India, Russia Discuss Working With Afghan Taliban, An Organization That Finally Led To USSR’s Dissolution

As it finds itself largely isolated by the international community, Russia appears to be steadily growing closer to the Taliban and changing how it looks at the hardline organization that has historically been a menace to the country.

A senior Russian foreign ministry source recently told state news agency TASS that Russia no longer views the hardline Afghan Taliban as an enemy of the Russian Federation.

The comments were made as India and Russia held talks on May 15 to chalk out ways to deal with the Taliban ahead of the next UN meeting on Afghanistan. The statement by the official is intriguing since the radical organization remains outlawed in the country.

Speaking after the consultations on Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, director of the ministry’s second Asia department, said, “I don’t mean to say that the Taliban are our number one friends, but they are not enemies. The Taliban openly say that they trust Russia as the former Soviet Union’s successor.”

“The Taliban are former Mujahids who fought against the Soviet army and the former Afghan regime that the Soviet Union supported. Having fought against other foreign troops, they concluded that the Soviet Union not only waged a war in Afghanistan but also built it. And that the Soviet Union had no expansionist plans. Yes, the Soviet Union had its specific worldviews, which ran counter to Afghanistan’s traditional views. The Taliban consider that our actions were wrong but they give credit to the real contribution to Afghanistan’s modernization made by the Society Union,” he added.

While relations between Russia and the Taliban are improving, Kabulov noted that “there are certain political limits” without specifying what the limits were.

He added, “Russia has not yet officially recognized the current regime in Kabul. But we maintain relations via our embassy in Kabul. We have allowed a Taliban mission to operate in Russia at the level of a charge d’affaires and have military and trade attaches. Some time ago, when the Taliban was fighting against the Americans, they said: the Americans have watches, but we have time. Now Russia has both watches and time.”

India and Russia held bilateral consultations on Afghanistan (via Platform X)

The statement comes as the third anniversary of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan is fast approaching. The Taliban took over Afghanistan in 2021 after the Biden administration announced the termination of US military operations in Afghanistan and the commencement of the troop withdrawal amid a worsening security situation and a failure of its so-called security campaign in the country.

The recent comments made by the Russian official are particularly significant in light of speculation that Russia has been considering taking the Taliban off the list of banned terrorist organizations in the country.

Even though Russia considers the Taliban a terrorist organization, the Kremlin has held talks with the Taliban in the past. The Russian ambassador to Afghanistan, Dmitry Zhirnov, met the Taliban in public for the first time just two days after Kabul fell in 2021.

Some anti-Russian military analysts have alleged that after Russia launched the invasion of Ukraine, which led to the West slapping sanctions on it, the Kremlin has warmed up to the idea of removing the Taliban from the ban list.

However, although the Russian official’s remarks are likely to spark interest, the Kremlin has yet to give a clear indication.

That said, the growing cooperation between the two sides is ironic given that the Taliban, which once used to be Afghan Mujahideen, became one of the last nails in the former Soviet Union’s coffin.

Taliban take over Kabul airport and USA military equipment (via Platform X)

Taliban & USSR

The USSR was the main foreign player in Afghanistan during the second half of the 20th century. As per openly available information, the Soviets worked on 130 industry and infrastructure projects in Afghanistan between the 1950s and 1980s, including irrigation systems and airports.

Even now, some older Afghans still speak Russian, and the streets of Kabul are lined with rusty machinery and vehicles of the Eastern Bloc.

However, the country also vividly remembers the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which led to the US involvement as part of the Cold War and eventually gave birth to the Taliban. The Soviet Union launched an invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve, 1979.

The invasion set off a bloody civil war in Afghanistan that lasted for nine years in which the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA), the Soviet Union, and a few paramilitary groups allied with them fought against the Mujahideen or the local Islamist fighters backed by the United States and Pakistan.

An estimated one million civilians, together with 90,000 Mujahideen fighters, 18,000 Afghan military, and 14,500 Soviet soldiers, perished in the bloody nine-year struggle.

Soviet-Afghan War – Wikipedia

More importantly, the Afghan mujahideen or Islamic guerrilla fighters, who had battled the Soviet occupation of their country with the covert support of the CIA and its Pakistani counterpart, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), founded the Taliban in the early 1990s. They were joined by younger Pashtun tribesmen who attended Pakistani madrassas or seminaries.

A civil war broke out in the country, paving the way for the Taliban to seize control of the nation in 1996.

In addition to wreaking havoc across Afghanistan,  the Soviet-Afghan War is also believed to be a pivotal element in the Soviet Union’s collapse and the official end of the Cold War.

A geopolitical expert and Fellow with India-based Observers Research Foundation (ORF), Kabir Taneja, told EurAsian Times, “The Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan certainly inflicted high costs on an already struggling Union. The US and Pakistan helped build up the mujahideen resistance against Moscow, which gave the Soviet military a tough time and eventually pushed it beyond the Amu Darya. Afghanistan was certainly one of the final nails in the coffin for the Soviet Union’s collapse and US victory in the Cold War.”

Having said that, while the failed campaign in Afghanistan was not the reason behind the Soviet Union’s fall, it was one of the last of the USSR’s routs that led to its collapse, according to several academics like Taneja.

It is against this backdrop that the Russian official’s emphatic statement that the Taliban is not an enemy of the country is significant. It ushers in a new era of relationship between the two past adversaries.

When asked why Russia is cultivating ties with the Taliban, Taneja explained: “Russia’s outreach to the Taliban is based on two main factors. First, for the moment, the Taliban is desperate for international recognition and outreach and is willing to play a security role against other more threatening terror groups such as ISKP. Second, Russia, along with China and Iran, would like to make sure the US never returns to this region as a power again. A pragmatic outreach to the Taliban would also fit this requirement. However, these short-term goals, as long-term stability of Afghanistan remains a precarious task.”

Russia and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan are already engaged in substantial trade, which has only seen an uptick in the last two years. Russia is now planning to build a regional logistic hub in western Afghanistan, keeping the rise of Russian oil imports in mind.