Is Russia betting on the Afghan Taliban? | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 05.05.2017
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Is Russia betting on the Afghan Taliban?

While Washington searches for a new Afghanistan strategy, Moscow has not been waiting for the Western coalition to get its act together and has been reasserting its geopolitical clout in the war-torn country.

As a new Afghanistan strategy is expected from the Trump administration next week, Islamist violence continues to test the limits of the Afghan government's security apparatus and the advisory role of the US and NATO. In the security vacuum, warring factions seem to operate with impunity.

On Wednesday, the "Islamic State" (IS) claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb attack in Kabul that killed at least eight Afghan civilians and wounded 28, including three US service members.

The Taliban, which has opposed IS in Afghanistan, has also been steadily making territorial gains and stepping up attacks on Afghan security forces. In late April, the Taliban carried out one of its deadliest attacks since 2001, killing at least 135 soldiers at an Afghan military base outside the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. A week later the Taliban announced the start of its annual "spring offensive."

While experts don't see the new US administration's policy as changing the situation on the ground, Russia is reasserting its diplomatic weight in Afghanistan. Moscow has hosted two conferences in the past six months on Afghanistan, bringing together a coalition including China, India and Pakistan, but not the US.

Moscow returns to the 'graveyard'

Russland Sergej Lawrow in Moskau (Getty Images/AFP/N. Kolesnikova)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denies providing arms to the Taliban

US defense and military officials have also said that Russia is providing arms and assistance to the Taliban. During a visit to Kabul in late April after the Taliban attack in Mazar-i-Sharif, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said he expressed deep concern over reports that Russia was arming the Taliban.

An unnamed senior US defense official also told reporters from the Associated Press in Kabul during Mattis' visit that Russia was providing the Taliban with machine guns and other light weapons, which were being used in the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov rejected the accusations a day later, saying they were "based on nothing."

Seth Jones, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center (ISDP) at the RAND Corporation, which oversees analysis for the office of the US secretary of defense, told DW he was confident that the statements by US defense officials were based on solid intelligence gathering.

"I think to make allegations along these lines, especially publicly by very high-level officials, would need to be vetted by intelligence agencies, and they'd be pulling in an all source analysis," said Jones. "Not doing so would be both unusual and unfortunate."

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov told Russian state news agency TASS in late April, "I am sure that those in the US who make money by providing intelligence to their leadership know very well that these allegations are false."

Jones added that it was important to put the issue in a strategic context before jumping to conclusions of Russia being a major supplier of arms to the Taliban.

Afghanistan Kämpfe in der Provinz Laghman (Reuters/Parwiz)

Afghan security forces battle Taliban militants in Laghman province

"The Taliban has access to arms and assistance from a range of different sources," said Jones. "I think in that broader context, any Russian assistance whether lethal or non-lethal is likely to be very limited compared with what the Taliban is able to get from its own connections or from other states."

It has long been reported by NATO and US officials that the Taliban has received major assistance from the Pakistani government and the Pakistani military's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI).

Jones added that although he couldn't confirm that lethal material was being supplied from Russia, he would be surprised if it was more than just small arms.

"There is historically a potential for blowback in Afghanistan if you were to provide these kinds of groups with anything more serious like surface-to-air missiles," he said.  "I expect there would be a level of caution at what level and how much."

The lesser of many evils

Since the US began drawing down troop numbers in Afghanistan in 2014, Russia has been concerned about the deteriorating security situation on its southern doorstep and has been forwarding its own diplomatic agenda for the region, outside that of the US and NATO.

Part of this strategy has been insisting that the Taliban be included in peace talks. General John Nicholson, the American commander in Afghanistan, said that Russia was trying to "legitimize" the Taliban while undermining US and NATO.

Omar Nessar, director of the Moscow-based Center for Contemporary Afghan Studies (CISA), told DW that while Russia has officially admitted that it has established contact with the Taliban, Moscow has delivered a conflicting message on its intentions.

Nessar said statements by Russian President Vladimir Putin's special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, may have differed somewhat from Russian Ambassador Lavrov's earlier assertions that Russia's contact with the Taliban was intended to help ensure the safety of Russian citizens and force the Taliban into the peace process under the leadership of Kabul.

"In particular, Kabulov's speech in Kabul was perceived as an attempt to exonerate the Taliban," said Nessar. "Therefore, Western countries considered that this is Russia's plan."

"The issue for Russia is that there are a lot of militant groups that operate in and around Afghanistan," said RAND's Jones. "I suspect there are a number of concerns in Moscow over whether US engagement will continue to go down and if so, what gets left in Afghanistan? The implications for the Russians center on what it will do for terrorism and instability on their southern flank."

The emergence of IS in Afghanistan in 2014 has caused fear in Moscow of terrorist contagion reaching Russia from the south. The Taliban was successful in eliminating IS in southern Afghanistan and has been fighting the group in other parts of the country. As the Taliban secures more territory, Russia may see it as a better alternative.

"If you look at the state of the war, the Taliban has increased its control of territory at least in rural areas. So, from a long term perspective, the Russians may be gambling that if the US, NATO and the Afghan government can't get their act together, and the national unity government weakens, then the Taliban is a better alternative than others such as IS," said Jones.

Afghanistan Anschlag auf Nato-Konvoi in Kabul (picture-alliance/AP/dpa/M. Hossaini)

Site of an IS car bomb attack on a NATO convoy in Kabul

A 180 degree shift 

During the 1980's, massive amounts of US weaponry were put in the hands of Mujahedeen militants who were able to oust the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. Russia arming the Taliban 30 years later may seem to be a 180-degree geopolitical shift, but the hundreds of millions of dollars and advanced weaponry the US provided at the time far outweighs the level Russia is currently accused of providing.

"I think this comparison could go too far very quickly because, even if there is some assistance going on, I am not persuaded that it is anything like that," said Jones.

On Thursday, US media reported that the Pentagon would ask for 3,000 to 5,000 more soldiers to advise and train Afghan security and police, adding to the 8,400 currently stationed in Afghanistan along with 5,000 NATO troops.

Theresa Whelan, the assistant defense secretary for special operations, told the US Senate Armed Services Committee: "The interest is to move beyond the stalemate and also to recognize that Afghanistan is a very important partner for the United States in a very tricky region."

The US military has been in Afghanistan for 16 years. In 2001, Russia supported the US campaign against the Taliban. Late last year, General Nicholson said that at least 12,000 more troops would be required to continue the US mission. With Russia once again entering the equation in Afghanistan, how to continue has become more unclear.

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