MOSCOW — Nearly 30 years after Soviet troops were driven out of Afghanistan by the Taliban insurgency, relations between the terrorist group and Moscow appear to have thawed dramatically in the face of a common enemy: America.
Despite 16 costly years trying to defeat the Taliban and stabilize the country, the U.S. and its NATO partners have little to show for their efforts. The Taliban, on the other hand, have never been stronger, controlling or contesting 40 percent of Afghanistan while mounting one deadly attack after another on government-controlled territory, including the capital Kabul.
Now the U.S. must contend with another dimension in the increasingly dire conflict — the Kremlin. Over the past three months, U.S. security officials have begun to acknowledge they have growing concerns about the Kremlin’s quiet presence in Afghanistan, where Russian forces are reportedly supplying arms to the Taliban.
Reports of Russia’s renewed involvement in Afghanistan come as President Trump’s administration has vowed to send in more troops to bolster the Afghan security forces. The 4,000 additional forces would add to the 8,000 U.S. troops deployed in the country, down from almost 100,000 in 2011.
While fears over the tighter relationship between the Kremlin and the Taliban have been mounting for some time, they were seemingly confirmed during U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis’ visit to Kabul in April, when Gen. John Nicholson told journalists he was “not refuting” reports that Russia was directly supplying arms to the Taliban.
Nicholson’s comments came after a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AP journalists in April that Russian-supplied machine guns were being used to attack Afghan security forces in the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, and Uruzgan. The same official was quoted as saying that supplies of such weapons had increased over the past 18 months. Russia was quick to hit back, saying the reports were a “lie” — made up to distract from U.S. policy failures in the country.
But Russia’s newfound ties to the terror group that bested it decades earlier shouldn’t come as a total surprise, says Dr. Barrett Rubin, senior fellow at the Center for International Cooperation. A quarter of a century after their bloody rivalry ended, Russia and the Taliban are discovering that their interests in Afghanistan are aligning, says Rubin. “Russia and Taliban share common interests in opposing both the Islamic State and a long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan,” he told VICE News.
An alliance with Russia bolsters the insurgent group’s “legitimacy,” Rubin explained. “The Taliban have been engaged in a diplomatic campaign for several years to convince the U.S. and Afghanistan’s neighbors that they pose no international terrorist threat. These dialogues, plus some concrete action against the Islamic State [group] by the Taliban, persuaded Russians this was true.”
Russians on the ground
Rubin’s comments reflect evidence on the ground. Local news reports Afghan officials as saying that undercover Russian generals have been spotted with members of the Taliban during military training exercises in the central Uruzgan region.
“Eleven Russians, including two women, dressed in doctor 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 local media in April.
The police chief said the Russian generals were “enticing people against the government, providing training, and teaching how to assemble land mines.”
The Soviet Union’s disastrous invasion and occupation of Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989 cost tens of thousands of lives and precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union. The failure of that military intervention almost guarantees that “Russia will never put force on the ground in Afghanistan,” says Rubin. But it also means that the country “has a solid reservoir of knowledge and contacts.”
“The Afghan government is forced to take Russia more seriously, if they know that Russia might be able to influence the Taliban,” says Artemy Kalinovsky, assistant professor of East European studies at the University of Amsterdam.
“By showing they have contact with all of the major players, Russia becomes much more valuable as negotiators,” Kalinovsky told VICE News. The Taliban also benefits, he says. “The Taliban wouldn’t be interested in having Russia at the table unless they believe the Kremlin could leverage the Ghani government or other factions in Afghanistan.”
That leverage comes at a bad time for U.S. forces in the region, there to offer support to the beleaguered Afghan National Army, which has suffered huge losses fighting the Taliban in recent months. “Casualties suffered by the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces in the fight against the Taliban and other insurgents continue to be shockingly high,” a U.S. watchdog reported in May.
The Taliban announced the beginning of their spring offensive in the same month. “Operation Mansouri” is named after the Taliban leader killed last year in a U.S. drone strike, and the group said its attacks would target foreign forces and focus on establishing regions cleansed of the enemy.
A spring offensive
Critical to the success of Operation Mansouri will be access to weaponry. And here, Russia’s newfound interest could play a key role in inflaming the conflict. For their part, the Taliban have made little secret of their overtures to the Kremlin. Former Taliban leader Syed Mohammad Akbar Agha told Russian media this year that the Islamist group had courted Russia officials for over three years under his leadership. The warlord said the Taliban’s aim in engaging Russia was to rid Afghanistan of “the U.S. scourge.”
“Russia has its strategic goals, and we the Taliban have ours,” he said. “But we are united. We consider the former Soviet republics as the Russian border and we are able to provide stability and security of these borders.”
But John MacLeod, senior analyst of Russia and the former Soviet Union at Oxford Analytica, says Russia is likely to engage the Taliban — among the first groups to be deemed a foreign terrorist organization in Russia — with caution.
“Russia is instinctively fearful of groups like the Taliban, so isn’t going to arm them for sustained warfare,” he told VICE News. “Strengthening the Taliban too much could risk weakening the Afghan state to the point of collapse.”
Instead, engaging with the terrorist group could be a ploy to unnerve a bigger enemy. “Russia’s support for the Taliban is “part of a broader game with the United States, seeking out conflict where the U.S. hand is relatively weak and Russia can establish a deciding role on the cheap,” says Michael Kofman, of the Center for Naval Analysis think tank in Washington, D.C. For Russia, “Afghanistan represents the opportunity to become a player in a conflict of some import to the United States.”
“Russian engagement with the Taliban,” says Kofman, “is de facto a vote of no confidence in the U.S.-led effort and the ability of the current Afghan government to retain control.”
That said, Russia’s support for the Taliban is unlikely to morph into an all-out proxy war with U.S.-backed Afghan troops, says Kalinovsky. “A proxy war is unlikely — Russia is not prepared to back the Taliban the way they back, say, Syrian President [Bashar] Assad.”
Weapons Russia may provide to the Taliban are likely to be used in some capacity against government forces supported by the U.S., he says. “Moscow will not provide more weapons than minimally necessary to develop a good working relationship with the Taliban.”
While Russia’s supply of weapons to the Taliban is unlikely to lead to a proxy war with the U.S., the Kremlin’s deepening role in Afghanistan will further strain relations between Washington and Moscow, and may force a U.S. response that would prolong its longest-running war.