– New Eastern Perspectives
REPRESENTATIVES from Afghanistan have been invited to this year’s St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. Their delegation will be represented by Jamal Nasir Garwa, Chargé d’Affaires (ad interim), from Kabul to Moscow. That said, Russia is showing that it does not cooperate with the Taliban, still banned by the United Nations and the Russian Federation, but with Afghanistan, with which economic relations can be beneficial under certain conditions. This is why it is not the Taliban – their movement is banned in the Russian Federation – who have been officially invited to SPIEF, but representatives of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Afghanistan. Although Afghanistan’s share in Russia’s foreign trade is insignificant – it is not even among the top 100 trading partners: in 2020 it ranked 106th out of 241 countries, according to data from the Federal Customs Service – Moscow has demonstrated to current Afghan businessmen that SPIEF is the ideal place to discuss business issues with not only Russian partners.
Russia has had economic interests in the country since Soviet times, despite the severe backwardness of the Afghan economy. Russia built three Kamaz car factories there in 1985, although the company no longer has production facilities there, a factory for the production of small vehicles, eg bicycles, mopeds, with production capacity more than 15,000 units per year. Since 2015, Russian companies have been operating in Afghanistan to build small hydropower plants; in 2017, the Russian engineering company Technopromexport won a tender for the renovation of the Naghlu hydroelectric power station near Kabul. A number of Russian airlines offered cargo services from Afghanistan. In order to develop the country’s industry, Soviet geologists mapped 1,500 mineral deposits. The TAPI gas pipeline – Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India – is a major project not only for Afghanistan, but for all of Central Asia, and Taliban leaders have already expressed their support for its continued construction. Although so far Russia’s role in this process has been limited to supplying pipelines for sections of the pipeline, in the future Russian gas companies will be able to export natural gas to India using the pipelines of the Soviet era that connect Russia and Turkmenistan.
The economy not only of Afghanistan, but of all surrounding countries, is now heavily dependent on the geopolitical situation in Central Asia. In Afghanistan, a real investment market can only open up when the investing countries have confidence in the security situation of the country and the region and, consequently, in the security of investments in Afghanistan. By then, the country risks will be so great that no one will really be able to invest in the Afghan economy.
Today there are a number of serious questions, not only for Afghanistan, but also for its neighboring countries – Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, India, Asian states and Turkey – regarding the outlook for the situation in Afghanistan and the need to eradicate major threats to regional security: in particular international terrorism, drug trafficking, organized crime, support for extremist and separatist movements from of Afghan territory and the encouragement of radical Islamists in neighboring countries after the Taliban came to power. There is also an objective need to coordinate the positions of the aforementioned countries in order to avoid clashes, especially in the case of support for specific ethnic and political groups at war in Afghanistan. And in this regard, cooperation not only between the post-Soviet states of Central Asia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, but also Afghanistan, can be of significant help.
With the Taliban demonstrating their willingness to create an enabling environment for foreign aid and investment, the Afghan economy could become a very promising destination for Pakistan, India, China, Turkey and Russia. For Russia, for example, there may be opportunities to expand bilateral trade, including the export of new commodities from Afghanistan, for example saffron, known as red gold, l most expensive spice grown in this country.
During Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to China in April this year, he attended a ministerial meeting of Afghanistan’s neighbors. These are Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. During the meeting, the Russian minister said that the security situation in Afghanistan was improving, but was not yet stable. Meanwhile, the Taliban, as the leading force, is gradually getting used to governing.
At the level of the Russian and Afghan Foreign Ministries, we can already say that relations are established: the first Afghan diplomat sent by the new authorities to Moscow has been accredited to Russia, which could be the start of the process of official recognition by Russia the new authorities in Kabul. Contacts with Russia are very important for the Taliban, and these interests are mutual.
At a meeting in Kabul in April with the Russian Ministry of Civil Defence, Emergencies and Elimination of the Consequences of Natural Disasters, Afghan First Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar spoke out in favor of the development of Afghanistan’s relations with Russia and accused the United States of violating the peace accord, saying Washington continued to pursue a hostile policy toward the country. As Baradar pointed out, the Americans first destroyed Soviet-era infrastructure and then fled while managing to permanently destroy whatever they could in the process. The economy is now at rock bottom with Central Bank accounts frozen.
Establishing good neighborly relations with Afghanistan also benefits Russia, at least because the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have long sought to undermine these bilateral security interests since the Afghan territory. For example, ISIS – a terrorist group banned in the Russian Federation – thrived under the wing of the old Afghan proxy regime set up by the West. When the Taliban came to power in Kabul, this terrorist underworld began to “shrink”.
It is clear that the Taliban, who display their negotiating skills and their willingness to respect international standards at least externally, are doing everything possible to break out of their international isolation. For example, in early April, the Taliban, through a statement by their spokesman Bilal Karimi, strictly banned poppy cultivation throughout Afghanistan in order to demonstrate their compliance with the expectations of international public opinion. At the same time, the Taliban continue to break a number of earlier promises to bring domestic life closer to international standards.
Moscow is well aware that the Taliban’s desire to orient their policy towards the development of relations with Moscow also has an obvious hidden agenda. Kabul wants Washington to recognize and fund the Taliban regime, believing that Russia and China will never give as much money as the United States could. This is why the Taliban, no doubt feeling the need to make money from Russia, are now more interested in the United States and China than in the Russian Federation. Russia, on the other hand, is more of a “fallback option” for the Taliban, with which they try to intrigue and make the United States jealous, for example when negotiating with Washington, in the hope of obtaining more concessions and benefits from the Americans.
New Eastern Outlook, June 14. Valery Kulikov is a political expert.