Originally Published 2020-07-09 10:56:54 Published on Jul 09, 2020
Afghanistan: Perpetual playground for great-power contestation 
On 26 June 2020, The New York Times published a report stating that a unit of the Russian military intelligence had been secretly offering bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill US troops in Afghanistan. The NYT report cited three unnamed American officials that the US intelligence had intercepted financial data-flows from a bank account controlled by the Russian military spy unit to those linked to Taliban. According to media reports, the data-intercepts are said to have corroborated what interrogations of captured Afghan militants by US troops in Afghanistan had also produced. While the White House, the Russian government, as well as the Taliban have denied the report, multiple international media platforms in addition to the NYT have published similar reports. Even as one may question the veracity of the claims by US President Donald Trump that he was never briefed on reports about Russian bounties to Afghan militants against the US troops, the accusation on Russia of  arming belligerents in Afghanistan is not new. To that extent, the report also fuels fears about the Taliban not keeping up their end of the bargain, given that they could have very well been playing a double game by negotiating peace with the US while striking questionable deals with Russia.

Mutually exclusive

Major global powers like Russia and the US, despite having pledged their support, in principle, to an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” peace process, and in that sense, although seem to be pursuing a common end goal or outcome, are assessed by many to be advancing their respective strategic objectives in Afghanistan, which are often mutually exclusive. Moreover, while Russia and the US have usually been at odds with each other vis-à-vis Afghanistan and followed starkly different policies of engagement, neither has been able to significantly contribute to peace and stability in the country. Presently, even as the US is preparing to withdraw militarily, it is expected to continue to maintain considerable diplomatic presence and intelligence on the ground, and retain formal (G2G) and informal linkages cultivated over the last two decades. Russia on its part, having facilitated a number of multilateral diplomatic initiatives in 2018 and 2019, aimed at reconciliation in Afghanistan, often cites national and regional security concerns to justify active involvement in Afghan affairs. However, the aspiration of exercising greater diplomatic and strategic influence, in a bid to fill the power vacuum that will emerge upon US departure, is arguably an integral objective or component of the Russian approach to Afghanistan – an approach possibly intended to help them rebrand their image as a benevolent great power as opposed to the US, which they see as a reckless, invasive force.

Conflicting perceptions

Having said that, one may also argue that reports of Russian efforts to incentivise American deaths in Afghanistan are not consistent with the general perception of Russian motivations vis-à-vis Afghanistan. After all, American withdrawal from Afghanistan, especially after failing to contain the conflict let alone resolve it, is surely a strategic gain for Russia. Contrarily, many former US commanders who have served in Afghanistan claim that Russian actions have more often than not been aimed at sabotaging or undermining the US-led effort in the country. Time and again, the US has accused Russia of trying to destabilise the United States’ campaign against terror in Afghanistan, by providing material support to Taliban militants. Russia, on the other hand, has consistently maintained that its effort to cultivate ties with the Taliban is only to ensure the security of Russians living in Afghanistan, and to get the militant group to renounce armed conflict and partake in a negotiated settlement with the Afghan government. Against this background, how the US and Russia seek to achieve their respective strategic objectives in the absence of American troops on the ground, and the alliances they forge in the process, would likely shape the way internal power dynamics evolve in Afghanistan, and effectively, shape the political future of the country. Given the longstanding rivalry between the US and Russia, it seems unlikely that they will agree upon a modus vivendi in Afghanistan, coalesce around a common security agenda, and work towards achieving greater stability in the country. With the US preparing for a complete withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by mid-2021 as per the US–Taliban deal signed on 29 February 2020, Afghanistan will predictably witness a resurgence of increasingly visible manifestations of ‘great power’ rivalries.
This commentary originally appeared in South Asia Weekly
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Shubhangi Pandey

Shubhangi Pandey

Shubhangi Pandey was a Junior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation. Her research focuses on Afghanistan particularly exploring internal political dynamics ...

Read More +