By the Way, Russia Is Supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan Now
Great Game redux
The American public turned its attention to Afghanistan on April 13, 2017 when U.S. Special Operations Forces dropped a huge bomb on the Islamic State. Media coverage of America’s longest war picked up as talking heads mooned over the impressive weapon.
But when most Americans weren’t paying attention, their longest war had changed. Daesh is pushing into the eastern provinces, the Taliban has reclaimed vast amounts of the country and Kabul’s military is barely holding on.
New international players have also come to the table. The threat of the Islamic State has brought Russia into the country, and though the Kremlin swears it’s there to fight terrorism, American generals claim it’s helping the Taliban. The Great Game resumes, more than a century after the conclusion of round one.
Russia has maintained a diplomatic presence in Kabul for years, but things got interesting in December 2016 when the Kremlin announced it made contact with the Taliban. The goal was to establish diplomatic relations, foster the peace process and combat the Islamic State. This is, after all, Russia’s backyard.
The Kremlin has a point. Afghanistan is in an area of obvious geopolitical interest to Russia and Islamic State fighters pouring in from Central Asia are a threat. But the Russian position that it contacted the Taliban merely to help peace and trade information flies in the face of available evidence. There’s good reason to believe Moscow is providing aid to the Taliban.
“Eleven Russians, including two women, dressed in doctor’s uniforms and guarded by four armed Taliban, along with an Afghan translator, have been spotted in various parts of the province,” Uruzgan police chief Ghulam Farooq Sangari told Voice of America. “They have been enticing people against the government, providing training and teaching how to assemble land mines.”
Tribal elders in the region—which sits in the central part of Afghanistan and is far away from the Islamic State activity on the eastern border—confirmed the reports. The governor of Kunduz told reporters that the Taliban asked Moscow for weapons and training to use against coalition forces.
Another Afghan claimed the Kremlin gave the Taliban a mobile clinic and medicine to patch up their wounded soldiers in Helmand province. Several lawmakers in Kabul claimed that a Russian military group crossed the border into the tribal regions of Pakistan to treat wounded Taliban.
On April 14—a day after U.S. commandos dropped the MOAB on the Islamic State—Russia hosted a multinational peace talk about Afghanistan in Moscow. It invited 11 countries to the table, including America and representatives from the Taliban. Both declined. U.S. officials said it was unclear what Russia hoped to achieve with the meeting.
The Taliban was more blunt.
“We cannot call these negotiations [in Moscow] as a dialogue for the restoration of peace in Afghanistan,” a Taliban spokesman told Voice of America. “This meeting stems from political agendas of the countries who are organizing it. This has really nothing to do with us, nor do we support it.”
The statement seems to contradict the idea that Moscow is aiding the Taliban, but U.S. commanders in the region aren’t buying it. U.S. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti claimed to have seen Russian influence measures directed at the Taliban increase during the past several months. Other top military officials backed up this assertion when speaking before Congress.
“I think it is fair to assume [Moscow] may be providing some sort of support to [the Taliban], in terms of weapons or other things that may be there,” Army Gen. Joseph Votel of U.S. Central Command told the House Armed Services Committee in March. “I believe what Russia is attempting to do is they are attempting to be an influential party in this part of the world.”
“Russia has become more assertive over the past year, overtly lending legitimacy to the Taliban to undermine NATO efforts and bolster belligerents using the false narrative that only the Taliban are fighting [the Islamic State in Afghanistan,]” Gen. John W. Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February.
Students of history will see the new geopolitical mess brewing in Afghanistan as distressingly familiar. Russia is an old hand at countering the reach of Western powers through proxy battles in the country. Throughout the 19th century, Britain and Russia fought each other with diplomacy and espionage in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Historians call it The Great Game.
Britain, which enforced colonial rule in India, wanted to protect the land routes to it through Central Asia. Russia felt its diplomatic ties to the region were older and should take precedent.
Now it seems The Great Game has come again with U.S.-led NATO forces taking over for the British Empire and Russia resuming its old role. As America’s war in Afghanistan creeps through its second decade, it’s becoming more complicated and far more dangerous.
It was bad enough that coalition forces had to deal with corruption and a confusing system of tribes with complicated histories. Now Moscow is there too, adding a complex layer to an already complex war.
According to Moscow, this is all rumor and lies. “It is surprising that statesmen, deputies and high-ranking police officers, based on rumors and conjectures and without providing the public any evidence, allow themselves to publicly make irresponsible accusations against Russia in financing and supporting terrorism,” Russia’s Kabul embassy said in a prepared statement.
But America dropping the MOAB on an Islamic State tunnel network could be a brilliant piece of military theater. If Moscow really is reaching out to the Taliban to help fight Daesh—while making life complicated for NATO forces—the first use of a giant fuel-air bomb is a big showy counterargument.