Russia’s official envoy to Afghanistan has said that Moscow is now working with the Afghan Taliban in order to stop the growth of the Islamic State in the region. Many Taliban fighters are direct descendants of the Afghan and Pakistani Pashtuns who fought the Soviet Red Army in the 1980s, when the USSR invaded Afghanistan and fought a bloody decade-long war there. But the militant group, which today continues to control much of Afghanistan, despite a prolonged American-led military effort to defeat it, is today being challenged by the Islamic State. Known also as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the group enjoys growing popularity in Afghanistan, as large numbers of tribal warlords have sworn allegiance to it. In contrast, the leadership of the Taliban has rejected the legitimacy of ISIS and refused to recognize its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the caliph of all Sunni Muslims. According to Sunni doctrine, a caliph is the recognized political and religious successor to Muhammad, Islam’s prophet, and thus commands the Muslim ummah, or community.
For the past two years, allegations have surfaced in the world’s media that Russia, fearing the continuing growth of ISIS in Central Asia, has reached out to the Taliban in hopes of halting ISIS’ popularity. Last week, however, Zamir Kabulov, Moscow’s special envoy to Afghanistan, openly admitted that Russia is collaborating with the Taliban against ISIS. “The interests of the Taliban completely coincide with ours”, said Kabulov, and added that Moscow maintains “communication channels with the Taliban to exchange intelligence”. It is important to note that Kabulov, who was born in Soviet Uzbekistan, is arguably the most knowledgeable Russian diplomat on matters relating to Afghanistan. Until 2009, he served as Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan, having also served in Iran and Pakistan. Western observers believe that Kabulov is not simply a “career diplomat”, as he presents himself, but a former officer in the KGB, the USSR’s foremost intelligence agency. He is also believed to have served as the KGB’s chief of station in Kabul during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, and to have worked closely with Khad, the intelligence agency of Soviet-dominated Afghanistan.
Kim Sengupta, a defense correspondent of British broadsheet The Independent, argues that Kabulov’s announcement reflects the growing ties between the Federal Security Service (FSB), one of the KGB’s successor agencies, and the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s current intelligence agency. The latter maintains open lines of communication with the Taliban. There is also a question about the extent of Russia’s collaboration with the Taliban in pursuit of common goals. Kabulov implied last week that the collaboration centers on intelligence-sharing. But Sengupta suggests that Moscow may also be supplying weapons and ammunition to the Taliban, through Russian ally Tajikistan. He also notes that other regional powers, including China and Iran, are warming up to the Taliban, which they increasingly view as a more reasonable alternative to ISIS.