Newsweek’s interview with Russian Special Presidential Envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov was significant because it was the first time that Russia’s pragmatic stance towards the Taliban was given publicity and treated fairly by a major Western media outlet.
Russian Special Presidential Envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov was recently interviewed by Newsweek about his country’s pragmatic stance towards the Taliban. This high-profile and fairly conducted media appearance speaks to the fact that the US is taking note of Russia’s evolving position. It also signals the incipient progress that’s been achieved in improving bilateral relations since this summer’s Biden-Putin Summit because it shows that Russia and the US are interested in working more closely together on this issue of mutual concern. Prior to summarizing the insight that the envoy shared, the piece will point readers in the direction of the author’s prior analyses on this topic that were published at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) in case they’re interested in some background briefings:
* 3 June 2020: “Pakistan’s Role In Russia’s Greater Eurasian Partnership”
* 24 June 2021: “The Geostrategic Challenges Of Russia’s ‘Ummah Pivot’”
* 14 July 2021: “Russia’s ‘Ummah Pivot’: Opportunities & Narrative Engagement”
* 25 August 2021: “Russia & The Taliban: From Narrative Challenges To Opportunities”
* 27 September 2021: “Comparing The Contours Of Russia’s Ummah Pivot In Syria & Afghanistan”
To sum it up for those readers with limited time, Afghanistan forms a crucial component of Russia’s Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP) because it functions as the irreplaceable transit state for facilitating its overland connectivity with South Asia. Pakistan helped Russia enter into contact with the Taliban due to all sides’ shared anti-ISIS concerns, after which Moscow began to independently cultivate its own relations with the group that it still formally designates as terrorists. That political issue hasn’t hampered their cooperation though since they’re now coordinating on humanitarian, security, and socio-economic issues. Russia’s surprising successes in this respect are entirely attributable to its pragmatic grand strategy of attempting to become Eurasia’s supreme “balancing” force in the 21st century.
Kabulov began the interview by stating Russia’s top two policy goals in Afghanistan: seeing it become a normal state at peace with itself and its neighbors; and containing international terrorist and drug trafficking threats. He then proceeded to explain that the Taliban has evolved from what he claims was its prior “global jihadist agenda” to becoming a “military political opposition” movement in Afghanistan. They beat NATO because they had better morale, he said. Although their post-war vision differs from the socio-political models that Russia and other countries adhere to within their own borders, Moscow nevertheless respects it. Even so, Kabulov insisted that his country wants the Taliban to abide by “basic human rights and international relations rules”.
These include an ethno-politically inclusive government and equal socio-economic opportunities for women. The envoy praised the progress that’s been achieved thus far, especially in terms of retaining a diversity of media outlets in the country and establishing law and order, but he of course also noted that a lot of work still remains to be done. Kabulov lauded the Taliban’s anti-terrorist struggle against ISIS (which is also banned in Russia) and said that they “are actually doing this much better than your and previous administration forces”. Since “they are serving both regional and international interests” in this respect, Russia is against all efforts to weaken its relevant capacities. The envoy also hopes that the US releases Afghanistan’s frozen funds so that the Taliban doesn’t need to rely on the drug trade.
As for the state of cooperation with the US on this issue, Kabulov sounded upbeat but noted that a lot of their discussions concerned dealing with the same financial and security messes that America itself is responsible for creating in Afghanistan. The Troika Plus framework between those two, China, and Pakistan was also presented as an example of their fruitful cooperation thus far. These four countries’ top priority right now is to avert Afghanistan’s impending humanitarian crisis and brainstorming multilateral solutions for sustainably improving its socio-economic situation. Broader cooperation with the Central Asian Republics (CAR), Iran, France, and Germany is possible too.
Kabulov expressed relief that the US hasn’t succeeded in setting up any regional bases, which he said would have provoked attacks against those host states by the Taliban and other terrorist groups. He also revealed how displeased Russia was with the US’ initial attempts to have it and the region shoulder the Afghan burden. A balance must be struck, he implied, between the US and its allies responsibly cleaning up the mess that they made there and other stakeholders assisting these efforts in a fair way that doesn’t ask too much of them or anything else that might be unrealistic. In the worst-case scenario that the situation deteriorates, Kabulov said this country’s CAR allies can count on Russia to defend their national security.
Russia will not, however, render any anti-terrorist military assistance to the Taliban, nor has such been requested of it from the group. Kabulov then commented on the emerging regional consensus surrounding the need to help stabilize Afghanistan and contain the various threats that might emanate from it. The Moscow and Islamabad Format talks, as well comparatively minor supplementary ones like the latest virtual event in Tehran, are proof of this in practice. The envoy cautioned, however, against needlessly multiplying meetings just for the sake of it without focusing on achieving tangible dividends from each process, the most urgent of which concern humanitarian issues followed by anti-terrorist and drug-related ones.
Russia’s goal is to prevent Afghanistan from ever being exploited by foreign terrorist organizations to carry out another 9/11. About that world-changing event, Kabulov said that it was unfair to punish the Afghan people when none of their compatriots participated in it and only Osama Bin Laden operated from there. Arming Afghans with political and economic instruments can help them prevent this from ever happening again, the envoy advised. Going forward, Russia will continue working with its Troika Plus partners to convince other donors like those in Europe to contribute to averting Afghanistan’s impending humanitarian crisis. In conclusion, Kabulov hopes that the Taliban will continue to make comprehensive progress by having their comparatively moderate elements keep radical ones in check.
This interview was significant because it was the first time that Russia’s pragmatic stance towards the Taliban was given publicity and treated fairly by a major Western media outlet. Kabulov’s interviewer wasn’t aggressive or provocative like Western ones usually are. Rather, they seemed sincerely interested in better understanding his country’s position so that their own and others could potentially learn from it. This further reinforces the earlier mentioned observation that relations between those two countries are improving when it comes to areas of mutual concern. Evidently, both sides have made progress on responsibly regulating their rivalry since their leaders met this summer. Afghanistan can therefore serve as a perfect example of Russian-American cooperation and help build more trust.
Of course, that best-case scenario is still a far way’s off as seen by the US’ reluctance to release Afghanistan’s frozen assets, but there’s still no denying that the present state of affairs could obviously be a lot worse than it is. Russia hopes to lead the international community’s efforts to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan or at the very least avert its impending humanitarian crisis. China and Pakistan are playing major roles in this respect too, but the former is considered by the US to be its top global rival while the latter has limited influence on the global stage. That’s why it falls onto Russia to rally the international community around this shared cause. The US can greatly assist if it encourages its Western allies to follow suit. Until that happens, progress will remain limited and uncertainty will prevail.