August 19, 2021
The Jamestown Foundation
The sudden collapse of the Afghan National Army and security forces, the fall of Kabul without a fight, President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country, and the victorious Taliban taking everything are currently a source of mass revelry for the state-controlled Russian media. The propaganda machine describes the hasty and disorganized withdrawal of the United States and allied forces from Afghanistan, along with the collapse of their Afghan allies, as a turning point, signaling the decline of US regional and global power and credibility. Russian outlets accuse US President Joseph Biden of double dealing and incompetence (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, August 17). Ukraine and other former Soviet republics seeking alliances with the West are told to take notice. The underlying message in all this coverage and commentary is that the US may abandon them and flee when Russian (or pro-Russian) forces sweep in to cleanse the collaborators out of Kyiv and other “historically Russian” cities (Vzglyad, August 16).
This bout of gloating could be written off as another opportunistic Kremlin propaganda campaign, exploiting PR ammunition provided by the mainstream media in the US and Europe. But actually, the top Russian officialdom is publicly backing up the present anti-American onslaught and, in some cases, exceeding it in outspokenness.
The speaker of the State Duma (lower chamber of the Russian parliament), Vyacheslav Volodin, has written that the entire US foreign policy is collapsing. Volodin accuses Washington of facilitating an increase of opiate production in Afghanistan “hundreds of times” while impoverishing the Afghan people. The US and its Western allies have been spending staggering amounts of money to “promote democracy,” but the results have been of little value (T.me/vv_volodin, August 17).
Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, President Vladimir Putin’s right-hand man and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s counterpart in US-Russian consultations, has accused the US military of misappropriating billions of taxpayers’ dollars designated to arm and train the Afghan security forces that melted away as the Taliban swept in. According to Patrushev, the Americans were involved in Afghan opioid production and trade, while the US military-industrial complex profiteered on procurement connected with the war. Patrushev sees a lot of similarities between the Afghan debacle and the situation in Ukraine, where Washington has been “nominating rulers of its own liking, providing Ukrainians with defunct weapons it does not need, while the [Ukrainian]
nation is on the verge of collapse and disintegration, overtaken by narcotics and extremism.” According to the Russian Security Council chief, the rulers in Kyiv are US lackeys, and their plight will be the same as that of the US lackeys in Kabul: the Americans will ditch them and run (Izvestia, August 19).
Moscow’s point man on Afghanistan, special Kremlin envoy Zamir Kabulov, has for many years been promoting the Taliban as the inevitable winner of the Afghan civil war (see EDM, July 15). Ambassador Kabulov has been insisting Russia must promote ties with the Taliban and ditch the losers: the US forces in Afghanistan and the Ghani government. After the fall of Kabul, Moscow is not evacuating its nationals and is keeping its ambassador and embassy in place. Reportedly, over the past few years, Kabulov developed warm personal ties with the chef of the Taliban political office in Qatar, the group’s main international negotiator and, apparently, number two in the movement, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. The Taliban has promised Moscow there will be no spillover of Islamist radicalism or terrorism into the Central Asian “stans” after the reestablishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Kabulov seems to believe his partner Baradar: “I have long figured our Taliban partners [Baradar] are much more trustworthy than the US puppet [sic] government in Kabul (Gazeta.ru, August 16).
The Russian ambassador to Afghanistan, Dmitry Zhirnov, told Russian state TV that Taliban fighters are guarding the outside perimeter of his embassy and have introduced good law and order to Kabul. Zhirnov accused Ghani of fleeing Kabul with a planeload of cash, an accusation Ghani has rejected. According to Zhirnov, as the Taliban was entering Kabul on August 15, his embassy staff observed Afghan government police officers taking out of the building of the local interior ministry crates of beer: “Stealing their most essential asset” (Vzglyad, August 18; Militarynews.ru, August 19).
Russian diplomats are openly rooting for the Taliban. But if Baradar’s (and Kabulov’s) assurances of a peaceful and friendly Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan fail to pan out, Moscow is ready to defend the former Soviet border using its 201st Motorized Rifle Division based in Tajikistan, supplemented by local forces, to stop any hostile invasions (see EDM, July 28). But will these forces be adequate to block a jihadist infiltration and subversion of the Central Asian republics? After all, each of those countries features secular, corrupt authoritarian regimes that rule over impoverished and frequently suppressed Muslim-majority masses.
Kabulov’s opinions are not the only ones making the rounds in Moscow. Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, who controls a sizable private army of Kadyrovtsy and likes to profess both his personal loyalty to Putin and his Islamic Sufi (anti-Salafi) credentials, has called on Russia and its allies “to prepare for the worst.” According to Kadyrov, the Taliban as well as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda were created by the US to use against Russia, so “the border with Afghanistan must be reinforced” (TASS, August 16).
Alexei Arbatov, a well-respected think tanker, politician and security expert in Moscow, has practically nothing in common with Kadyrov; but both seem to concur on what must be done in response to the fall of Kabul. Arbatov believes the 201st base and local forces are not sufficient to keep the border safe. Russia’s military presence in the region must be vastly increased, including the redeployment of Russian border guards in Tajikistan, he said in a recent interview (Militarynews.ru, August 16). Yet Moscow entertains other grand plans that could be hampered by a serious security emergency in Central Asia. In particular, Russia has been concentrating forces since spring 2021 on the border of Ukraine, including substantial contingents from the Central Military District, from Siberia and the Volga region—forces that are normally earmarked primarily for Central Asia if something goes wrong there. The gloating euphoria that engulfed Moscow after the fall of Kabul could still blow up in Russia’s face.