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.
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.