mission as the years wore on. The United States seemed to be repeating all of the Soviet mistakes, such as losing local support through errant airstrikes. And it was making new ones of its own.

Officials in Moscow were also concerned that the United States would set up permanent bases in their backyard.

Their perspective changed after President Barack Obama announced his plan for a U.S. withdrawal. After increasing U.S. troop levels to about 100,000 in 2011, Obama was determined to leave a minimal force when he departed office.

The shortcomings of local troops became immediately clear after U.S. combat operations officially ended in 2014. As American advisers withdrew, militants resumed large-scale offensives. Secured districts quickly fell back into Taliban hands. Afghan casualties surged.

Russian helicopters take part in military exercises in Tajikistan in November 2017. (Alexey Kudenko/Sputnik/AP)

In September 2015, militants overran Kunduz in the country’s north. The fall of a major city for the first time since 2001 showed the tenuousness of Kabul’s grip. The city is just an hour’s drive south of Tajikistan, a former Soviet state that has remained in Russia’s orbit.

“The idea of transition changed the way Afghanistan’s neighbors thought about the U.S. role,” said James Schwemlein, a former State Department official.

That same year, militant cells across Afghanistan began pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, the terrorist group also known as ISIS that had swept across Iraq and Syria the year before. Unlike the Taliban, which was focused exclusively on dominating Afghanistan, the Islamic State had international ambitions. The group would go on to recruit thousands from majority-Muslim countries in Central Asia.

Together, the events represented a “first warning call” for Russia, said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center and a former Russian army colonel. “The Russian military was very shaken by the mutiny in northern Afghanistan [and] by the idea of ISIS being there.”

Weeks before the fall of Kunduz, 17 people were killed in clashes between Islamists and police in Tajikistan. In a sign of mounting anxiety about events to its south, Russia had given Tajikistan over $1 billion worth of secondhand hardware from its own army, including aircraft, artillery systems and ammunition earlier that year.

During a visit to the country in 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to help Tajikistan secure that country’s border with Afghanistan.

The two countries also launched military exercises in Tajikistan that U.S. officials characterized as provocative because they were conducted without advance notification to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The exercises also allowed Russia to position strategic weaponry on Afghanistan’s northern edge, the officials said, including Iskander short-range ballistic missiles and air defenses.

Soviet troops transport soldiers’ remains in December 1988. (Viktor Habarov/PhotoXPress)
Soviet troops stream out of Kabul in October 1986. The war ended in 1989. (Viktor Habarov/PhotoXPress)
The war exacted a heavy toll on the Soviet Union. Here, troops receive care at an infirmary in 1982. (Alexander Graschenkov/PhotoXPress)
Top left: Soviet troops transport soldiers’ remains in December 1988. (Viktor Habarov/PhotoXPress) Top right: Soviet troops stream out of Kabul in October 1986. The war ended in 1989. (Viktor Habarov/PhotoXPress) Bottom: The war exacted a heavy toll on the Soviet Union. Here, troops receive care at an infirmary in 1982. (Alexander Graschenkov /PhotoXPress)
‘10 Kalashnikovs or 10,000’

Russia’s determination to shape Afghanistan’s future anew first became visible in 2014, when a senior diplomat approached the United States with an offer.

Zamir Kabulov, a chain-smoking former KGB agent at the center of Moscow’s Afghanistan involvement since the 1980s, wanted to know whether Washington would agree to secret talks about the country’s future with Russia, Iran and several other nations.

For U.S. officials, diplomacy with a group that included longtime adversaries presented difficulties at a moment of tension over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine and Tehran’s support for militias across the Middle East. NATO allies had to be kept in the dark because they would probably want to be involved, former officials said.

But the initiative provided a chance to keep rivals, in the depiction of one official involved, “more onside than off.”

Cameron Munter, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan who now takes part in discussions with Russians interested in Afghanistan, said Moscow’s influence campaign at its core was about respect.

“They believe they were humiliated in 1991, and they want to be back at the table,” he said. “They want to get a fair shake and will continue to come up with ideas on Afghanistan.”

Communists seize power in Afghanistan.
The United States loses its ally in Iran when the country’s U.S.-backed shah is overthrown in the Islamic revolution.
The CIA conducts a 10-year covert operation in Afghanistan, providing money and arms to the mujahideen in their fight against the Soviets.

Soviet troops enter Afghanistan at the request of the local communist government and conduct a 10-year war that kills 1 million Afghans and 15,000 Red Army soldiers. At its height, 100,000 Soviet soldiers are stationed in Afghanistan.
Afghan civil war. Kabul is razed by warlords jostling for power.
The Soviet Union collapses.
Mohammad Omar, the Muslim cleric who fought the Soviets, establishes the Taliban movement.
The Taliban captures Kabul. Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s leader, returns to Afghanistan.
The State Department conducts talks with the Taliban about an oil pipeline going through Afghanistan.
September 2001
The 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington leave thousands dead. Al-Qaeda claims responsibility.
November 2001
U.S.-backed Afghan forces overthrow the Taliban.
December 2001
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force is established in Afghanistan.
During President Barack Obama’s surge, 140,000 foreign troops are stationed in Afghanistan.
NATO-led combat forces withdraw from Afghanistan.

President Vladimir Putin expresses concern over the Islamic State threat in Afghanistan.
The Taliban seize the strategic northern city of Kunduz.

Russia enters the Syrian war, propping up the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia gives Tajikistan a gift of more than $1 billion worth of military hardware.
The United States drops the “mother of all bombs” on Islamic State caves in eastern Afghanistan.

Russia holds its first snap military exercises with Tajikistan on the border with Afghanistan.

Around the time Kabulov’s effort was coming together, U.S. intelligence officials began to flag increasing reports of the Taliban receiving arms or funding from the Russian government. Russian officials have routinely denied those allegations, and some have blamed the United States for the Islamic State’s rise in Afghanistan.

“ISIS is growing for the most part thanks to the American special services in Afghanistan,” said Frantz Klintsevich, a member of the upper house of Russia’s parliament and a veteran of the Soviet war. “They are creating a mess across Central Asia, and this puts a huge amount of pressure on Russia.”

“I know very well what Americans do in Afghanistan,” he said. “They don’t fight against ISIS there. They guard themselves.”

Senior U.S. officials say the Russians have provided a limited number of small arms, mostly Kalashnikovs, to Taliban elements but also warlords and other groups, as gestures to facilitate communications.

“When I got here two years ago, we didn’t see this scale of activity,” Nicholson said in a recent interview in Kabul.

James Dobbins, a former senior U.S. diplomat, said the Russians were signaling to Washington that “they could be more difficult if they wanted to be, so don’t push them too far.”

Officials said the U.S. government lacks detailed, reliable intelligence about what may be occurring, saying they had seen only anecdotal evidence about weaponry. The intelligence picture remains fuzzy, the officials said, because surveillance resources are focused elsewhere and because Russian spycraft makes the task more difficult.

But U.S. officials acknowledge that whatever lethal support Russia is providing to the Taliban has had no effect on the conflict, in part because small arms are so readily available.

“If it’s 10 Kalashnikovs or 10,000, the message is: ‘We’re still involved. We still matter,’ ” a former U.S. official said.

Some officials worry that Moscow’s expressions of alarm about the Islamic State may be setting the stage for a unilateral military intervention.

Those concerns intensified when Afghan officials said Russia or Tajikistan was behind a mysterious incident in which an unidentified aircraft bombed militants in northern Afghanistan in August. Both countries denied the charge.

In 1989, Soviet soldiers were seen handing out flour to civilians in Kabul, where the decade-long Soviet-Afghan war had placed many at risk of starvation.
‘Weird flirtation’ with Taliban

Even as Russia was planning a new diplomatic drive with the United States and other countries in 2014, U.S. officials began to see increased intelligence reporting of what former officials described as Russia’s “weird flirtation” with elements of the Taliban, primarily in northern Afghanistan, where Moscow had deep ties to Tajik and Uzbek groups.

The goal, officials and analysts say, has been to strengthen elements battling the Islamic State and ensure that if a Taliban takeover were to occur, Russia would have an established line to those in charge.

“They think the Taliban has staying power,” said Barnett Rubin, a former U.S. official who has conducted talks with Russian scholars on Afghanistan.

Russian officials believed the militant organization had changed and no longer posed a threat to Russian interests, current and former officials said. And the Taliban, like Russia, opposed a long-term U.S. military presence and hoped to extinguish the Islamic State.

U.S. officials, who held their own periodic meetings with Taliban representatives, did not oppose the Russian contacts, but they worried that a fledgling Russia-Taliban relationship would give the militants enough confidence to resist peace talks. It might also undermine the U.S. effort by creating an outsize image of Moscow’s ability to shape events on the ground, they believed.

“It’s how the Russians use perception to their advantage,” one former official said. “They didn’t have to do much to have a strategic effect.”

Richard Olson, who served as top envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan under Obama, said other countries also engaged in hedging behavior as they scrambled to protect themselves from a possible breakdown.

“Everyone in the region has their links to the Taliban, so the U.S. needs to pursue a settlement that includes all of those players,” he said.

In August 2014, as the United States and its European allies imposed intensifying sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea and support of separatists in eastern Ukraine, a small team of U.S. diplomats boarded a plane for Moscow.

With U.S.-Russia tensions skyrocketing, the diplomats had secured special White House permission to attend the first Moscow meeting of the Russian-initiated talks. Their instructions: Keep the gathering secret, and stay only as long as necessary.

Overseeing the discussion at the Foreign Ministry guesthouse, which also included Pakistan, India, China and Afghanistan, was Kabulov.

With his gruff humor, penchant for boozy meetings and ready catalogue of American stumbles overseas, U.S. diplomats saw Kabulov as the ultimate “Cold Warrior.”

The veteran diplomat had served at the Soviet Embassy in Kabul in the 1980s and 1990s and returned as Russia’s ambassador after the Taliban’s fall in 2001. He was one of a handful of outsiders to have met Mohammad Omar, the Taliban’s one-eyed leader, during a negotiation for a captured Russian aircrew in the 1990s.

Soviet troops near the city of Jalalabad in October 1986. (Viktor Habarov/PhotoXPress)

Johnny Walsh, a former State Department official focused on Afghanistan, said Kabulov’s initiative was more useful than many other diplomatic efforts because it was small enough to allow for substantive discussion “and quiet enough that there was a degree of candor.”

But as tensions mounted over larger issues in the U.S.-Russian relationship, it became more difficult for officials to meet.

Despite President Trump’s expressions of support for Putin, his administration has placed new sanctions on Moscow, most recently over a nerve-agent attack this year in Britain. It has also taken a harder line on Iran, making further talks doubly difficult.

U.S. and Russian officials have met a handful of times to discuss Afghanistan since Trump took office, but Washington declined to take part in the proposed, and then canceled, talks in September with the Taliban in Moscow.

As with Moscow’s proposal for a Taliban summit, few U.S. officials expected Kabulov’s initiative to produce a sudden resolution. But the failure of key powers to come together to chart a course toward peace shows the degree to which Afghanistan continues to be held captive to larger global issues.

Laurel Miller, who served as a top diplomat on Afghanistan until last year and is now a scholar at the Rand Corp., said Russia and the other nations involved in the Russian diplomat’s discussions would be central to fostering — or undermining — stability in the long run.

“The United States is not likely to be able to achieve its goals over the objections of these countries,” she said. “Afghanistan is in their backyards, after all, not ours.”

Ferris-Rotman reported from Moscow. Julie Tate and Paul Sonne in Washington, Anton Troianovski in Moscow and Sayed Salahuddin and Sharif Hassan in Kabul contributed to this report.

A year after Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, drawings on the walls of Kabul depicted soldiers and war scenes.
Credits: Story by Missy Ryan and Amie Ferris-Rotman. Designed by Madalyne Bird. Photo Editing by Chloe Coleman.