Several Reportedly Killed, Including Foreign Nationals, In Attack In Afghanistan – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

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Shortly after the Taliban seized power, Russia addressed the question of whether it was time to review the militant group’s status as a terrorist organization.

“It is very important to see what the Taliban’s first steps in governing Afghanistan will be like,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on August 30, 2021. “Conclusions can be formed after this.”

Two and a half years later — despite the Taliban’s failure to deliver on its promises to form an inclusive government, adhere to basic human rights norms, and prevent Afghan territory from becoming a safe haven for transnational extremist groups — a mutual enemy appears to be forcing a decision.

Since a deadly terrorist attack claimed by the Islamic State (IS) extremist group near Moscow on March 22, Russia has increasingly talked up its relationship with the Taliban, which is battling the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) offshoot in Afghanistan that is believed to have carried out the attack.

While the Taliban’s government is globally unrecognized, Peskov said last month that Moscow has to resolve “pressing issues” that demand increased dialogue with the militant group, whose leaders are “actually the ones in power in Afghanistan.”

Considering the importance Russia places on Afghanistan in maintaining regional security in the face of a rising IS-K threat, boosting engagement with the Taliban holds benefits for Moscow, observers say.

Alec Bertina of Militant Wire, a research outlet that tracks militant groups, says that Russia removing the Taliban from its terror blacklist could be the beginning of a “marriage of convenience.”

“As much as it’s kind of an amusing idea for Russia and the Taliban to get cozy, it’s in their security interest to do so right now,” Bertina said. “Given the mutual security threat, and that the Taliban can be used basically to take the hits and casualties that come with fighting IS, it’s sort of a no-brainer.”

When it emerged in Afghanistan a decade ago, IS-K staged attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Its targets included Western forces in Afghanistan as well as the Taliban, which opposed the former Afghan government and vied with IS-K for influence among the dozens of extremist groups active in the country.

Taliban fighters stand guard as workers clean up following a deadly IS-K attack on a children's hospital in Kabul in November 2021.


Taliban fighters stand guard as workers clean up following a deadly IS-K attack on a children’s hospital in Kabul in November 2021.

Since the Taliban took over, IS-K has maintained pressure on the Taliban, whose rule it rejects, and has worked to “make life as difficult as possible” for its de facto government, said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington.

Its attacks against the Taliban, religious minorities, and foreign targets in Afghanistan were designed to “undermine the Taliban’s legitimacy in order to convince the Afghan people that the Taliban is unable to provide peace and security in the country,” Kugelman told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.

IS-K has also openly challenged its rival in a sophisticated propaganda campaign, mocking the Taliban government’s desire to be recognized by the international community and accusing it of adhering to an “ignorant” brand of Islam.

The group has also increasingly expanded its reach further abroad, including with deadly attacks in Iran, Russia, and Central Asia, a major recruiting ground for IS-K fighters.

“Its main bases are still in Afghanistan, most of its attacks are in Afghanistan, but this is a regional affiliate of Islamic State that has increasingly global goals,” Kugelman said of IS-K.

As evidenced by the recent attack on a concert venue that killed more than 140 people and injured hundreds more — the deadliest terrorist attack on Russian soil in two decades — Moscow has reason to treat the IS-K with urgency and to forge greater cooperation with one of the group’s main adversaries.

“Russian outreach and concessions to the Taliban are likely meant, at least in part, to signal Moscow’s confidence in the Taliban’s ability to degrade the IS-K threat,” Kugelman told RFE/RL in written comments.

The Taliban was designated as a terrorist organization by Russia in 2003, two years after it was pushed from power by U.S.-led forces.

After returning to power, the Taliban initially dismissed the IS-K threat and has insisted that the group is not active on Afghan soil, even as it consistently developed its capabilities to confront the group and destroyed IS-K cells.

Alleged IS-K militants surrender in Nangarhar Province shortly after the Taliban seized power in 2021.


Alleged IS-K militants surrender in Nangarhar Province shortly after the Taliban seized power in 2021.

Most recently, in April, the Taliban reportedly ordered the creation of a special military unit to fight the IS-K.

But “whatever the Taliban has done against IS-K, it hasn’t stopped IS-K from being able to conduct external operations in other countries,” Bertina said, noting that it has proved incapable of preventing IS-K’s recruitment efforts.

That, Bertina said, has led Russia and other countries to discuss “whether it may be of interest to help [the Taliban] out a little bit in their fight.”

Moscow’s de-listing of the Taliban from its terror blacklist, Bertina said, could pave the way for Russia to potentially “start giving the Taliban resources to better fight IS-K.”

Bertina says he envisions a situation in which the Taliban would bear the brunt of the fighting on the ground in Afghanistan, with Russia providing intelligence. Russia would be unlikely to “be too vocal” about direct raids on IS-K in Afghanistan, “considering the uncomfortable history Russia has regarding counterterrorism operations when it comes to countries like Afghanistan.”

Kugelman also sees value in Russia cooperating with the Taliban on the counterterrorism front, citing the Taliban’s “willingness and capacity to carry out scorched-earth ground campaigns against IS-K.”

Russia, while bogged down in its war against Ukraine, could potentially offer the Taliban “arms, money, and even training and advising to help the Taliban do more damage against the IS-K,” Kugelman said.

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