What Russian Moves in Afghanistan Are About

Hardly a week seems to pass without some new crisis in Russian-American relations. The most recent was the revelation that U.S. President Donald Trump had ignored intelligence about bounties supposedly paid by Russian operatives to the Taliban in exchange for killing American soldiers. The veracity of this particular intelligence is questionable, in my view, but there is plausible evidence that Russia has been providing arms to the Taliban as Moscow seeks to play a more active role in Afghanistan. What to make of this? Some commentators in the U.S., including intelligence analysts and military commanders, see Russia’s policy as primarily aimed at pushing the U.S. out of what Moscow considers its neighborhood. Commenting on the most recent allegations, U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff suggested that Russia should be “pushed out of the community of nations.” For Schiff, Russia’s Afghanistan policy is further evidence of a consistent anti-American agenda. This kind of zero-sum thinking says more about the American foreign policy consensus regarding Russia than it does about Russia’s view of the region or of relations with Washington. Russia’s engagement with the Taliban is not, primarily, about punishing the U.S. or getting revenge for Washington’s support to the mujahedeen fighting Soviet troops in the 1980s. Rather, Moscow is pursuing a pragmatic policy aimed at securing stability and security in Central Asia.

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