This is a republication of a post authored by Andrew Korybko, which was first published in Substack. It has been adapted with full permission obtained from the author.
Taliban Humvee Kabul geopolitics press
Taliban fighters ride into Kabul in a Humvee in August 2021. PHOTO CREDIT: Wikipedia.

Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan Dmitry Zhirnov gave a detailed interview to RIA Novosti on the anniversary of Kabul’s capture by the Taliban. His assessment is insightful because it shows how Moscow regards everything that’s transpired in the year since, the reasons for that country’s continued problems, and its future prospects. The present piece will therefore share some of the highlights from his latest media interaction and then conclude with a few pertinent observations.

Russia’s top diplomat in that war-torn country confirmed that the security situation has stabilized in the capital but that this is pretty much because the Taliban has armed fighters on almost every corner. He then reaffirmed Moscow’s commitment to helping the Afghan people as was most recently proven by its dispatch of aid following the latest earthquake in June. Had the US not frozen their funds under its jurisdiction, he reminded his interlocutor, then everything wouldn’t be as difficult for its people.

With a view toward exploring sustainable socio-economic investments in Afghanistan, Russia is one of the only countries with direct air connections to Afghanistan. Moscow, however, doesn’t officially recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s de jure leaders because Ambassador Zhirnov said that they must first form a truly ethno-politically inclusive government among other prerequisites. Nevertheless, he noted that they’re an unavoidable reality that must be pragmatically engaged with.

The most important Russian representative in Afghanistan then proceeded to praise the Taliban for what he described as their uncompromising crusade against terrorism but also lamented that this scourge hasn’t yet been completely eradicated from that country. Ambassador Zhirnov explained that the extremely difficult socio-economic situation there that was exacerbated by the American occupation and especially Washington’s freezing of Kabul’s assets is what’s most directly to blame for this.

He elaborated that some people have become so desperate due to drug addiction and/or a lack of meaningful economic opportunities that they naturally become enticed by some terrorist groups, especially when their families are promised much-needed support if they join. All of this means that taking out one or another leader like the US recently claimed to have done with respect to Al Qaeda’s who was allegedly hiding in Kabul isn’t going to make much of a difference.

Rather, what’s urgently needed is for Afghanistan’s sincere partners like Russia to explore mutually beneficial economic cooperation, which Ambassador Zhirnov confirmed is already in progress with respect to bilateral relations. He then revealed that both sides plan to hold a business forum in Kabul sometime by the end of the year. The ongoing visit of the Afghan Minister of Industry and Trade to Moscow is a positive step, and Russia might soon send food and fuel to that country upon its request.

Ambassador Dmitry Zhirnov meets with Taliban’s Amir Khan Muttaqi in Kabul. PHOTO CREDIT: Kabul TV.

Unlike other countries’ business representatives, Russia’s have a well-deserved reputation for results among the Afghan people owing to their experience during the Soviet period, Ambassador Zhirnov said. In fact, he confirmed that the present fundamentals of that country’s economy can be trade back to that time, which implies that the only reason why it’s still partially functioning is because of Moscow’s aid to Kabul decades ago.

The last part of his interview saw him share some candid thoughts about the Taliban. Russia’s top diplomat in the country explained the complexities of Afghanistan’s socio-cultural and political life by sharing both sides of the story: the one that portrays this group as freedom fighters as well as its foil which regards them as enemies of progress. He then drew attention to how grassroots support for the Taliban surged in response to the radical socio-cultural changes imposed during the US occupation.

Regardless of how foreign observers may feel about it, many Afghans sincerely support the Taliban’s model for society, though nobody should forget about those who don’t. On that topic, Ambassador Zhirnov expressed concern about the group’s continued reluctance to create a truly ethno-politically inclusive government, some of the shortcomings of its anti-drug and anti-terrorist policies, and the lack of progress on concluding a full-fledge social contract.

Be that as it may, he also praised the Taliban for retaining an element of stability despite the formidable multifaceted challenges that they face, which he once again largely attributed to the US. The path ahead will remain difficult, Ambassador Zhirnov predicted, but he’s confident that tangible progress will slowly but surely be made. Russia will continue to support the Afghan people through aid and mutually beneficial investments, but others – and especially the US – need to do their part too.

Reviewing everything that he revealed in his interview, a few points stand out the most. First, Afghanistan thankfully didn’t collapse into a black hole of chaos and regional instability like some predicted. Second, this is attributable to the genuine support that the Taliban enjoys among the majority – but importantly not the entirety – of society. Third, the group has managed to thus far avert a chain reaction of uncontrollable crises, but the fourth point is that serious threats still remain.

Fifth, the Taliban can do more to promote trust at home and abroad by creating an ethno-politically inclusive government, but it remains reluctant to do so for self-interested as well as socio-cultural reasons which collectively constitute the sixth point. As for the seventh, the US’ freezing of their country’s several billion dollars’ worth of assets under its jurisdiction has immensely worsened the situation in all respects.

This leads to the eighth point of disincentivizing the Taliban from more effectively fighting drugs and terrorism, partially because it’s too busy ensuring that society remains semi-functional at its most basic level. Ninth, Afghanistan urgently requires multilateral international support with a priority focus being given to its sustainable socio-economic development, which brings the analysis to its final point connected to all that Russia is sincerely trying to do help its partner in this respect.

In terms of the global systemic transition to multipolarity, Afghanistan’s continued challenges will present a problem for all responsible stakeholders in the geostrategically positioned Eurasian Heartland, but Russia is taking the lead to organize support for their shared partner. The bilateral business forum that’s planned to be held by the end of the year will symbolically herald a new era of economic cooperation with that country’s de facto Taliban rulers and hopefully encourage other investors too.

Upon seeing that Russian entrepreneurs are confident enough in exploring projects there and clinching related deals, it therefore follows that others will eventually do so as well. Nonetheless, Moscow’s representatives will always have a competitive edge over their peers owing to the tremendous respect that Afghan society still has for the erstwhile Soviet Union’s comprehensive aid to their country during the Old Cold War. After all, those investments remain the basis of the Afghan economy to this day.

The Kremlin’s focus on Afghanistan also shows that this Eurasian Great Power won’t allow the US-led West to dominate the entirety of its strategic attention through their proxy war against it in Ukraine. Far from neglecting its immediate neighborhood and the Global South more broadly, Russia is eagerly engaging with those truly sovereign and multipolar leaderships across the world that share its vision of International Relations, which includes Afghanistan’s de facto Taliban rulers.

By taking the lead in gradually normalizing their presence in the emerging Multipolar World Order, Russia is also reaffirming its leadership over the global systemic transition in this respect. Granted, it still withholds formal recognition of the Taliban, but it can be taken for granted that Moscow will be one of the first to extend them such upon the group meeting the requirements that were made of them. With this in mind, the Russian-Taliban partnership is sensitive, but also very significant.

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