- A U.S. general has accused Russia of supplying arms to the Taliban
- Russia has denied the charge and in turn accused the U.S. of doing the same
- The Taliban are gaining power in the country, and the government is struggling
- Prolonged conflicts in Afghanistan have killed millions and caused one of the worst refugee crises in the world
By Ty Joplin
The U.S. general overseeing military operations in Afghanistan claimed in an interview with the BBC that Russia is supporting and arming the Taliban. “Clearly they’re acting to undermine our interests,” Gen. John Nicholson told a reporter.
The claim comes as a surprise, since Russia and the Taliban have been historic foes since the Soviet Union attempted to occupy Afghanistan throughout the 1980s. But it reflects an evolution of the relations between Russia and the Taliban, and a slow cornering of U.S. interests in the country.
As the U.S. mission in Afghanistan loses steam after nearly 20 years of occupation, the Taliban are slowly gaining control over much of the country. Analysts say that Russian support to the Taliban is primarily intended to pester the U.S.
General Nicholson said in the interview with the BBC that he’d witnessed "destabilising activity by the Russians,” and that U.S. forces on the ground have been presented with weapons by Afghan locals who claim they received them from Russia.
Others are skeptical as to the level of support Russia is providing the Taliban. "I have not seen real physical evidence of weapons or money being transferred,” U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. General Vincent R Stewart said while testifying before Congress in May, 2017.
For their part, Russian officials deny the claims as “idle gossip” and have even gone so far as to blame the U.S. for supplying the Taliban with arms—a charge the U.S. denies.
“Moscow's reappearance in Afghan affairs is largely designed to irritate the Americans,” BBC’s Dawood Azami speculated.
Although the Taliban has long-despised Russia since the Soviet Union’s attempted occupation of Afghanistan, a temporary alliance of convenience may be forming between the two parties to drive out elements of the Islamic State and U.S. influence from the country.
Russian and Taliban officials have admitted that they have had talks with each other, and Taliban officials have confirmed to the BBC that Russian-Taliban relations improved since elements of the Islamic State began contesting the Taliban’s power.
On Jan. 31, a BBC study found that the Taliban are openly active in 70 percent of the country, an increase over previous years. Estimates from the United States Air Force (USAF), put the percentage slightly lower than the BBC—56 percent. Nonetheless, multiple sources indicate that the government now controls only about 30 percent of the country—the rest is contested or controlled by the Taliban and other warring parties.
In stark contrast, studies in 2015 estimated the Afghan government controlled 72 percent of the country.
Prospects for the U.S.-backed Afghanistan government look grim, and comes amidst a push by Russia to project power throughout the Middle East and Asia.
"This [Russian] activity really picked up in the last 18 to 24 months,"General Nicholson said in an interview with the BBC.
"Prior to that we had not seen this kind of destabilising activity by Russia here. When you look at the timing it roughly correlates to when things started to heat up in Syria. So it's interesting to note the timing of the whole thing."
Russia has also become the key dealmaker and powerbroker in Syria since its intervention on behalf of the embattled Assad regime in 2015. Since then, it has negotiated several political deals between Syria, Iran and Turkey that have shaped the country’s current political landscape.
Ironically, the U.S. funneled billions of dollars in armaments and logistical support for proto-Taliban elements in order to combat invading Soviet Union forces in the 1980s. That Russia now may be aiding the Taliban reflects a kind of geopolitical reversal of roles, with the Taliban standing in the middle as a proxy group through which powerful interests can realize interests.
Afghan refugees at the Chamkany registration center in 2015 (AFP/FILE)
The human cost of the various occupations of Afghanistan have been dire. Although studies of the death toll from the Soviet-Afghanistan war vary widely, conservative estimates put the total dead at 500,000, and others go further to nearly two million. Dr. Marek Sliwinski, a professor at the University of Geneva, calculated that the war killed around 9 percent of the total population of Afghanistan. Millions more were internally and internationally displaced.
The current war in Afghanistan has killed over 30,000 civilians and the U.N. estimates that over half a million more have been displaced. According to the UNHCR, “there are almost 2.5 million registered refugees from Afghanistan. They comprise the largest protracted refugee population in Asia, and the second largest refugee population in the world.”
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