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The world should unfreeze Afghanistan’s reserves and pour in aid to rebuild the country, Russia says

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, center right, attends a meeting with Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, center left, in Rome on Aug. 27, 2021. (Russian Foreign Ministry/Reuters)

MOSCOW — Russia’s ban on the Taliban as a terrorist group has not stopped Moscow officials from stepping in to support it by calling for the freeze on Afghanistan’s financial reserves to be lifted and for Western countries to lead a global conference to help rebuild the country’s economy.

Russia’s presidential envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said Monday that the international community should unfreeze the Afghan government’s reserves or risk a spike in illegal narcotics and arms traffic.

Speaking to state-owned television, he also called for an international conference to support Afghanistan’s recovery under the Taliban’s leadership, so that the United States and its allies could “correct at least some of the mistakes they have made” in the past 20 years.

The United States froze Afghan central bank reserves held in U.S. institutions on Aug. 15. The bank has about $9.5 billion in reserves, about $7 billion of which is held in U.S. institutions. The International Monetary Fund blocked Afghanistan’s access to $460 million in emergency reserves, while the World Bank halted funding to Afghanistan last week.

The threat of possible new conflicts, spreading terrorism and a humanitarian catastrophe scattering millions of Afghan refugees across the region poses a nightmare scenario for Russia.

Last week’s suicide bombing at the Kabul airport, claimed by the Islamic State-Khorasan, threw Russia’s fears about Afghanistan into sharp relief — that the Taliban’s governance effort could fail, that extremists affiliated with the Islamic State could gain a stronger foothold and that the country could slide into chaos, destabilizing Russia’s neighborhood.

Russian officials and state-owned media have been crowing about what they are calling the United States’ failure in Afghanistan, but Moscow’s attention is increasingly turning to fears that without international support and financial assistance, a new Taliban government will fail to stabilize the nation.

Moscow has been calling on the West to “accept the reality” of the Taliban’s victory, while pressing the Taliban to form a government that includes different political and ethnic groups, a move seen as its best hope of winning international support.

At the same time, Russian officials are warning that no one should expect the Taliban to meet Western standards for democracy and cultural and religious practices.

“Russia doesn’t care about human rights in Afghanistan or women’s rights in Afghanistan,” said Kirill Krivosheyev, an Afghanistan analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. “Our red line is security for Central Asia to stop any terrorism and influx of armed men into those countries.”

But he said he doubted how much influence Moscow could exert on Taliban leaders to form an inclusive government.

Kabulov said that Russia was ready to help rebuild Afghanistan’s economy but that the burden to chip in should fall on the United States and others involved in the nearly two-decade military operation.

The United Nations, along with the United States and other countries, has imposed sanctions on the Taliban. The U.S. sanctions freeze assets associated with the Taliban that fall under U.S. jurisdiction, and make transactions involving the Taliban illegal for U.S. entities.

The European Union, which has pledged more than $1 billion in development aid to Afghanistan over the next five years, has said that money would now depend on the Taliban’s respecting human rights and meeting other conditions. Peter Stano, European Commission spokesman on foreign affairs, said discussions on “financial assistance or possible unfreezing or further freezing” were continuing, adding that E.U. foreign ministers would discuss the issue at a meeting in Slovenia this week. The bloc also has sanctions against several Taliban members, in line with those of the United Nations, he said.

In Russia, the Taliban is designated a terrorist organization under a 2003 Supreme Court ruling. However, Russia has hosted the Taliban and other Afghan political and ethnic groups for talks in Moscow in recent years. In recent days, Russia’s official media has stopped referring to the Taliban as a terrorist organization, instead calling it a “radical movement.”

Kabulov said Moscow was concerned about the political and security situation in Afghanistan and about the observance of human rights by the Taliban.

But he added that the international community must keep in mind “the cultural and religious specifics of the Afghan people and not to try to push anything on them, based on one’s own cultural notions of democracy and order.”

He called on the international community to open a humanitarian aid corridor to Afghanistan. One of the world’s poorest nations, Afghanistan is highly dependent on aid, and President Biden pledged on Aug. 16 to “continue to support the Afghan people” with humanitarian assistance.

The World Health Organization and the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF) last week called for the “immediate establishment of a reliable and robust humanitarian air-bridge to send in supplies.” UNICEF warned that 1 million Afghan children would suffer malnutrition without urgent humanitarian aid. Half the population — about 18 million people, including 10 million children — needs assistance, the organization says.

The WHO has warned of a looming humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Food prices have skyrocketed, and families are selling basic household belongings on the roadside to try to scrape together money for food.

Russian officials have been in talks with the United States, Pakistan, India, China, Iran and Central Asia to press for negotiations involving all of Afghanistan’s ethnic and political forces with the aim of forming a government and stabilizing the country.

Russia considers the main forms of leverage over the Taliban to be the prospect of international recognition and support. But Western governments are in no hurry to recognize a Taliban government.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week that the foreign ministers of the United States, Russia, China and Pakistan — a group Russia calls the Extended Troika — had agreed to work together to help reach a political agreement on a new inclusive government.

But Krivosheyev, the analyst, said there was nothing to suggest Russia would persuade the Taliban to form an inclusive government, nor was it clear that the Taliban would be able to contain terrorism or drug trafficking.

Russian officials, including Ambassador to Afghanistan Dmitry Zhirnov, have repeatedly praised the Taliban since its takeover for guaranteeing the security of diplomats. Zhirnov met Taliban officials last week and told Russian media that they had invited Russia to invest in Afghanistan, including in the extraction of its rich mineral deposits.

But the pro-Kremlin Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper cautioned Thursday against rushing to recognize the Taliban in an article by columnist Mikhail Rostovsky, headlined “In bed with the Taliban.”

“So far no one in the international community has recognized the Taliban as the legitimate authorities of Afghanistan,” the article read. “The Taliban may create a stable political regime in Kabul, or it may not. The Taliban may prove that their newfound ‘moderation’ is no short-term PR stunt, or it may not. The Taliban may keep its promise not to turn Afghanistan into a playground for dangerous international terrorist organizations who threaten Russia too, or it might not."

Russia has ruled out any military involvement. Russia has about 500 troops carrying out military exercises with Tajikistan on the Afghan border, designed to send a message that it will not tolerate any spillover of Islamist extremists from Afghanistan.

Reis Thebault in Brussels contributed to this report.