As America's effort to end 16 years of war in Afghanistan yields little progress, Russia is resurrecting its own interest in the "graveyard of empires." The jockeying includes engaging the Taliban and leading a new diplomatic effort to tackle Afghanistan's future, with or without U.S. support.
Uncertain of Moscow's intentions, the Trump administration will stay away when Russia hosts regional powers China, India, Iran and Pakistan, and several Central Asian countries, for another set of Afghan talks next month. Afghanistan's government is attending, but the U.S. declined an invitation, saying it wasn't consulted ahead of time. No one has invited the Taliban.
For Russia, dogged by memories of the Soviet Union's disastrous 1980s occupation of Afghanistan, it's a surprising turn at the head of the country's proverbial peace table.
And it coincides with the Kremlin's campaign to wield greater international authority at the U.S.' expense elsewhere, including intervening in Syria's war and pushing for a settlement on President Bashar Assad's and its own terms. Moscow even has sought to broker new Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, challenging Washington's grip on the Mideast peace process.
For the United States, the new Russian foray into Afghanistan may represent another worrying consequence of a perceived American retrenchment. The perception has intensified overseas as President Donald Trump formulates new policy. Since taking office, he has scarcely mentioned Afghanistan, the U.S. military's largest deployment in a war zone.
"Russia sees a gap and is trying to fill it," said Jonah Blank, a South Asia expert at the RAND Corp. "It's looking around for opportunities, for any place where it can expand its own influence and freedom to pursue its own interests, and undermine U.S. alliances and partnerships."
Although Washington is sitting out the upcoming Moscow conference, officials said the State Department still wants to work with Russia and others to encourage Afghan peace talks. But it is trying to get Russia and others to increase pressure on the Taliban, said officials who weren't authorized to speak publicly on the diplomacy and requested anonymity.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will discuss the matter in Russia's capital next month.
But several senior U.S. military officials have voiced suspicions.
"There's a lot that we don't know about what Russia is doing," Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who leads U.S. forces in the Middle East, told a congressional panel this week.
"It's fair to assume they may be providing some kind of support to them in terms of weapons or other things," he said, adding that Russia is "attempting to be an influential party in this part of the world."
"I don't consider their outreach and linkage to the Taliban to be helpful," Votel said.
President Vladimir Putin's government is an unlikely peace broker in Afghanistan, but the Afghans are grappling with great uncertainty.
They're waiting to see if Washington sends more troops — as Gen. John Nicholson, top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, advocates — or adjusts strategy amid increased Taliban attacks and Afghan military setbacks. In the past year, insurgents have sought to overrun several provincial capitals. Last week, they captured a southern district in Helmand province, which American and British troops fought bitterly to give to the government. The U.S. maintains 8,400 troops in Afghanistan, training local forces and conducting counterterrorism operations.
Moscow denies providing material support to the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Russia says contacts are limited to safeguarding security and getting the hardline religious fundamentalists to reconcile with the government — which Washington has failed for years to advance. Russia also has promoted easing global sanctions on Taliban leaders who prove cooperative.
At its heart, Russia assesses Afghanistan's civil war fundamentally differently than the West. It often frames its suspicions of U.S. activity in terms evocative of the Great Game of the 1800s, when the British and Russian empires vied over Afghanistan and its neighbors, determined to shape the strategic land bridge linking Asia and the Mideast. And it has started seeing the Taliban as a largely local force, not an international jihadist threat, and a potential partner in combating Islamic State attempts to gain a foothold in Afghanistan.
"Where is Afghanistan and where is America?" Zamir Kabulov, the Kremlin's special envoy to Afghanistan, said in a January interview with Turkish media, likening U.S. bases in the country to Russia deploying troops to Mexico. The comparison may be somewhat strained. Russia's frontier is several hundred miles (kilometers) from Afghanistan; the U.S. shares a roughly 2,000-mile (3,100-kilometer) border with Mexico, its southern neighbor.
While the Russians are primarily concerned about Afghanistan destabilizing their periphery, they may be trying to boost their diplomatic profile and strengthen bonds in Asia. Russia's eastward push has accelerated as ties with the U.S. and Europe have soured over the 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region and allegations of meddling in the American presidential election.
Russia has improved once cool relations with Pakistan, where Taliban leaders have sought sanctuary. And it has increasingly tightened political and economic coordination with China.
"People are frustrated that Afghanistan is not stabilizing. The whole region is suffering," Pakistan's U.S. ambassador, Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, said. But he said U.S. leadership was preferable.
Moscow hasn't won the Afghan government's trust.
"Differentiating between good terrorists and bad terrorists (is) a major mistake," Homayun Qayoumi, a top aide to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, told a Washington audience this month.
Russia may be making some diplomatic progress. After visiting Moscow this month, Hanif Atmar, Afghanistan's national security adviser, said he received assurances Russia was promoting reconciliation and not providing military support. He welcomed the approach.
Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed.