The South Asia strategy announced in August by President Trump seeks an end to the Afghanistan conflict that eliminates the risk of international terrorism taking root in Afghan soil. This requires the support of other countries with proxies in Afghanistan. Iran, Russia, Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia and Turkey all need to encourage politicians and warlords they support to reach a political settlement rather than pursue narrow interests that inflame Afghanistan’s civil war. Recently, however, such regional powers have been moving in the opposite direction.

Members of the Afghan Local Police prepare for a mission in Kakeran, Afghanistan, Feb. 18, 2013. An American military plan for local auxiliaries to aid the Afghan Army has raised fears of abuses like those that plagued the Afghan Local Police. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)
Afghan police prepare for a mission alongside U.S. troops against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. The U.S. and Russian governments differ on the threats posed by the Taliban—and on the ways to stabilize Afghanistan. (Brian Denton/New York Times)

Russia’s engagement in Afghanistan is of particular concern to the United States because of their tensions elsewhere. U.S. and Russian policies are at odds in Ukraine, Syria, and the eastern border of the NATO alliance. If Russia adds Afghanistan to that list by supporting the Taliban or otherwise working to undermine Afghanistan’s central government, which receives billions of dollars per year in U.S. and other Western donor assistance, it will undermine U.S. national security interests.  According to U.S. and Afghan reports, Russia is already supporting the Taliban with small weapons and tacit political backing.

Two weeks ago, I participated in informal discussions with Russian non-government experts on Afghanistan to compare the U.S. and Russian approaches to stabilizing Afghanistan.  The meetings, while collegial, confirmed the deep mistrust that permeates U.S.-Russian relations. Russians responded to U.S. accusations of Taliban support by charging that the U.S. is supporting ISIS as a way to justify a continued military presence in the region. Each side dismissed the other’s claims as preposterous.

Common Interests: ISIS, Opium

Beneath that dispute, however, are common interests—most obvious a shared opposition to ISIS. Still, the Americans’ and Russians’ conflicting strategies and alliances against ISIS in Syria now make them suspicious about what opposition to ISIS means in practice. Both countries also are concerned about the rampant opium cultivation in Afghanistan. Russia is destabilized more directly by the heroin that is exported to Russia and through it to Europe; whereas U.S. interests are more threatened by the Taliban’s use of drug profits to fund its war against the Afghan government. But both Russia and the United States would benefit from an Afghan political settlement that would permit a reduction in opium cultivation and make Afghan territory inhospitable to ISIS.

Setting geopolitical competition aside for a moment, the main obstacle to U.S.-Russian cooperation on Afghanistan involves competing theories about how best to achieve Afghan stability.  The United States favors a central government strengthened by the inclusion of the country’s varied factions and seen as democratic and legitimate by Afghans. Russian experts are more skeptical of the ability of any central government to control the whole territory, have less inherent faith in democracy, and do not see the Taliban as a threat beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Therefore, the Russians favor supporting powerbrokers in Afghanistan’s disparate regions who oppose ISIS and other transnational terrorist groups. Such brokers could even include Taliban sympathizers. 

While the United States and Russia have different visions of what governance model would work best in Afghanistan, they have a common interest in reducing the divisions and warfare among Afghan factions. As long as Americans and Russians pursue the divergent approaches, Afghan powerbrokers will seek to play one against the other for personal gain.  If the United States and Russia can present a united front on key governance issues like elections, talks with the Taliban, and possible constitutional reform, this would focus Afghan political elites on solving problems rather than seeking support from rival foreign patrons. That would improve the prospects for a negotiated political solution to the war.  If, however, the United States in fact wants to maintain permanent bases in Afghanistan, or if Russia sees the Afghan theater largely as a tool to gain leverage against Washington for concessions in Ukraine or elsewhere, then a new chapter of rivalry by outsiders in Afghanistan—known since the 1800s as “the great game”— will enable the war to continue.  
 

Related Publications

The Fatemiyoun Army: Reintegration into Afghan Society

The Fatemiyoun Army: Reintegration into Afghan Society

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

By: Ahmad Shuja Jamal

Since 2013, as many as 50,000 Afghans have fought in Syria as part of the Fatemiyoun, a pro-Assad force organized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. Based on field interviews with former fighters and their families, this Special Report examines the motivations of members of the Afghan Shia Hazara communities who joined the Fatemiyoun as well as the economic and political challenges of reintegrating them into Afghan society.

Civilian-Military Relations; Fragility & Resilience

What Can Make Displaced People More Vulnerable to Extremism?

What Can Make Displaced People More Vulnerable to Extremism?

Thursday, March 14, 2019

By: Belquis Ahmadi; Rahmatullah Amiri; Sadaf Lakhani

As the international community works to prevent new generations of radicalization in war-torn regions, debate focuses often on the problem of people uprooted from their homes—a population that has reached a record high of 68.5 million people. Public discussion in Europe, the United States and elsewhere includes the notion that displaced peoples are at high risk of being radicalized by extremist groups such as ISIS. Scholars and peacebuilding practitioners have rightly warned against such generalizations, underscoring the need to learn which situations may make uprooted people vulnerable to radicalization. A new USIP study from Afghanistan notes the importance of specific conditions faced by displaced people—and it offers indications suggesting the importance for policy of supporting early interventions to stabilize the living conditions of displaced people after they return home.

Violent Extremism

Afghanistan Talks: No Women, No Peace

Afghanistan Talks: No Women, No Peace

Friday, March 1, 2019

By: Belquis Ahmadi

As talks between the U.S. and the Taliban raise hopes for peace in Afghanistan, the country’s women fear another—and related—possibility: That their hard-won rights to participate in the nation’s political and economic life could again be washed away by the Taliban’s rigid views on gender.

Gender; Peace Processes

Intra-Afghan Peace Negotiations: How Might They Work

Intra-Afghan Peace Negotiations: How Might They Work

Friday, February 22, 2019

By: Sean Kane

Recent positive developments in the Afghan peace process have renewed hopes that the country’s 17-year-old conflict could come to a close. Direct negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, however, are likely to involve complex constitutional questions. This Special Report provides...

Peace Processes

View All Publications