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Putin’s Dance with the Taliban

NEW DELHI – Russia may be in decline economically and demographically, but, in strategic terms, it is a resurgent power, pursuing a major military rearmament program that will enable it to continue expanding its global influence. One of the Kremlin’s latest geostrategic targets is Afghanistan, where the United States remains embroiled in the longest war in its history.

Almost three decades after the end of the Soviet Union’s own war in Afghanistan – a war that enfeebled the Soviet economy and undermined the communist state – Russia has moved to establish itself as a central actor in Afghan affairs. And the Kremlin has surprised many by embracing the Afghan Taliban. Russia had long viewed the thuggish force created by Pakistan’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency as a major terrorist threat. In 2009-2015, Russia served as a critical supply route for US-led forces fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan; it even contributed military helicopters to the effort.

Russia’s reversal on the Afghan Taliban reflects a larger strategy linked to its clash with the US and its European allies – a clash that has intensified considerably since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea spurred the US and Europe to impose heavy economic sanctions. In fact, in a sense, Russia is exchanging roles with the US in Afghanistan.

In the 1980s, US President Ronald Reagan used Islam as an ideological tool to spur armed resistance to the Soviet occupation. Reasoning that the enemy of their enemy was their friend, the CIA trained and armed thousands of Afghan mujahedeen – the jihadist force from which al-Qaeda and later the Taliban evolved.