With the number of ISIS fighters growing in regional neighbor Afghanistan, Russian President Vladimir Putin is turning to an old enemy — the Taliban — to share intelligence.
A spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, said the contact between Moscow and the Afghan Taliban only involves intelligence-sharing and information exchange regarding the fight against ISIS.
Why would Putin put himself in a risky spot by working with the Taliban? It’s a case of aligning himself with the enemy of his enemy.
A U.S. commander last month told Congress that ISIS has gained strength in Afghanistan in recent months, with as many as 3,000 fighters there.
Putin has long worried about thousands of jihadists from Russia’s Caucusus region and the former Soviet republics going to fight with ISIS in Syria.
He may be trying to cut off the pipeline of fighters closer to home, in Afghanistan, one expert told the media.
“The ties between ISIS and the insurgency in the north Caucusus, the fact that there are people from the north Caucusus fighting in Syria — maybe not as many as the Russian government says, but certainly a good number, including in leadership roles — means that Russia does see ISIS and a lot of the other Islamist groups as a particular threat, in a way that maybe the Taliban isn’t,” said Olga Oliker of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “So the Russians may think they (the Taliban) are the lesser of the available evils.”
Military Analyst Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling said a map shows the situation. Afghanistan is bordered on the north by former Soviet republics Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, with Kazakhstan between those nations and Russia.
“Russia and Mr. Putin are very concerned about the passage of terrorists, insurgents, Islamists between those borders,” Hertling said.
Working with the Taliban presents some risk for Putin, who has been boldly extending his reach with aggressive moves in Syria, Ukraine and with North Korea.
Analysts say this is all about Putin projecting his relevance and strength.
“He wants to go back to the 1970s, when the Soviet Union and the United States were equals as geopolitical leaders, as Cold War rivals, but they still sat down and they did deals,” said Matthew Rojansky of the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Former CIA counterterrorism official Philip Mudd concurs, calling the move by Putin a “pretty serious power grab.” Putin is seeking to enhance his relationships with those former Soviet republics.
“What Putin is doing now is telling those states, ‘I will work with the Taliban to ensure that we have an agreement to collect intelligence about ISIS before they come across the border,'” Mudd said. “‘When I collect that intelligence, I will pass it back to you.’ This is as much about restoring those relationships and trust with the central Asian republics and competing with the United States as it is about countering ISIS in Afghanistan.”
ISIS’ emergence in Afghanistan is another major worry not only to Russia but also to the United States. Much of the violence in the country wracked by war and an insurgency has involved the Taliban. But al Qaeda — which, led by the late Osama bin Laden, called Afghanistan home before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — continues to be a threat.
A U.S. State Department official told the media when asked for comment on the Russian-Taliban agreement: “Russia and other regional actors all have a shared interest in supporting the continued security and increased stability of Afghanistan. We hope that we can continue to find ways to work with Russia to promote Afghanistan’s security and stability.”
Another U.S. official told the media that Washington doesn’t see this as undermining the stability it is working with the Afghan government to achieve. But what would be destabilizing, the official said, is any contact with the Taliban that would legitimize the group with international recognition.
Moscow addressed Russian media reports about Russia supplying weapons to fighters in Afghanistan.
The only weapons that would be transferred on a commercial basis would go directly to the Afghan government and would not involve the Taliban because of sanctions against the group, said Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman. Russia “strictly follows the sanctions regime against the Taliban,” she said.