RUSSIA'S AND IRAN'S STRATEGIC POLICIES TOWARDS THE AFGHANISTAN CRISIS.

Author:Keskin, Ghulam Faroq
  1. Introduction

    From Russia's point of perspective, the United States is there to maintain the unipolar system and blockade of Russia. For Russia, the US presence in Afghanistan has deepened the crisis and made pervasive security threats to Central Asia, which is Russia's backyard. The growth of extremist groups in recent years is a serious threat to Russian society. Also, since Russia is one of Afghanistan's drug destinations, the growing cultivation of opiates is a critical threat to Russia. The Russian officials are aware that Afghanistan has been the main hub for extremist groups that have been burning the Middle East after 2011. Therefore, in the post-Soviet era, Afghanistan has been a source of threat rather than a source of interest to Moscow. Hence, in general, the threats from Afghanistan towards Russia are symmetric and asymmetric. The symmetric threats have intensified the asymmetric threats as extremist groups have been raised recently. Russia attributes this to the presence of trans-regional forces, which has become an excuse for extremist groups in their Jihad against foreigners (Stepanova 2018; Marshall 2014; Galeotti 2016).

    Iran's policy also overlaps with Russia's strategy. The US presence is a serious and first-rate threat to Iran. Given the US presence in Iraq and the Persian Gulf region, the US presence in Afghanistan means a physical blockade of Iran, and Iranian officials trying to defeat this strategic threat. In addition, Iran is competing with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan over various geopolitical issues. Iran regards Afghanistan as its natural geopolitical backyard and considers the presence of foreign armies as aggression to its vital interests. The presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan has not only caused peace in Afghanistan but has also doubled the range of Iran's problems. Drug smuggling and transit, as well as the illegal presence of Afghan refugees, are the most important socio-cultural threats in Iran that have intensified since the occupation of Afghanistan (Koepe 2013; Boulverdi 2005; Akbarzadeh 2014).

  2. Russia's policy on the Afghanistan peace process

    The first diplomatic relations between Afghanistan and Communist Russia goes back to 1919 when Russia recognized the independence of Afghanistan (Evsikov 2009). Moreover, the treaty of friendship was signed between the two countries in 1921. The treaty was important in political, economic and military terms (Ziganshina 2014: 74; Noorzoy 1985). From 1950 to 1973, the two states had very close relations and the Soviet Union influenced the political life of Afghanistan. During this period, the Soviet Union helped Afghanistan in areas such as military, economy, and agriculture (Payind 1989: 110-116). Moreover, by the contributions of the Soviet Union, the economic and technical foundation of Afghanistan was formed. Numerous projects including highways, factories, residential houses, and others were carried out by the Soviet Union (Allen 2014).

    When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the relation between these two states broke down. During the occupation, the US supplied all equipment to the 'Mujahedeen' through Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in order to defeat the Soviet Union. After ten years of catastrophe, the Soviet Union was forced to withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989. The main reason behind the occupation of Afghanistan was the establishment of the anti-communist religious fundamentalist government, which was a huge threat to the Soviet Union. Indeed, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan fundamentalist religious groups came to power (Pear 1988, Xiaochuan 2016). During the civil war in the 1990s, Russia fully supported the Northern Alliance, which represented Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras. In fact, Russia along with Iran, India and Central Asian countries actively contributed to the unification of Afghan national minorities. In 2003, Moscow entered the Taliban to its list of terrorist organizations. Russian President Vladimir Putin said in early 2000 that the Taliban had no place in Afghanistan's future (O'Flynn, 2001, Asarryan 2018). But subsequent developments show that Putin was wrong because Russia played its own role in legitimizing the Taliban.

    It was thought that Russia will forget forever Afghanistan, but the subsequent events made it clear that Russia won't leave Afghanistan for the United States. By the occurrence of 9/11 attacks, Russia declared its preparation to deal with terrorism, and along with the United States has tried to promote its international status. Russia helped the US to fight against terrorism in Afghanistan in 2001 and let the US use Central Asia in order to defeat terrorism. By these attempts, it can be said that Russia succeeds in gaining much in the short term but in the long term, it does not gain much in Afghanistan.

    After the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001, the relations between Russia and Afghanistan were immediately strengthened. President Hamid Karzai visited Russia two times. Russia promised to supply military equipment as well as training Afghanistan security forces. During Karzai's visit, 17 bilateral agreements were signed between the two countries. Between 2002-2009 Russia's assistance to Afghanistan is 109 million dollars. At the NATO Lisbon Summit in 2010, Russia offered to transport of NATO equipment through Russia. After 2012 the relations between Afghanistan and the US became worse and instead Afghanistan's relations with Russia advanced significantly. Russia's trade relations with Afghanistan have been growing in the 2000s and 2010s. For instance, the trade relations grew from 571.3 million USD in 2010 to 1 billion USD in 2013. In 2104 Russia imported Afghanistan's goods and placed the fifth-largest importer from Afghanistan, and at the same time, Russia tried to export an important part of Afghanistan's needs and placed in the sixth-largest exporter to Afghanistan (Brattvoll 2016:3).

    After 2014 when Ashraf Ghani came into office as the new president of Afghanistan, the relation between Russia and Afghanistan became deteriorated. The ambassador of Russia in Afghanistan laid out in 2019 that "Unfortunately, we cannot say that the current President of Afghanistan, during his tenure, has been able to maintain balanced relations with international partners and especially regional partners. This has also affected Russian-Afghan relations, whose indicators can in principle be denoted by the 'negative' sign... The hiding the aspirations of the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan for cooperation with their Western partners diminishes Russia's presence in Afghanistan" (Sputnik 2019). He also adds that not only political but also economic relations have been worsened. The ambassador's remarks indicate that Russia is not satisfied with Afghanistan's relations with the West, especially the United States. In this regard, Russia has tried to establish a political balance within Afghanistan through its initiatives. Cooperation with Iran, China, and even the Taliban is the main option for Russia in balancing and controlling Afghanistan's politics.

    3.1. Russia's relations with the Taliban

    In November 2018, Russia launched a conference about Afghanistan peace between the Taliban and other Afghanistan groups in Moscow (Roth 2018). It was not Russia's first meeting with the Taliban as the first relation between the two sides was established in 1995 when the Taliban started to take control of some southern province in Afghanistan including Kandahar (Menkiszak and Jarzyhska 2011: 15). It was an unofficial contact but the first secret meeting between the Taliban and Russia took place in the capital city of Turkmenistan in Ashgabad. At this meeting, the Taliban asked Russia to support their permanent representative in the United Nations, but this request was not accepted. It was a great opportunity for Russia to use this group for their advantage, but Russia rejected the request. Russia was determined to maintain its relations with Mujahideen led by Rabbani rather than the Taliban, which was strongly supported by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. After that, the re-establishment of contact between Russia the Taliban began in 2010 when the Russia-US relations deteriorated sharply, and a move of terrorists started from Afghanistan to Syria and from Syria to Afghanistan (Dubnov 2018). In October 2015 the Taliban tried to take the control of Kunduz in the north of Afghanistan and near the borders with Tajikistan. In this attack citizens of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Russia were in the Taliban's armed group and this worried Russia (Brattvoll 2016). A year later Taliban took control of Kunduz City (France24 2016). After that, the relations between Russia and the Taliban became closer step by step (Stepanova 2018).

    3.2. Russia's aim to expand relations with...

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