Afghan war

Back in Afghanistan, Russia is now tacitly supporting its former enemy, the Taliban

Russia is pursuing influence in Central Asia and competing with the US. Afghanistan offers it a chance to do both.

Three decades after a humiliating military defeat in Afghanistan, Russia has returned to the scene. This adds Afghanistan to a long list of hotspots – from Syria and Libya to Venezuela and Ukraine – where Moscow’s low-cost, high-impact foreign policy is challenging the West. In Afghanistan, the Kremlin is covertly supporting the Taliban and other groups, and hosting regional talks with Pakistan, Iran and China. And whereas Moscow was strongly opposed to the Taliban throughout Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s, it seems a U-turn is underway.

Afghan and US officials both claim that since 2015, Russia has been providing funding and arms to Taliban groups. A CNN report in July claimed Russian arms were being transferred to Taliban fighters. A report in the Times of London citing Taliban sources concluded that Russia was channelling funds to the Taliban via cross-border fuel trading. Russia has strongly denied the allegations, but admits diplomatic contacts with the Taliban, arguing that since they are both fighting the regional branch of the so-called Islamic State they have common interests.

Officials in Moscow believe that whereas the Taliban is focused primarily on the domestic conflict inside Afghanistan, IS poses a transnational threat to Central Asian states and even to Russia itself. Thousands of Russian citizens have travelled to Syria to fight with IS or with other militant groups. They have been joined by fighters from Central Asia, many of them radicalised while working in Russia, and Central Asian citizens were directly involved in recent IS-linked terror attacks in Russia, Sweden, Turkey and the US.

The Russian government’s thinking on the threat from IS sometimes hints at conspiracy theories, among them the notion that IS is an American project aimed at destabilising Russia. In June, Russia’s foreign ministry complained that “unidentified helicopters” were resupplying IS fighters, and implied that they were linked to US forces. Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s experienced special envoy to Afghanistan, claimed in 2016 that IS fighters were not focused on the Afghan conflict, but “are being prepared for a war against Central Asia, against the interests of Russia”.

What such claims make clear is that Russia’s policy is not just a response to security concerns, but is part of a wider geopolitical strategy.

Eyes on the endgame

For a relatively limited investment, Afghanistan offers an ideal opportunity for Russia to make headway in its geopolitical competition with the West. Russian officials suggest that US bases in Afghanistan are part of a plan to dominate the region and threaten Russia through Central Asia. But Afghanistan is also seen as a weak spot in the US’s regional strategy, where American forces and funding are struggling to prop up a weak central government against a growing insurgency.

An active Afghan policy also helps extend Russia’s role in Central Asia and win back lost influence in Soviet republics such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The region’s secular dictatorships are nervous about any spillover of violence from Afghanistan, and when they’re under threat, they tend to look towards Moscow for support.

A role in the Afghan endgame also gives Moscow increased leverage in its relationship with China. Russia wants to ensure it is not marginalised by China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Its best hope to maintain influence is to make itself the dominant security and diplomatic power across a broad region that it calls Greater Eurasia.

In December 2016, Russia hosted talks in Moscow on Afghanistan with both Pakistan and China; two further rounds of talks in February and April 2017 were widened to include India, Iran, the Central Asian states, and the Afghan government. (The US refused to participate.) Russia has also revived the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation‘s “Contact Group” with Afghanistan, hosting a meeting of officials from the organisation’s member states in Moscow in October.

These talks have yet to yield a single major breakthrough, but they provide a possible template for future regional efforts to address the conflict. The US, meanwhile, has failed to develop a viable regional policy platform around Afghanistan. The US-led Quadrilateral Contact Group, which resumed talks in Oman in October 2017 after more than a year’s hiatus, shows little sign of achieving any breakthrough.

Russia’s dealings with the Taliban could yet backfire. Many rebels are unhappy at the prospect of close links with Moscow, while the weakness of Russia’s economy puts a limit on just how much influence it can wield abroad. But if Moscow can keep up its current strategy of on-the-ground engagement coupled with regional diplomacy, it is sure to have a role in the endgame.

David Lewis, Senior Lecturer, Politics, University of Exeter.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

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According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

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During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.