Exclusive: Russia Lays Out Path to Stabilize Afghanistan, Avoid Another 9/11

In an exclusive interview with Newsweek conducted at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs headquarters in Moscow, Russian special representative for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov, a seasoned diplomat with decades of experience across the region, gave an in-depth view of how he and his nation sought to work with regional partners to reduce the suffering of Afghans by prioritizing humanitarian aid, while at the same time empowering the more moderate elements of the ruling Taliban to take on transnational militants and establish a "normal" country after decades of war.

Q: In the broader terms of Russia's approach to Afghanistan, what are its best hopes for the country right now and its greatest concerns as it relates to the current situation?

Our best hope and our endeavor is for Afghanistan to become a normal state living in peace with itself and the neighborhood, and the larger prospect, this is one, the major concerns are international terrorism and drugs coming out of Afghanistan. In a nutshell, I can limit my answer to these two issues. Of course, I can elaborate for hours, but I don't think we have a chance for it.

Q: Now let's talk about the Taliban specifically. How would you evaluate their performance so far? This is a group that is classified as a terrorist organization in Russia. At the same time you've spoken highly at times of some of their actions and their behaviors, and Moscow has even hosted them. So do you think they are acting as a responsible governing power?

First of all, they were named such as a result of the Security Council resolution, which Russia supported more than 20 years ago, after 9/11 in your country. So it belongs to the past, and there was an evolution process in the Taliban.

First of all, we have taken note the Taliban gave up that global jihadist agenda and focused on domestic issues and, in that sense, they have become a military political opposition in the country fighting for power, to put it simply, in the civil war in Afghanistan. And they have demonstrated that, being a lesser number, if you put together all of those supported by your government forces, including your own NATO forces, they had the upper hand for several reasons. First of all, they had the morale. They had to believe that they were fighting for their independence against foreign occupation. In that sense, they deserved this victory, because they sacrificed a lot of their own and others' lives in this fighting. It happens in any war.

So we very thoroughly monitor whatever the Taliban not only say, but what they've been doing, and we understood that they are trying to implement their own vision of governance, statehood, which is of course different from mine, and perhaps yours. But they are a different nation with their own different traditions and religious beliefs. That's why we respect them. It doesn't mean we accept everything they're doing, but we respect it. And after all, they are an Afghan force, although they're called Taliban, but we know the majority of them are Pashtun Afghans. Others belong to different ethnic groups, and they are trying to have the country of their vision, to put it simply.

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Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov (L) shakes hands with a member of the Taliban delegation Mawlawi Shahabuddin Dilawar prior to an international conference on Afghanistan in Moscow on October 20, 2021. Photo by ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Q: One of the questions out there is this idea of international recognition. It seems that countries in the region including Russia, China, Pakistan, perhaps Iran as well, have said that they want to come to a consensus before offering recognition to this newly established Islamic Emirate. Is this Russia's position?

No, Russia's position is the following: We expect the new rulers of Afghanistan to meet those basic, I underline this, basic human rights and international relations rules, which are not exactly what we have in our own countries, but we want them to be ethno-politically inclusive in governance. We want them to let their own citizens who are different, be they men and women or girls, to have due access to education, work and freedom.

I've not only monitored, I witnessed, being in Kabul as a part of a U.N. team at that time, the Taliban came to power the first time. It is a tremendous difference with what I can see now in Kabul. And not necessarily in Kabul, I can monitor from here, I can see all TV stations operational, all the radio stations funded by the United States, Europe and other donors, and I found them operational. They broadcast, yes, and they present both views, both Taliban government official views as well as those who are in disagreement with this government, which is by itself.

Second, if, for instance, there were a couple of cases of protests, demonstrations in Kabul and some other cities, which are not great in number, keeping in mind the actual population of Afghanistan, but still, of course, it's a reaction of the city population, which of course, got used to the last 20 years to a more liberal or Westernized way of life, and they dislike [the new way of life under the Taliban]. It's their right, but we should not take it for granted as if they represent the minds of all Afghans.

Believe me, I visited Kabul and I saw it myself. The majority of people in Afghanistan, they don't very much care about politics and whether it is the Taliban ruling or [former Afghan President] Ashraf Ghani. What they say is, 'We had the corrupted pro-Western Ashraf Ghani administration which stole our money, and it's better to have this Taliban in the sense of rulers if they provide justice, social prosperity in Afghanistan, a sense of prosperity,' at least that is quite humble in comparison to everybody, and we expect them to do it.'

A lot of criminal acts were [done] under the previous administration, and the Taliban are fighting against criminals, even those who disguised themselves as Taliban or pro-Taliban, or the most oppressed people, or even a robber. So the Taliban are hanging, killing them when apprehended.

But again, the socioeconomic situation is really grave and poor. And the United States and other Westerners who stayed in Afghanistan for 20 years, they take the lion's share of responsibility for that because, of course, I can understand sentiments after being defeated, leaving Afghanistan and just as revenge to block, freeze, etc.

And others say, 'Yes, you take care of the Afghan people,' but at the same time, you don't disburse money for the same girls' school teachers to do work in these girls schools. By the way, of course, the Taliban is slow in meeting these demands, but again, just one month ago, there was no province with open girls schools, now we have 10, of course out of 34, again, very small, but in progress, it's not rigorous. That's my point, and that goes into different aspects.

Second, fighting against such a dangerous international terrorist group like ISIS, Daesh, as they call it, the Taliban are actually doing this much better than your and previous administration forces, so they have a lot of sacrifice, sacrificing in their fight against Daesh, and they are quite consistent on that. And in that sense, they are serving both regional and international interests, because those terrorist organizations are against all of us, and the Taliban are doing their best. That's why it's illogical for the international community to do something which will weaken the counterterrorism capacity of the Taliban administration, [therefore] willingly or unwillingly supporting those international terrorists the Taliban are fighting.

Drugs, yes, they swear and claim that they will — they did it once in their history — that they will do their best to eliminate this menace. But under these circumstances as an administration, they have a deficit of funds to run the country, to provide social services. I am very much afraid of this approach of the international community that, 'No, you first do it, and then we will disburse money for support.' It can make the Taliban turn their face to drugs in order to compensate for the budgetary deficit. So, let me stop here, because it's a long story.

Q: One of the things that you'd mentioned, of course, was the position of the United States. I know that you just met with your U.S. counterpart, Thomas West, and I'd like to ask you how those discussions went, and whether you think the U.S. is taking a helpful approach right now.

First of all, our consultations were quite constructive and positive. We do not agree on everything when it comes to both past and current affairs, but one thing I found that my American colleagues are trying to find was, first of all, to solve those problems they are responsible for: the frozen money, the World Bank, switching off of SWIFT for Afghanistan and recently, the social situation in the country.

So we discussed all possible mutual cooperation within the Troika Plus format, in order to address these issues together, while collectively encouraging the Taliban to move faster on what the Taliban call 'delicately reforming.'

We have taken note that they have announced that their administration is a caretaker one, indicating that it's not accomplished yet, although they continue to insist that their setup is quite inclusive. We don't share [this view], and we openly told them, 'no.' What we are talking about is not just their ethnic inclusivity, it's ethno-political inclusivity. We would like that the Taliban let those who don't share their political and ideological view, just by being an Afghan and loving their country, being patriotic, also have a right to participate in social and political life of Afghanistan, which is, of course, hard.

The Taliban, they believe, for the reason I said, they spent 20 years fighting against the U.S. and the previous regime, and they believe that it's their right to reap the results and outcome of that. But at the same time, we help them, and life helps them even more to understand that government is much more difficult than fighting. So responsibility grows on the part of the Taliban administration, which is promising, and we're trying to cultivate this responsible approach of states. We shall see if we're together. I mean Troika Plus is very important. I've met at least three P5 members, and now in Islamabad as well we discussed this issue while meeting the Taliban Acting Foreign Minister Mr. [Amir Khan] Muttaqi on that, and we want to continue.

And the prime, top priority now is the grave, humanitarian situation on the eve of the coming winter. If these issues are not addressed urgently, scores, I don't want to even say, but at least a million Afghans are under the threat of starvation and death. It's a responsibility of all the international community, and particularly those whose politics for the last 20 years brought us to this situation. It's okay, we're not here to take revenge or just to criticize. No. Now, let's leave it up to historians. Now, we shall approach together responsibly and find a way how we can efficiently help Afghan people, not Taliban Afghan people, at stake.

It is an emergency priority, but even now, we should start thinking about probing international participation in the post-conflict social-economic rehabilitation of Afghanistan. That was one topic agreed upon during the Moscow format meeting here, earlier than the Islamabad troika meeting, and now we expect the world's reaction. We are in touch with other European partners.

I met with French, German, and EU colleagues. We discussed this issue because there is a difference in approach. We may have many political differences in approach, but we should think first about outcomes, the destiny and fate of Afghans who suffer. They cannot wait for us to sort out our political approach. It will be inhuman, it will be irresponsible, and all the blame will go to us.

Q: Given the fact that early on I know there were discussions being had about the U.S. perhaps putting bases in Central Asia, exploring how to further U.S. interests after withdrawal, are there still suspicions from Moscow about how the U.S. sees its interests in Afghanistan, and how those interests could affect Russia, China, Iran and surrounding countries?

Yeah, first of all, these are not suspicions. We know that the U.S. failed to have this military base. And it would have been a very big problem if it happened, first of all, for those counties who are hosting such bases, because they will be targeted in that sense, not only by the Taliban, but all these international terror groups that are operational and the Taliban are fighting as well. That's why it's not constructive. In that sense, yes, we, China, Pakistan and others, we are ready, we are open for cooperation, and we rely and we hope that the United States will constructively cooperate with us.

There was one thing we anticipated a long time ago, that there was a desire to leave all this burden of Afghanistan on the shoulders of the so-called region, including the Russian Federation. And this did not happen recently, it happened a long time ago. I very well remember when your State Secretary Hillary Clinton launched the idea, which ended up as the Istanbul conference.

It meant that at that time during the President Obama administration, your leaders understood that they were losing the war in Afghanistan, and they tried to invent something to transact all its problems to anybody else. We read it very carefully, but now, it will be unfair and totally unacceptable for us. No, we're not saying that only America and all NATO and others should correct [this]. No, we are ready to cooperate, but it should be the fair cooperation of everybody. In that case, we can stabilize Afghanistan, we can make it a safe country for everybody around it and itself.

Q: Speaking of stability, Russia does have allies in Central Asia. These are countries with whom, under the CSTO and various formats, Russia has close ties, including defense ties. And these countries are also expressed their concerns not only about the Taliban government, but about these recent attacks from ISIS, and about other separatist groups that have also amplified their messaging recently. What is Russia's commitment to the countries around the region as well, especially the allies in Central Asia? And at what threshold does Russia take any sort of military measures to support Russia's national security and the security of its allies that it's committed to?

On the Afghanistan issue, it's not only Central Asia always on board with us. We have seen excellent cooperation and understanding with both Pakistan and Iran, which are two very key states in respect to Afghanistan, and China, of course. The main thing that Russia says always when it comes to Central Asia is that we are ready to deliver our commitments for the CSTO to defend their national security if it is in danger.

When it comes to these ISIS attacks inside Afghanistan, for the moment inside Afghanistan, that just proves that Russia a long time ago was right when we pinpointed this terrorist group as the most dangerous, because they promoted ideas of global jihad and a caliphate engulfing all Central Asia and beyond. And that was what we foresaw a long time ago and, at that time, by the way, by Americans it was seen that Russia was trying to intimidate Central Asians in order to have that loss of military and other cooperation.

Now the United States has admitted that and acknowledged, yes, it's a real problem not only for the region, but for the United States as well. So Russia's message is very clear, and they know that we are not afraid, and I think together we will stand against any possible threat coming out of Afghanistan.

Q: And has there been any sort of plans to support the Taliban itself in its own fight against terrorism in the country? Now you said that currently they are proving to do so successfully in some ways, but there are still regular attacks. Can Russia be of any assistance, and would that assistance be welcomed even?

First of all, Russian assistance will be a humanitarian one, and just tomorrow you will see reports about Russian transport aircraft bringing relief aid to Afghanistan, Afghan people. This relief operation will start tomorrow, the 17th. That is important to the Afghan people, and that will ease the mounting pressure on the Taliban administration in respect to their own citizens and population.

And if you hint about military, no, because the United States left so much military hardware, I don't think the Taliban need it. I'm afraid they might even be in a position to export some of them, God forbid, of course. And the Taliban never asked for it, first of all. You have a lot of weapons and you have a lot of soldiers in Afghanistan, because every second Afghan is a ready-made soldier after at least 20 years of civil war. So that's it. That's my answer to your question.

Q: Now I want to move to some of those other countries in the region you said that Russia has had good relations with, and you mentioned China, Pakistan, Iran. With the U.S. having withdrawn from Afghanistan, do you see a growing consensus within the region itself to take matters in its own hands, and not to rely on, let's say, outside powers, and can this consensus, if it is forming, overcome existing differences?

Some of our Central Asian partners were concerned over the U.S. withdrawal and, of course, were disappointed, because they relied mentally too much on your presence, ignoring the fact that 20 years' presence brought this devastation in Afghanistan. So it was illogical. But now they are not against an American political role in this region. They don't like military political roles.

When it comes to political, America can do a lot, not only cooperating on Afghanistan but bilaterally with them. So let any given country in Central Asia decide its bilateral issues with your country, but now, everybody has learned their lessons, and they understand who is reliable and consistent.

Q: And China, Pakistan, Iran?

China, Pakistan, Iran as well. They have all their own nuances and approach, well known, nothing hidden here, but generally they are all naturally interested in stability in Afghanistan, in view of their own interests and security.

Q: There have been many conferences, you mentioned Islamabad, you mentioned Moscow before. Do you think this is an opportunity for, let's say, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, China, to improve their ability to shoulder together because there is some common ground here?

It is already happening. There was an idea spelled and suggested by the Iranian and Chinese partners to have this format of Afghanistan's neighbors. Russia joined at the second meeting online, but still, we don't mind. But at the same time, Russia is not in favor of multiplying all formats. We would prefer to have more core, most influential and important states to work together initially to work out a so-called roadmap acceptable, first of all for Afghanistan, and those who are willing to go along with such a roadmap, that's our view.

In that case, we don't mind if immediate neighbors would like to cooperate, it will have this positive effect, I hope, but just multiplying and having flamboyant international meetings will not. We should focus on the most prior urgent issues first, and go step-by-step towards normalcy and stability. That's our vision.

Q: And I know you mentioned some of them before, but those most urgent issues include what in your mind?

Humanitarian first of all, of course. Terrorists and drugs don't disappear, but the lives of Afghans are at stake. That's why we should focus to help Afghanistan survive for this coming winter. And when the situation is more stabilized in Afghanistan, of course, we will expect from the Taliban administration to enter seriously, and adhere seriously, to both the international terrorism issue on Afghanistan soil and the drugs issue.

Q: Now when most U.S. readers see Afghanistan, they think of the war, but they still think of 9/11. Do you think Russia is confident that a another 9/11 style attack would not happen from Afghan soil after the U.S. withdrawal, either on the U.S. or any other country?

That's our aim, not to let this situation develop in a way that Afghanistan turns once again into an international terrorist base as a result of the war. Afghanistan is not to blame for 9/11. Those who attacked your country were not citizens of Afghanistan, not all, only Osama bin Laden operated from Afghanistan. So why should Afghanistan pay for somebody else's wrongdoings and crimes?

That's why it's a matter of our responsibility and wisdom to help Afghanistan to become a normal country which rejects terrorism and the base for terrorism inside. Immeasurably, the outside world will be much more safe. That said, we can speak and appeal for Afghanistan to get rid of terrorism, but it will not help. Let's arm them with political economic instruments to be able to provide.

Q: What are the next steps Russia plans to take to address the situation in Afghanistan?

Well, Russia is not doing it alone. We have a common understanding about next steps within the Troika Plus, which you know at the moment is four countries. We believe that after and when we manage to help, along with other important donors out of Europe or Asia, to help Afghans to survive this winter, we shall start seriously working on the international donor conference on Afghanistan, which we believe should be taken under the U.N. umbrella as a universal world institution, our common creation, and that will be a prime target.

For us, at least, we in principle agree with the Troika Plus meeting, and we will continue talking to other potential donors who are willing to do something without putting too hard conditions on because, yes, as I said already in the beginning, we may not like everything that happens inside Afghanistan, but we should not forget that it's a different culture, different nation with their own traditions, which we should respect.

Q: I've spoken to many Taliban officials and they've always stressed the fact that they're open to engagement with all countries of the world. They've welcomed international assistance. But the one thing that seems to be happening is that the Taliban diplomats are saying this, but there also seems to be some hardliners factions within the Taliban themselves. Is there concern that by opening up to the world that the Taliban could risk internal issues that could drive extremism?

You're right. But please look back to your own country. Is your country politically homogeneous? So why do you expect the Taliban, who is just a few months in power, to be more perfect than you? Yes, in a normal country, you have these problems. In my country we have these problems. Maybe the balance is different, but, in essence, the same.

So, yes, they're not completely homogeneous. So they have, and it's also unfortunately natural, parts of the Taliban, who may be too radical for different reasons. I can now go long on that, but it is a given fact. Yes, some of them, but for us, it's important that the bulk, the major bulk of Taliban structures, they understand that this war should be stopped, no more civil war. They should start reconstruction and start to bring normalcy in their own country. That's it. I think we should encourage this brand and make them the dominant one.

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Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov speaks to the media during an international conference on Afghanistan with Taliban representatives in Moscow on October 20, 2021. Photo by ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Alex Rouhandeh of Newsweek contributed to the production of this interview.