Russian Presidential Envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov: We foresaw developments in Afghanistan eight years ago
Director of the Second Asian Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Russian Special Presidential Representative for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov has given an interview to Interfax in which he discusses how Moscow views the prospects for cooperation with Afghanistan’s new authorities in various areas, including trade, finance, and the military and technical sphere. He also speaks about Russia's assessments of the situation in Afghanistan six months after the new authorities came to power in Afghanistan.
Question: What role has the recent visit by new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Russia played in strengthening Moscow-Tehran cooperation? Did it become possible to reaffirm continuity in the development of our multifaceted interaction? To what extent is Iran, as a large regional player, important for Russia now amid deteriorating relations with the West?
Answer: It goes without saying. Both the president and the foreign minister said publicly that relations with Iran are of intrinsic value for us. I'm glad that the new, relatively recently elected President Raisi confirmed this continuity. Moreover, Iranian partners have come up with proposals to prepare to sign a more longstanding treaty on strategic partnership and cooperation. Our leadership welcomes all this.
As for the big treaty, yes, a draft treaty was sent to us. It is now undergoing, as is customary in Russia and in any other country, work in agencies, and here dozens of agencies should be looking at it. We see no extreme urgency in this case because we have the current treaty. The reason why we do not hurry is that we already have an agreement. It may not be so strategically profound but it still exists and it was automatically extended for another five years just a year ago. Therefore, we have time to take a close look and to add certain considerations of ours. We would not want to sign a bilateral document of such importance just to show that we are interested. We want it to be substantive and to give a real boost to of bilateral political, economic and other relations with Iran.
Q.: Are there any provisions that do not suit us, or is there no such understanding for now?
A.: It's too early to comment. About three dozen agencies will give their view. From the Foreign Ministry's point of view there are no provisions that we are not satisfied with, but we still need to clarify certain points. Importantly, the relevant agencies need to comment on the provisions concerning the economy and military-technical cooperation. We'd rather not talk about the subject until every opinion is combined and a common stance reached. Once that is done, we will duly send the amended draft to Iran, and they will begin the internal coordination process with due account of our opinion. Rest assured we will make amendments and proposals. We want bilateral agreements of such high importance to have a businesslike and applied nature, rather than be declarative.
Q.: You said we weren't in a hurry, but still is there is any understanding regarding when Moscow would like to sign such a treaty?
A.: No, there is no such understanding. This was discussed when Sergei Lavrov met with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian on the sidelines of the Iranian president's visit here. We are guided by the standard practice with similar documents. Sometimes it takes almost a year to coordinate a document because it is so serious. This is a document which will be in effect for 10 or 20 years, so, as the Iranian saying goes, all haste comes from the devil.
Q.: The Iranian economy minister has visited Moscow recently. He said following the visit that Russia and Iran were planning a mechanism to simplify bilateral trade and banking operations. Could you go into detail about this? And in general, are our relations with Iran now fully protected against external sanctions? Are we isolated from these risks?
A.: We would not need to come up with special mechanisms if they were fully protected and isolated. They are being created to give this kind of protection. Naturally, I won't give you further details; that's confidential, between relevant economic agencies. Once they reach an agreement, the leaderships of both countries will decide whether to make this public or not.
Q.: If negotiations on the JCPOA reinstatement are a success and sanctions against Tehran are lifted, will this be an additional stimulus for Russian companies to take part in projects in Iran?
A.: There is no doubt about that, as the sanctions are hindering normal development. That’s exactly why the previous question was asked, that we have to look for workarounds, and some of those have already been found. Why would we look for a workaround if we could work directly, without hindrance, and make dollar- and euro-denominated transactions? It would be easier for both Iranian, and our, economic operators to work that way. Still, it would not be a calamity if something like this doesn't occur. We have learned how to live and operate under illegal Western sanctions, which apply to both Iran and the Russian Federation. So we will find the right way to respond, although this will take some time and we will have to work out the proper mechanisms. They will be created in the end.
Q.: Does Russia count on preferences for its companies?
A.: It would be irresponsible or us not to. Of course, our companies are interested in contracts which are advantageous to them and Russia. The new Iranian leadership has sent clear messages, and the issue has been mentioned in the conversation between the two presidents: indeed, they are ready to offer certain privileges to our economic operators. We are counting on that, and these are absolutely normal expectations.
Q.: Russia, China and Iran have recently held a joint exercise. Does Moscow intend to continue working in this format, or are there plans to increase the number of participants?
A.: This is an area for the Defense Ministry, and I am not ready to answer questions that concern them. Yet I know in general that this exercise is not a one-off event. The two defense ministries are discussing further cooperation through partnership channels.
Q.: And if we disregard the military aspect, do Russia, China and Iran form triangle which would be a basis for the development of cooperation in various spheres, including economy?
A.: We are not looking for geometry in international relations. We rely on our interests and the international political situation. Every contact and relationship has a significance of its own. There is no triangle with Iran, nothing of the sort. Iran has a dynamic partnership with China, the same as us, and it is beneficial. We and Beijing strongly object to the unlawful - I repeat this - so-called international, Western sanctions against Iran. They are at odds with international law and common sense and, for the thousandth time, serve as a demonstration of the utter hypocrisy of the West. Naturally, this is happening not to just to Iran. So, this kind of cooperation will develop wherever sectoral or government agencies, private or public companies deem it mutually advantageous.
Q.: Are Chinese economic operators competing with Russia's on the Iranian market?
A.: They could be competitors. Sometimes competition is a useful thing because it make you work more effectively and smartly.
Q.: Are there any plans to bring Iran into the Collective Security Treaty Organization? Has Moscow received any signals from the Iranian side to this end?
A.: I am unaware of such plans. Neither the previous administration of Iran nor the incumbent one has expressed such a wish in public even informally. I have no doubt that such an aspiration of will be duly considered if it is declared.
Q.: The missile embargo against Iran is expected to be lifted next year. The arms embargo was lifted earlier. Does Moscow expect that the Americans will oppose lifting this embargo? Will Russia obstruct these attempts by the Americans? Does this open up opportunities for full-fledged military and technical cooperation with Iran, or do we already have such plans, perhaps?
A.: I should have stopped you right there when you mentioned the lifting of the missile embargo. There is no such embargo. There was just one embargo that expired in October 2020. There is no separate missile embargo. This is part of the general picture, so the legitimate embargo imposed by the UN Security Council and recognized by us is no longer in existence. All these other things are not our concern. Because there is no separate missile embargo.
If our agencies have such an interest, and the interest proves to be mutual, of course, our hands will not be tied by anything. We will act in keeping with international laws and will cooperate with Iran in any area that meets our interests and the interests of Iran.
Q.: Some experts believe that Russia's reaction to last year’s events in Afghanistan showed and proved the highest professionalism and strategic vision of Russia's diplomacy. What difficulties did Russian diplomats encounter during the events at the end of last summer?
A.: Owing to their professional conduct, thankfully our embassy and diplomats in Kabul did not have to deal with the particular difficulties experienced by others who had treated Afghanistan in a less professional manner for at least the past 20 years. Clearly, it was an uncomfortable situation, to say the least. First and foremost, we had to provide for the security of our people, both diplomats and Russian citizens in general. But when such chaos came, and that was a military and political coup in the country, when traditional security and law enforcement agencies cease to work, we were concerned that terrorist groups such as ISIL [a terrorist organization banned in Russia] and others would try to inflict damage on our foreign missions and citizens in such muddy water. We should give credit to the new Afghan authorities, which paid keen attention to the [security] issue from the very beginning. We are very grateful for that. They put up their own roadblocks, they stayed in touch with our ambassador and embassy, and they instantly responded to any of our concerns or suspicions of possible hostile actions towards the embassy. This is the positive side of the ability to foresee developments. To be honest, we foresaw them eight years ago, so we have had time to prepare.
Q.: Coming back to the strategic vision. The Taliban [a terrorist organization banned in Russia] is in power in Afghanistan. Are they there to stay?
A.: Yes, they’re there to stay, as Vladimir Ilyich [Lenin] once said about another party. The Taliban are not a static structure; life has taught them that it is much easier to be guerrillas, to fight than to rule. Especially as everyone who lost the war spectacularly to Taliban members in galoshes and with a Kalashnikov rifle and an RPG grenade launcher in their hand is now creating every impediment they can. They will have to recognize their role and posture, and adapt to the modern life. Here comes our address to the Taliban leadership, which the president, Minister Lavrov and others voiced many times: guys, you should form an ethnic political government. It is critical that any new administration in Afghanistan represents the interests of both the Taliban and other political forces in at least some proportion. This proportion and the exact persons are Afghanistan’s internal affair. We have never pushed for particular persons or proportions.
Secondly. It would be necessary to ensure basic human rights, first of all, for girls and women. We tell them frankly: Guys, Islamic regimes exist in numerous countries, including in your neighborhood - you have two Islamic republics on your border. Further on, in the Persian Gulf, there is "tougher" Sharia law but they still manage to create a relatively comfortable life for all population groups, including women. Any democracy needs to keep this factor in mind. We have an absolutely realistic vision. We treat the Afghan culture of tradition, say, with respect or with understanding. It’s not the same as ours. We have said many times that we have our own cultural traditions. The Taliban have absolutely conservative principles. And this is not only the Taliban, this is all Afghanis. If there were no Taliban, things would have been absolutely the same in any village near Kabul. The Taliban didn't invent these traditions, they are just trying to extrapolate their own village conceptions to cities. This is just the Afghan edition of the eternal competition between the city and the village.
That is why we need this, here is where everything began. Regarding the Taliban's desire for recognition, we say, when a number of convincing steps are taken, like schools for believers, which may be separate ones but still provide a full general education course for girls, and they are given unconditional access to university education. Education may be separate, just like it is in many countries in the Gulf, to my knowledge, in Arab monarchies, and non-democracies in general. When this is done, we will keep this in mind and the recognition will be inevitable. The ball is in the Taliban's court; they need to act. Nothing will happen while they are still urging us and trying to convince us but are not doing enough - they have to understand this. We tell them so loud and clear.
Q.: How does Russia assess the action of the incumbent authorities from the point of view of drug trafficking? Is this getting better or worse?
A.: There has been no improvement. Things are getting worse. Yet again, this is not the Taliban's fault. The United States and the entire West are to blame. When they freeze the national assets of Afghanistan and the Afghans are unable to spend money on social benefits, compensations and allowances for their population, what can we expect? Some 4.5 million Afghan families are cultivating opium poppies. They have no alternative, and no regime, neither the Taliban nor any other, can prohibit them from doing that unless they are offered something in exchange. The Taliban would gladly make an offer but they wonder how they can feed 4.5 million. That's the minimal number, including families, that is cultivating crops. I do not count those who cook heroin, I am speaking of farmers only, and 4.5 million people are doing it. No government will dare to impose a ban just to do good for someone. There is yet another argument, and a quite convincing one, on the table. The Taliban say that they, Afghan people and Afghanistan as a whole, make at least $6 billion on growing drug crops and making drugs, while the market value of such products tops $60 billion. This means $54 billion of profit is generated outside of Afghanistan. They ask a legitimate question - why don't you, those who make money on us, do this? This is the right question.
Q.: Is the situation deteriorating in the security sphere as well?
A.: There has been no deterioration in security levels. This is because the Taliban authorities are working hard to suppress operations of the ISIL first and foremost. This is happening amid limited funding of the Taliban units that are fighting ISIL and suffering heavy casualties. They pay nothing to their servicemen on this mission because they have no money, they only feed them so that they do not starve to death, while ISIL pays $300 to every fighter. By the way, they used to pay $500 and are paying less today. This also plays into ISIL's hands. This is another question for the West: what do you want, are you fighting ISIL? Are you creating conditions for a stronger ISIL? Too many questions.
Q.: Is it possible to say that the January events in Kazakhstan, in which according to reports and eyewitnesses accounts radicals took part, is the result of the Afghan problem? If so, does Moscow consider there is a risk that such outbreaks, including with the participation of radicals, might take place in other countries of the region?
A.: This is definitely not a result of the Afghan problem. Still, we should wait until the Kazakh authorities finish the investigation and publish its results. One thing is clear - if there were Afghans among the militants... There has been talk of this, but we are serious people and rely on reports from the authorities rather than from a few bloggers. If the participation of Afghan militants is confirmed in published materials, then we will be able to argue.
This is about the following. Firstly, various extremists and terrorists who for various reasons ran or were redeployed there, as a quiet place where no one was hunting them, had been gaining a foothold in southern Kazakhstan for a long time. This was for starters. After the Taliban came to power, their opponents, including ISIL, ran from Afghanistan because the Taliban were fighting against them mercilessly and unwaveringly. In this sense, I think it possible, but this is hypothetical, I do not have the facts on hand to say yes. Some of them were, of course. There were marauders of various ethnic origins that we saw on TV and who were robbing banks and stores. There could have been Afghanis among them. Another question is that a foreign hand is visible there. As they say, it's highly likely to be the hand of the UK. There are arguments to support this. Yet again, we should wait for the Kazakh government to release and publish the results of the investigation. Hopefully, it will be comprehensive and we will know much more than we do now. There was a foreign hand but the Taliban [banned in Russia] had absolutely nothing to do with it.
Q.: You mentioned Afghanistan's frozen assets. What is your attitude to the West's idea to create a fund for the targeted spending of these funds?
A.: We are not against it, but Western colleagues, since they are not hungry and feel comfortable, are gushing with many projects and ideas. We have always told them that assistance must be targeted, as people are dying. Last week some NGOs reported, and I saw the reports, that 135 Afghan children had died from hunger over a week. And this is not the full data. I have always asked the Americans and others in the West, are you waiting for hundreds of children to starting dying of starvation before you start moving faster? They are hypocrites. We don't care what form it will take, it is important for us, but above all for ordinary Afghanis, to have it as soon as possible and immediately. This is especially strange when the Western nations will give their own money in portions. This isn't the West's money, this is the money of the Afghan people, return it to them. Moreover, this is generally a colonial demand of the Americans for the Afghan Central Bank governor to be an independent person, meaning independent from Kabul but dependent on Washington. And only then we will allow transactions to the Central Bank's accounts, only then will the money come. This is a colonial and caddish proposal. The Taliban were absolutely right to refuse it point blank. I wonder which of you lost the war. Did the Taliban lose to you, Americans? I think it's the other way around. Hence, you should not give any ultimatums, you should actually pay reparations for what you have done there.
Q.: Russia is not legitimizing the Taliban for well-known reasons. Everything is clear here. However, will we do any business with them in this status? I mean the participation of our companies in various projects, as well as the supplies of petrol and petrochemicals?
A.: We will. This does not at all prevent business from continuing, because there are private Afghan and Russian companies that established such cooperation long ago. First of all, this is a matter of fuel and lubricants, petroleum products. There are many other commodities as well, but the thing is that the Afghan economy itself is idling because of the current situation. There was little going on anyway and now things have totally ground to a halt. So, there is no strong demand for a rather broad range of goods, not just petroleum products, but also cement, metal structures and timber. The demand has shrunk because there is no economic activity. When the demand starts growing, this will continue to develop. Besides, trade goes in transit through Central Asian countries that have plenty of local economic operators working with the Afghans. Russian business groups or Russian-Afghan business groups are emerging and offering services and cooperation. We welcome that as long as this cooperation is lawful and legitimate. The recognition doesn't hinder such cooperation. But if we speak about big projects in which Russia takes part, then no. At present, this isn't considered seriously because of the general situation, because there are no prospects. That would require more than a guarantee of security. Large projects are carried out at the bilateral level, and for that, a recognized government is required.
Q.: Given that Afghan assets were frozen, is Russia considering extending any credit lines or providing financial assistance to Afghanistan?
A.: Of course, not. Credit lines are extended to recognized governments only.
Q.: How has cooperation on Afghanistan with the U.S. been progressing? You've said there are forces that are trying to obstruct the Taliban, to unravel things. Do you mean the Americans? Who is doing this? And who is fueling subversive activities in Panjshir?
A.: This is resistance as they call it. They are hiding at bases in the Panjshir mountains. True, guerrillas are harassing and attacking the Taliban administration in Panjshir but they are unable to change the balance of forces there. Here is another issue. We are paying attention to the fact that the Americans are trying to harness the resistance of the Panjshiri and Tajiks to the Taliban regime by the efforts of such odious people as [founder of the U.S. private military company Blackwater] Erik Prince, who, according to media, has met with the son of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, Ahmad Massoud. We do not know what they have agreed upon, but we understand the logic of U.S. thinking. Seeking to punish the Taliban for defeating the Americans, the Americans didn't come up with anything better than support for any military-political force that could restart a civil war in the country, this time on purely ethnic grounds, and show the Taliban that America should be listened to and obeyed. Calculations are very primitive as far as the second track is concerned; however, I can see no deeply calculated strategy of the Americans, if such a civil war, God forbid, resumes, to tell the Taliban: see, you need U.S. support, so give us bases, we will deploy troops, and will guarantee your security. This is primitive, and this is dumb, but there is nothing to be done about it. This is the best they can do.