The United States and Russia are on the precipice of a proxy conflict in Afghanistan, three decades after the Soviet military was defeated in the country, by CIA-backed militants.
The commander of US Forces in Afghanistan referenced intelligence outlining possible Russian support for the Taliban, when appearing Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Gen. John Nicholson, however, said he couldn’t openly discuss reports of Moscow giving the Taliban “money, materiel or fighters,” when asked by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).
“There is some classified reporting that I’d request to share with you in another venue,” Nicholson told Shaheen. “But we are concerned about, in general, support, and I’ll just leave it at that.”
Nicholson also hit out at Russia’s engagement with the Taliban, which, he said, has amplified since last year. “They have begun to publicly legitimize the Taliban,” he told the committee’s chair, John McCain (R-Ariz.).
In late January, Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Alexander Mantytskiy, told The Wall Street Journal that the outreach was “just political,” and designed at countering Islamic State forces in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province. Mantytskiy said Moscow was not giving the Taliban “money or materiel,” the paper reported.
Nicholson described Russia’s ongoing dialogue with the Taliban as problematic, even absent material support.
He said Russian officials have legitimate concerns about counternarcotics and counterterrorism, and acknowledged that the Islamic State and the Taliban are currently fighting. But he bemoaned that Russia’s current diplomatic initiatives offer “no acknowledgment” of US and NATO efforts, and believes they are designed to undermine both.
“This narrative that they promote is that the Taliban are fighting the Islamic State, and the Afghan government is not fighting the Islamic State, and that, therefore, there could be a spillover of this group into the region,” he said.
“This is a false narrative,” Nicholson added. “The Afghan government along with US counterterrorism forces are successfully fighting against Islamic State in Afghanistan.”
Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that there would be a conference in Moscow, in mid-February, with officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Iran, and India.
Lavrov said that “the Taliban must be included in a constructive dialogue,” pushing for the group to come to the table.
“Russia’s meeting does not include NATO powers,” Radio Free Europe noted.
Russia’s cooperation with the Taliban flips the lid on dynamics that emerged in the Cold War, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, in 1979, to support the country’s communist government. The US responded, in part, by covertly backing militant Islamists, who eventually repelled Soviet forces.
The Taliban emerged in the power vacuum that followed the war. The organization was itself toppled by the US military in 2001, as part of the Bush administration’s immediate response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.