Russia has reached out to the Taliban in Afghanistan in what senior officials say is an effort to cooperate with them in the fight against ISIS in that country. The strategy would be shift for the Kremlin, which has largely portrayed the Taliban as just as much of a threat as ISIS.
The Kremlin's special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said in an interview with Interfax last month that Russian interests "objectively coincide" with those of the Taliban in the fight against ISIS, and that Moscow has channels for information sharing with the Taliban. "The Taliban now for the most part act like a national liberation movement. For them the Americans are occupiers, who illegally occupy their homeland and threaten their cultural and religious traditions," Kabulov said.
The Taliban, for its part, denied that any contacts with Russia had taken place:
On Wednesday 23rd December 2015 some media outlets published a report quoting the Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov as saying that they have talked to or established lines of communication with the Islamic Emirate regarding the threat of so called Daesh in Afghanistan.
The Islamic Emirate has made and will continue to make contacts with many regional countries to bring an end to the American invasion of our country and we consider this our legitimate right.
But we do not see a need for receiving aid from anyone concerning so called Daesh and neither have we contacted nor talked with anyone about this issue.
At the same time, Moscow has explored expanding arms sales or provisions to the Afghan government. Kabulov said this month that Russia would be sending a shipment of small arms to Kabul in February.
The notion of cooperating, in whatever form, with the Taliban against ISIS would represent a shift. Russian officials have consistently equated the Taliban with ISIS. A military exercise by the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization in May, for example, drilled against a scenario of a Taliban invasion of Central Asia. "The threat from Afghanstan persists, connected with the presence of Taliban and other armed groups not controlled by Kabul, on the southern vector of the CSTO area of responsibility," CSTO General Secretary Nikolay Bordyuzha said at the time. Bordyuzha claimed that there were some members of ISIS alongside the Taliban forces, "which can't but be cause for concern in the heads of the CSTO member states."
The single-minded focus on ISIS also makes little sense since, by all accounts, that group's presence in Afghanistan is very small, and what exists is concentrated in the south. Even the normally Kremlin-friendly Russian analyst Alexander Knyazev was skeptical about the ISIS (also known as Daesh) threat to Central Asia. "The problem of 'dealing with the Daesh threat in fact doesn't exist," he said in an interview this month with the Tajikistan newspaper Asia Plus. "The scale of Daesh's influence in Afghanistan, expressed by any public sources, must be reduced by several orders of magnitude if we want to understand the reality."
American Central Asia analyst Noah Tucker, in another interview with Asia Plus this week, also expressed confusion at Russia's strategy: "[I]n Syria and now potentially in Afghanistan the Russian government is doing exactly the thing it criticizes the US and NATO so much for doing – intervening in a foreign conflict. If NATO intervention in these conflicts won’t fix them (and I agree that it hasn’t), I don’t understand how Russia could genuinely believe that their own intervention will."
Russia's new approach to the Taliban also is raising eyebrows in the ex-Soviet Central Asian republics. While the Taliban threat to Central Asia is still likely not grave, it is greater than the entirely fictitious ISIS threat. Taliban forces have kidnapped Tajikistan border guards and clashed with Turkmenistan border guards.
"Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries also must have their own interests and protect them," wrote Asia Plus in a recent commentary. "First of all, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan should think about how to protect their traditional anti-Taliban partners, especially Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmens. They should think about what to do in order to protect their own interests during the upcoming clash of powers in Afghanistan."