Russia’s primary concern in Afghanistan is maintaining security in the Afghan–Central Asian region. Moscow seeks to prevent instability in Central Asian countries, some of which—Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan—are its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance of post-Soviet states. In addition, Russia has a vested interest in stemming the flow of drugs coming from Afghanistan. But while a peaceful, stable, and developing Afghanistan would be in Russia’s interest, Moscow does not have vital stakes in any of the possible Afghan regimes. Thus, it would be dangerous and pointless for Russia to get involved in Afghanistan’s internal power struggle. Moscow can work with any potential leaders in Kabul and maintain ties with any regional or ethnic groups as long as they do not engage in activities directed against the Russian Federation. At the moment, Moscow has no significant economic interests in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, if the situation there stabilizes, the Russian Federation might take part in rebuilding the Afghan economy within the framework of international assistance efforts. But the prospects for and potential extent of this sort of aid remain unclear at this time, and it would be inexpedient for Russia to finance the rebuilding effort in Afghanistan on its own. Afghanistan does not currently pose a direct military threat to Russia. An unstable Afghanistan does, however, pose indirect risks to Russia’s security, primarily in the form of the drug traffic that originates on Afghan territory and reaches the Russian market through Central Asian countries. In the last decade, this threat has grown enormously. There is also the threat that Afghan territory may turn into a training ground for terrorists and militants that target Russia, which is another serious risk. Furthermore, the situation in Afghanistan may affect Russia’s security indirectly by way of Moscow’s allies in Central Asia. These nations fear the possible consequences of destabilization in Afghanistan, which may include an influx of refugees or an upsurge in Islamic extremism, drug trafficking, and transborder crime, and they may well turn to Moscow for help. The power struggle between the Pashtuns—Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, which nevertheless does not constitute the majority of the Afghan population—and other ethnic groups, particularly Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras, may draw Tajikistan, Russia’s nominal ally, and Uzbekistan into internal Afghan conflicts. In this context, Dushanbe and Tashkent would very likely try to influence Moscow’s Afghan policies, hoping to make the Russian Federation serve Tajik and Uzbek interests.


Pakistan is the most active and interested player on the Afghan stage. Pashtun tribes that live along both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border act as the major link connecting the two countries, and the border that divides these tribes is a source of serious conflict between Islamabad and Kabul. Pakistan traditionally treats Afghanistan as being within its sphere of influence and regards the situation in that country as both a matter of Pakistani national security and an opportunity to gain strategic advantages over India, Islamabad’s main rival. As such, Pakistan has been actively and consistently involved in Afghanistan’s internal affairs since the second half of the 1970s. This involvement will increase after the international coalition troops depart. When it comes to other key players in Afghanistan, Pakistan has very uneven relations with the United States, close ties with China, and an alliance with Saudi Arabia. In Central Asia, Islamabad has held some sway over Dushanbe and Tashkent since the 1990s. Pakistan cannot become Russia’s ally, but Russia should not necessarily treat Pakistan as a rival, let alone an adversary, in Afghanistan. Pragmatic cooperation with Islamabad on the issues of terrorism and drug trafficking may prove helpful to Moscow.


For its part, China looks at Afghanistan through an economic lens as well as in terms of Beijing’s security interests and its broader geopolitical concerns in Central and South Asia. Chinese state-run companies actively invest in tapping Afghanistan’s (and Central Asia’s) natural resources. Pakistan is China’s long-standing and close partner, and India is its historical rival. From Beijing’s standpoint and in light of its special relations with Islamabad, the Taliban is a political movement that can and must be negotiated with—despite its possible ties with Uyghur Islamist separatists in China and the region. As a result, while maintaining economic interests in Afghanistan, China distances itself from active political involvement in the country’s affairs, demonstrating its willingness to cooperate with any regime in Kabul. For Russia, China is an important global and regional partner. This is true in a number of areas, including on issues related to Afghanistan. To maximize its consultations and cooperation with India and China, Russia should improve bilateral ties with these countries. At the same time, Moscow should use multilateral platforms to reach out to New Delhi and Beijing. These platforms—such as the SCO; a quadrilateral grouping of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, and Tajikistan referred to as “the Four”; and RIC (Russia-India-China)—could serve as forums for exchanging ideas and preparing for negotiation


For Iran, Afghanistan is a linguistically, culturally, and religiously close country. Tehran is interested in having a stable, independent neighbor whose balance of political powers roughly reflects Afghanistan’s ethnic and religious makeup. Iran is advancing its interests in Afghanistan primarily through trade and investments. It relies on the help of residents of the Afghan province of Herat, who have traditionally had ties with Iran, as well as ethnic Tajiks and Hazaras. Tehran also has a strong interest in stopping Afghan drug trafficking because many smuggling routes pass through Iran. Tehran has complex ties to other major players in Afghanistan. It welcomes the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and is developing a partnership with India. It has complicated relations with Pakistan, which, like Iran, aspires to a leadership role in the region and is attempting to be a predominant influence in Afghanistan. And Tehran’s relations with Saudi Arabia are hostile. Iran and Russia, however, have common interests on a number of important issues, ranging from stabilizing Afghanistan to combatting drug trafficking. Both countries also exert influence on Dushanbe and the Afghan Tajiks, which they demonstrated in 1997 by joining forces to help end the civil war in Tajikistan. Moscow and Tehran can use this influence to play a significant role in the post -American Afghanistan, provided they coordinate their actions.


India’s presence in Afghanistan is not merely part of a regional geopolitical strategy vis-à-vis its rivals, Pakistan and China. It is also an important example of New Delhi’s attempts to assert itself as a great Asian power. If the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerges victorious in India’s general elections this year—an outcome many see as probable—the BJP will likely strengthen India’s resolve to play a greater international role. New Delhi and Moscow are strategic partners, and India helps maintain a continental global balance of power that Russia considers favorable. Cooperation with India—including on matters related to Afghanistan, such as increasing regional stabilization, combatting terrorism, and curbing the drug trade—is therefore valuable to Russia. For India, given its traditional rivalries with Pakistan and China as well as the decreasing American activity and presence in Afghanistan, Russia, together with Iran, is one of few serious partners. At the same time, some of New Delhi’s specific interests and aspirations in Afghanistan diverge from Moscow’s interests, largely because of India’s competition with Pakistan and China.


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