The Taliban, once a pariah, now finds itself courted by several powerful regional players. Even Russia, the group’s historical enemy, has recently turned to the group for intelligence sharing against a common foe: the Islamic State (also called ISIS). Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, recently said, “Taliban interests objectively coincide with ours.” Kabulov, a former KGB officer who negotiated with Taliban leaders in the mid-1990s after the group captured a Russian plane and took seven Russians hostage, rationalized the new cooperation by adding that “the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban have said they don’t recognize [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi as the caliph; that is very important.” However, such a shortsighted alliance carries critical security risks for Afghanistan and the region.
Russia has long fretted that jihadists from its Caucasus region and the former Soviet republics would join ISIS’ ranks in Syria in Iraq and then return home with new skills and weapons. In Afghanistan, in particular, Russia sees as a threat the local affiliate of ISIS, known as the Islamic State in Khorasan (an old reference to a vast territory comprising parts of Afghanistan, Iran, and Central Asia that featured prominently in Islamic teachings). ISIS’ Afghan affiliate is made up of renegade members of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, and it was recently designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States, a year after its creation in January 2015. Accordingly, the Pentagon has now authorized the U.S. military to go on the offensive against ISIS in Afghanistan.