Reopening of Russian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif stokes unease among Afghans

By Muhammad Qasem

Russian special forces take part in an exercise in Uzbekistan near the Afghan border on 2021. [Russian Ministry of Defence]

Russian special forces take part in an exercise in Uzbekistan near the Afghan border on 2021. [Russian Ministry of Defence]

MAZAR-E-SHARIF -- Russia is expanding its presence in Afghanistan under the cover of fighting the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS), but Moscow's ultimate goal is to cement its control over neighbouring ex-Soviet Central Asian countries, analysts warn.

Russian special envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov told TASS news agency on April 3 that Moscow recently reopened its consulate general in Mazar-e-Sharif.

It had suspended its work in July 2021 amid rising tensions in northern Afghanistan.

Alexey Pereverzev, who previously served as Russia's deputy ambassador to Afghanistan between 2020 and 2021, was now serving as Russia's consul general in Mazar-e-Sharif, Kabulov said.

The Russian embassy in Kabul is shown in a photo posted June 24. [Russian Embassy in Kabul/Instagram]

The Russian embassy in Kabul is shown in a photo posted June 24. [Russian Embassy in Kabul/Instagram]

But Afghan analysts view Russia's latest move with scepticism.

Sayed Akram Fasaeh, a Germany-based political analyst, questioned Russia's expansion of its diplomatic presence in northern Afghanistan in addition to the Russian embassy in Kabul.

"I think Russia wants to achieve its malicious goals in Afghanistan, and opening the consulate would allow it to use Afghanistan as an intelligence hub to implement its agenda," he said.

"This is really painful and worrisome for Afghanistan," he added.

Exaggerating ISIS threat to Central Asia

Balkh province, which borders Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, serves as Afghanistan's main gateway to Central Asia.

The former Soviet republics are still under the influence of Moscow but in recent years have been attempting to move out from the Kremlin's orbit.

This move towards independence has Russian President Vladimir Putin and his allies worried, and observers say the Russians are trying to bring these countries back into the fold.

One way Russia is justifying its presence in Afghanistan, particularly along the norther border, is by amplifying the threat of ISIS to the region, analysts say.

For years, Putin and his loyalists have inflated the idea of militants massing by the thousands on the northern Afghan border and preparing to storm Central Asia.

For example, Putin told a virtual summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) on October 15, 2021, that Russian intelligence agencies determined that about 2,000 battle-hardened ISIS militants were concentrating in northern Afghanistan, and might attempt to destabilise nearby countries through "direct expansion".

"In this regard, it is important to constantly monitor the situation on the Afghan border and be ready to counteract militants, and accordingly, to co-ordinate the work of security forces -- conducting joint special operations, if necessary," Putin said.

No other intelligence agency has suggested such a concentrated presence, Latif Nazari, an international affairs analyst based in Kabul, said at the time.

By exaggerating the menace of ISIS on Afghanistan's northern border, Russia is trying to magnify its political and security influence over countries across the region to bring them all under its control, he said.

Earlier that year, Russia held a series of joint military drills in the region, with the Russian regime citing increasing concern for the security of the Central Asian republics.

Russia is ready to ensure the security of its partners in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) -- which includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said July 7, 2021.

"We will do everything, including using the capabilities of our military base on Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan, in order to prevent any aggressive claims against our allies," he said.

The 201st Military Base in Tajikistan is Russia's largest military base abroad.

Calling ISIS and other extremist groups a threat to sovereignty has a purpose, said Nazari then: the Russians were warning Central Asians that without Russian support, they would face enormous security challenges.

Serving Russia's interests

Doubts about Moscow's intentions in Afghanistan have persisted over the past two years.

Russia's presence in Afghanistan allows it to maintain its political influence in Central Asia and gather intelligence about the capabilities and operations of local armed forces, said Kabul-based Maj. Gen. (ret.) Khalil Rahman Ferotan.

"The prevailing conditions prevent regional countries from devising and implementing a more independent foreign policy ... and hinder the economic development of the region and the welfare of the people," he said.

Putin recently announced his new foreign policy strategy, he said, referring to a 42-page document that the Kremlin released on March 31.

The strategy document included a lengthy section on the "near abroad", Russia's condescending name for former Soviet republics, including Central Asia.

The document only mentions Afghanistan twice, revealing the Kremlin's preoccupation with Central Asia and indifference toward Afghanistan, even as it re-opens its consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif.

"Russia does not have enough resources to implement its agenda and expand its influence in Afghanistan, but at the same time, it is trying to maintain and strengthen its presence in Central Asia by utilising all possible means," said Ferotan.

"Afghanistan is clearly a major party in [its] game," he added.

Russia's growing interference in Afghanistan has also rekindled fears that stem from the Soviet invasion of the country in the late 1970s.

"Afghans will never forget the cruelty of the Russians during the occupation of Afghanistan," said Sharifullah Ahmadi, 32, a resident of Kunduz.

"They massacred thousands of innocent young people. Now that they want to plant their dirty feet on Afghan soil again, they definitely want to implement their sinister goals."

But Russia seeks only "to protect its own interests" by feigning concern about the security of the borders of its Central Asian neighbours, while in fact "human lives are not valuable to [Russia]", he said.

"Northern Afghanistan has a special importance to Russia as an economic and trade hub; therefore, it is trying to have more influence in the region," he added.

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In Afghanistan, on one hand, closing the embassies is kind of loss, but on the other hand, it is the closure of devil's markets, because these embassies bring intelligence officers under the name of diplomats with them and then they perform their work here. If you would not allow the embassies, relations with foreign countries will be ruined! It would be good as these countries not send their intelligence officers to the embassies and hopefully they are used in a way that embassies are meant for, because presence of the embassies is a political and economic necessity.


In fact, it is about the interests of the countries. Russia and other countries throughout history have looked at the opportunity and used Afghanistan for their own benefits whenever they had the opportunity. Previously, Afghanistan was a golden bird for the West, especially for the United States. Now as the United States has withdrawn its forces from Afghanistan and the country has fallen into the hands of the Taliban, it is clear that the threat of international terrorism, especially ISIS, is increasing. Russia, like other countries, has the right to use diplomatic means to protect its interests, that is, to reopen its consulate in Afghanistan.


As the whole world has turned back to Afghanistan, this action of Russia is also appreciable. We welcome this move. We want other countries to come and open their embassies and consulates in the provinces. Currently, when Afghan travelers and business people leave the country or come back, they face a lot of controversies. Therefore, if embassies are opened in the capital Kabul and consulates in the provinces, and a political agreement is made with Afghanistan, it will be a good thing. The Taliban indeed have problems with the world in some areas, but the general public is in trouble. On the one hand, the Taliban have created problems for the people; on the other hand, countries of the region and the world. Even though Russia has made the ethnic groups of Afghanistan fight each other in the past, now we ask them not to bring the war to our homeland. They may come and make investments. The Russians will also benefit from it to a large extent, and so will the Afghans; however, if Russians go after us, let's accept that they will also face problems. Throughout history, Afghanistan has defeated international superpowers, and Afghans are sure that this defeat will give them the most significant blow. After this, other countries should neither hurt us nor hurt themselves. The money they bring to the territory of Afghanistan for the war should be spent on standard benefit works that will benefit both sides and be seen as friendly countries, not as enemies. There has been enough hosti


The main reasons for the misfortunes that are going on in Afghanistan are the Soviets. If the Soviets did not invade Afghanistan, such a condition would not have happened to Afghanistan. Millions of Afghans were martyred by the Soviets. Millions of the poor people of Afghanistan emigrated from their homeland, as majority of them have not returned to their homeland, and they will spend their lives in the neighboring countries. Opening the consulate of the Soviet in Balkh province has no benefit for the Afghans without causing harm to the people of Afghanistan. The Soviets have ruined Afghanistan's governance system. The people of Afghanistan will never forget the aggression of the Soviets and the Soviets will never befriend with Afghans.


And we all are Afghans. You should not do such a thing that the people of Afghanistan fight among themselves, and bloodshed continues. Then the The Russian diplomat said, "What I said, the words I said should be left here in this car. If you broadcast these words, you may count your death moments." Junbesh: I am a journalist who is not afraid of death. Do not try to continue the war in our country and kill our people. If the Russians have opened their consulates with good intentions, our people should not be afraid. Why are our people fearful of it? What are our people afraid of? Are they afraid of the Russians, whose empire was destroyed by the Afghans? No. Our people are not people of fear, and they are not scared of anyone. At the same time, we want America, Britain, Germany, France, Canada, ... even Israel to come and open their diplomatic missions in Afghanistan and establish relations with Afghans. Long live Afghanistan.


There are two points to discuss: the consulate opening, which should provide consular services, issue visas, and facilitate the commuting of Afghans to Russia and back home. Apart from this, the political relations between the two countries be strengthened. Another thing is spying. If the Russians have reopened their consulate to provide accurate consular services and help reconstruct Afghanistan, we welcome it. And if their goal is to keep the fire of war burning in Afghanistan like before, we oppose it. A famous journalist from Afghanistan, Dr. Daud Junbesh, who worked with the BBC Pashto service then, translated a book by a Russian general, Alexander Mayorov, from Russia to Pashto about 24 years ago. I think he wrote in the book's preface ['s translation] that one day he was traveling with a Russian diplomat and a number of the Northern Alliance leaders in Mazar-e-Sharif, which was under Dostum's rule at that time. He writes that the Russian diplomat told the alliance's leaders that they (Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara) should unite and stand against the Pashtuns and said we would support them. Junbesh writes the Afghan politician tried to let him know that he (Janbash) is a Pashtun and he [Russian] should not talk like that in his presence, but the Russian could not understand him. :) The Russian then repeated his message in other words. Junbesh wrote that I told him, "Sir... you made different groups of Afghans during the invasion of Afghanistan to fight. Don't you think that this