Russia is increasing diplomatic contacts with the Taliban insurgent group in Afghanistan as Moscow looks to counter Islamic State (IS) gains in Central Asia and increase its influence in the nation it once occupied.
“We and the Taliban have channels for exchanging information,” Russian President Vladimir Putin's special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, told the Interfax news agency recently. The Taliban interest objectively coincides with ours,” he said, referring to IS, which emerged in Afghanistan last year as a rival to the Taliban in eastern parts of the country.
In pursuing the Taliban, Moscow is playing a two-sided diplomatic game, analysts say.
Which way does the aid flow?
More than two decades after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russia has upped its military and economic aid to the Afghan government, which is battling the Taliban in several areas of the country.
That aid includes 10,000 Kalashnikov rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition that the government will use to fight both IS and the Taliban insurgency, analysts say.
“Moscow does not want to seem as a supporter of the Taliban,” said Kabul-based security analyst Wahid Muzhda. “It has good ties with Kabul, too. Its contacts with the Taliban do not mean that it is against the Afghanistan government.”
Pakistan’s English-language newspaper The Nation reported in December that Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour held a secret meeting with President Vladimir Putin to discuss possible Russian support in the Taliban's fight against IS.
VOA could not confirm the authenticity of the report. The Taliban said in a statement that it does “not see a need for receiving aid from anyone concerning so-called Daesh” - the Arabic acronym for IS.
But, according to analysts, Russia sees Taliban help as essential in fighting the spillover effects of the IS insurgency in Afghanistan.
Battling Islamic State militants
Militants from Central Asian nations have been training under IS in the tribal belt along the Durand Line between Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to IS video and military intelligence in several nations.
Central Asians have also been fighting alongside the Taliban.
Some of the militants recently joined IS and may return to their native countries for terror activities, Russian media say.
“Russia is genuinely concerned by the deteriorating security situation in Central Asia and afraid that it might be forced to help its Central Asian allies in their fight against terrorism,” said Stephen Blank, a Russian analyst at the American Foreign Policy Council.
But the Afghan government, while publicly welcoming Russian aid, is casting a wary eye on Moscow’s Taliban overtures.
“A number of [Afghanistan’s] neighboring countries, including Russia, have reached out to various Taliban splinter groups to establish information channels,” said an adviser at the presidential palace in Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“Uzbekistan is probably the only neighboring country that has not approached the Taliban,” the adviser told VOA. Tajikistan, he said, "played a crucial role in facilitating contacts between Russia and the Taliban.”
It is not clear whether or not the Taliban has received any military or financial assistance from Russia, but the group has been trying to gain international recognition, according to the Kabul presidential palace adviser.
Taliban insurgents have increased militant activities in various parts of Afghanistan. The Taliban warned last week that new attacks coming in the new fighting season. The Afghan government, for its part, called the Taliban spring offensive warning “mere propaganda.”
Afghanistan’s northeastern province of Kunduz briefly fell to the Taliban last year. According to Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry, around 1,300 foreign militants, most of them members of the Pakistani Taliban, participated in the assault on Kunduz.
IS militants in Afghanistan have established a presence in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar and launched multiple attacks on government and Taliban security checkpoints.
Recent Afghan and NATO military operations have helped clear many areas in Nangarhar of IS presence. But reports of fighting between government and IS forces – and the Taliban and IS – continue.
Russian officials say IS fighters in Afghanistan plan to use the country a jumping-off point.
“They have other aims,” said Kabulov, the Russian president's special envoy to Afghanistan. “They need Afghanistan as a springboard for a wider expansion.”
But the Taliban have reportedly told Moscow that IS is using Afghanistan mostly as a training ground and, according to analyst Muzhda, the Taliban would not support the spread of terrorist activities into neighboring Central Asian countries.
Still, Russia is conducting its second major military drill in as many months in Tajikistan near the Afghanistan border as part of what it calls “anti-terrorism training.”