In a recent interview on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, former French president, François Hollande established a direct link between NATO’s, and particularly the United States’, withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“If Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine, it was not due to a provocation from the Atlantic alliance […]. He understood that the global situation enabled him to go even further than he had anticipated. […] When the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, it showed signs of weakness, and Vladimir Putin interpreted it as a success for himself. Each of our withdrawals has been a new opportunity for his influence to grow. According to this dynamic, Vladimir Putin understood he could go very far if he wished so.”
While Hollande’s view is far from universal, it raises questions of international justice, history and diplomacy that bear unpacking.
Historically speaking, relations between Moscow and the Taliban have tended to skew negative. The Taliban emerged from the fight against the Communist regime, according to a 2014 article published in Diplomatie by Marjane Kamal. After a Coup d’Etat, the Communist Party took power in Afghanistan and carried out extensive reforms of the agrarian sector, which led to a dramatic increase in social unrest. It is estimated that almost 100,000 opponents were killed within the first six months of the Afghan Communist regime. Owing to this political and military instability, as well as for the defense of their interests, the Soviet Union decided to intervene militarily in Afghanistan in 1979. Amid the Cold War, Mujahideen, supported by the United States, were the resistance leaders against the Communist government; however, they were facing many internal conflicts based on ethnicity, communitarianism, and tribalism. In 1992, the Moscow-supported regime collapsed, and the Mujahideen seized control of Kabul. However, internal rivalries exploded, perpetuating the civil conflict. The Taliban movement — financed by the United States through Pakistan for political and energetic reasons, according to a 2001 Libération article by François Lafargue — rapidly took power over the south of Afghanistan, then over the capital Kabul in 1996. The origins of the Taliban thus lie in the Cold War, though ironically, its former supporters and former adversaries appear to have swapped roles in more recent years.
In 2014, Professor Mark N. Katz from George Mason University in Virginia argued that Russia had no interest in the International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) withdrawal from Afghanistan. ISAF was a multinational military mission whose allegiance was pledged to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Among the organization’s chief aims was to fight the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. According to Professor Katz, Russia feared such a withdrawal because it anticipated a strong comeback from the Taliban terrorist group. The main concerns of Russia were not linked to this organization per se, but with their possible support of jihadist groups, which would be hostile to Russian interests and seek broader influence across the Central Asian region.
However, the Taliban and other jihadist groups have different ends and ambitions. While they both share extremist religious views, jihadist groups are expansionists by nature and want to conquer new territories – contrary to the Taliban, which is a priori only interested in Afghanistan. The two terrorist organizations are, in reality, even combatting each other, as the terrible attack by an ISIS member on Kabul’s airport on 26 April 2021, during the evacuations, demonstrated. Consequently, contrary to what Professor Katz anticipated, and as Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan stated, the Taliban’s interests in fighting jihadist groups objectively coincide with Russia’s.
More than a simple convergence of interests, it has been demonstrated that Russia was supplying the Taliban with small arms and officially supporting the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. Over the years, its interactions with the Taliban officials through international meetings have also aimed to show the terrorist group is ‘serious,” ‘able to govern’ and ‘able to stabilize the country.” As of today, it is still one of the priorities of the Taliban government to persuade the international community of its evolution for the better and its so-called newfound interest in democracy, human rights, and civil liberties. In this quest for global rehabilitation through (not-so-convincing) propaganda, they have found a powerful ally: Russia. The Russian Federation was the only country to abstain on the United Nations Security Council vote of Resolution 2626 concerning the extension of the UN’s mandate for its special mission in Afghanistan, focusing on the coordination of humanitarian assistance and the delivery of basic human needs.
As Afghanistan endures a food crisis of “unparalleled proportions” with almost 23 million Afghan citizens suffering from acute hunger and while the Taliban are preventing young girls from accessing basic education, the Russian administration has just announced the accreditation of Taliban diplomats and declared “[stepping] towards the resumption of full-fledged diplomatic contacts.” In this light, ties between Russia and the Taliban seem to be strong and growing stronger every day. Thus, it is possible that the Russian administration interpreted the ascent to power from the Taliban as a victory over the weakness of NATO forces — all the more since it is securing a new, influential ally that sits on mineral deposits possibly worth trillions of dollars — a detail that likely hasn’t fallen on deaf ears in Moscow.
In considering ways in which the Afghanistan withdrawal may have fueled the Russian drive to invade Ukraine, one cannot overlook the propensity of Western forces to underestimate their rivals. As a matter of illustration, first, the Atlantic alliance, during its intervention in Afghanistan, did not consider the problem of narcotics as a priority, for instance, while it was not only one of the main sources of financing for the Taliban but also a way to control poor and rural populations in the country. In an article for International Politics published in 2020 — i.e., prior to the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan — scholars Alexander Tabachnik and Benjamin Miller argued that the United States’ military strategy regarding Russia has tended to underestimate the power Moscow possesses. Particularly, they discussed how possible American retrenchments in the Middle East and elsewhere could create a power vacuum that Russia could seize on, strengthening the threat perception among Eastern European countries in the face of potential Russian aggression. One could argue that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the months following the US departure from Afghanistan illustrates this risk.
If not enough information is currently available to definitively confirm a causal relationship between NATO’s, and particularly the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and the invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin, it can easily be argued that the Western debacle has galvanized the Russian leader and reinforced his confidence in his ability to intervene in Ukraine without fear of Western forces. With concerns about its sphere of influence in the Central Asian region put at ease thanks to its new allies, Russia can now focus on its expansionist aspirations in Eastern Europe. But of course, these events are not unfolding in a vacuum, and Moscow would do well to consider whether the situation can remain stable and favorable to its foreign policy goals in the ‘Graveyard of Empires’?
The authors are recent LL.M. graduates of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.