Interpreting Russia’s Reaction to the Taliban’s Rapid Takeover of Afghanistan
It hasn’t hinted anything to this effect, but it would be wise for the Kremlin to ask the Taliban to hold off on capturing the capital while also asking Ghani to consider resigning.
The Taliban captured over half of Afghanistan’s regional capitals in a single week and now exerts control over territory equivalent to at least half the size of Texas. It’s unquestionably the most powerful force in the country right now despite the US still having a little bit over two weeks left before fully completing its planned withdrawal. The latest peace talks in Doha didn’t deter them from continuing their offensive, which speaks to how serious they are about advancing a military solution to the ongoing Afghan Civil War in response to President Ghani refusing to resign as the first step towards a transitional government per their demand.
As it stands, Russia seemingly still regards the Taliban as “reasonable” according to Foreign Minister Lavrov’s earlier words yet also retains its ban on the group. Its latest statements though have some wondering whether it might consider recalibrating its approach in the face of the Taliban’s offensive which goes against the Kremlin’s official stance of pursuing a peaceful political solution to the conflict. In particular, Russia agreed with the other participants at the recent Doha talks not to recognize any government in Afghanistan that’s “imposed through the use of military force.”
Lavrov also lamented that “all of this is not good, it’s wrong” when recently reacting to the Taliban’s “attempt to settle the situation through military force”. Still, since the Taliban pledged that “we pose no threat to diplomats and staffers of embassies, consulates and international organizations”, Special Presidential Envoy to Afghanistan Kabulov said that his country isn’t considering evacuating its embassy in Kabul. He was also quoted as saying that “Kandahar’s seizure does not open any door” for the Taliban to take over the capital, adding that “the Taliban cannot seize Kabul and have not yet done it.”
Be that as it may, a high-ranking Taliban member recently threatened that “We will get around Kabul like an anaconda. Control of Kabul and the Afghan regime is inevitable, perhaps a few weeks away.” The group is now at most 50 kilometers away from the capital and the US Department of Defense now predicts that Kabul can be isolated within 72 hours according to an anonymous source who spoke to CNN. Senior Research Fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oriental Studies Vladimir Sotnikov expects the Taliban to take Kabul by 27 September, which symbolically represents the 25th anniversary of their first capture of the capital back in 1996.
Westerners are now escaping from Afghanistan via that city in fear of the Taliban’s seemingly impending march on it while shamefully leaving behind almost all of their former Afghan civilian allies such as translators who credibly fear retribution from the group for their services. Kabulov is hoping the avert any substantial worsening of the situation by calling on Kabul to “finally come to its senses and start substantive talks.” It’s unclear exactly what he means by that since the internationally recognized Afghan government had just offered the Taliban a power-sharing deal the day before his remark but it might imply that he regarded that proposal as insincere.
After all, without Ghani resigning in accordance with the Taliban’s demand, the group can’t reasonably halt its offensive without “losing face”. The Afghan leader has practically no power left anymore even though he still stubbornly promised to oppose the Taliban during his prerecorded speech on Friday. His top diplomat said the day prior while talking to a Russian radio station that Kabul “fully trusts” Moscow’s ties with the Taliban and even hopes to purchase combat helicopters from it, though the Kremlin has yet to reply to the latter request. These remarks were meant to get Moscow to recalibrate its stance towards the conflict, but will likely fail.
The Eurasian Great Power doesn’t want to be perceived as supporting one side over the other, hence why it maintains excellent political relations with both. Lamenting the Taliban’s ongoing offensive is consistent with the Kremlin’s policy of pursuing a purely peaceful political solution to the conflict. It shouldn’t be interpreted as hinting that it’ll change its policy towards the group anytime soon. If anything, Moscow might engage the Taliban more intensely than ever before since the Kremlin knows that this stage of the Afghan Civil War seems to be rapidly nearing its conclusion and hopes to ensure that the path to that outcome isn’t too destabilizing.
The Taliban just pledged amnesty to all those who are fighting against it if only they lay down their arms like many of their peers did elsewhere across the country over the past week in facilitating the group’s unprecedented nationwide gains. Its “anaconda strategy” and interest in obtaining international recognition following the end of the war could be coupled with that new policy to help Moscow craft a creative solution for pressuring Ghani into resigning. It hasn’t hinted anything to this effect, but it would be wise for the Kremlin to ask the Taliban to hold off on capturing the capital while also asking Ghani to consider resigning.
So long as the Taliban stays true to its “anaconda strategy” and doesn’t make a forceful move on Kabul, it can continue to pressure Ghani by cutting off all supplies to the capital except the bare minimum needed for its population’s subsistence. Much sooner rather than later, that might either provoke its people into rising up against him to demand his resignation or prompt patriotic members of the military into staging a mutiny to overthrow him unless Russia first convinces the Afghan leader to step down. None of those three outcomes would result in a government “imposed through the use of military force”, thus making it eligible for international recognition.
The subsequent emergence of a transitional government (perhaps led by the country’s Chief Justice per the former Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan’s suggestion from his insightful Twitter thread on Friday) would immediately advance the peace process, quickly put an end to this stage of the Afghan Civil War (if not officially ending it), and therefore allow Afghanistan to finally enter its long-overdue reconstruction phase with full international support. Russia is the only member of the Extended Troika with equal influence over both warring parties and thus the only one that can realistically advance this best-case scenario, but it remains to be seen whether it’ll try or if it’ll even succeed.