An Afghan army commander is the latest to allege that Moscow is providing arms to the Islamist group that grew out of the 1980s anti-Soviet resistance
Afghan officials have called on Moscow to stop supporting the Taliban, as the militant group steps up attacks across the country, allegedly with the help of Russian weapons.
The plea is a sign of frustration with foreign powers, which are muscling in to fill the space left behind by the US troop drawdown and often hedging their bets on the conflict by supporting several factions – including the Taliban.
Dozens killed in twin bombings of mosques in Afghanistan
After weeks of intense battles in the western Farah province – in which Taliban fighters nearly overran the provincial capital for the third time in a year – the commander of the Afghan army’s 207th Corps, has become the latest official to point the finger at Russia
“Many large countries are involved in the Afghan war. We can name Russia, who is actively meddling in Farah, and we have seized Russian-made weapons, including night vision sniper scopes,” the commander, Brig Gen Mohammad Naser Hedayat, said this week. Speaking to local television, a local police chief asked the Kabul government to summon the Russian ambassador in protest.
Russia’s recent push for influence inAfghanistan follows a pattern across the region, where Moscow has challenged American influence in Libya, Turkey, Syria and the Gulf. But it also offers an echo of history for Afghans who since the 19th century have seen their country treated as a battleground for rival foreign powers.
The Taliban was originally founded on the back of the 1980s anti-Soviet resistance, but it has been forced to bury old enmities since the US-led coalition forced it from power in 2001.
Contacts began in earnest in 2005 when Moscow reached out to the Taliban to enlist its help in curtailing militants, especially those from Uzbekistan, said Waheed Muzhda, a political analyst and former Taliban official.
The exact nature of Moscow’s influence remains disputed – as do its motives.
The Kremlin has long sought to curb the influence of Islamist extremists in central Asia – a region which it considers part of its historic sphere of influence. Last year, the Russian foreign ministry admitted to sharing intelligence with the Taliban to fight Isis in Afghanistan.
The offices of the Afghan president and his national security adviser declined to comment, but government officials have previously accused Russia of arming and financing the Taliban, which, according to the US defence secretary, James Mattis, would be “a violation of international law”.
“Somebody is supplying a bunch of Russian-type weapons, including heavy machine guns and a small number of surface-to-surface missiles,” a western official said.
Javid Faisal, spokesman for the government’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, said the government had reports of insurgents using Russian weapons in the north and west of the country, and in the southern Uruzgan province, but added that information was scarce.
The US military in Kabul also declined to comment but its commander, Gen John W Nicholson, has in the past implied that Russia is funnelling weapons to the Taliban.
Afghan officials allege that Russian intelligence helped the Taliban capture Kunduz in 2015 and 2016, shortly after Mullah Abdul Salam – one of the insurgents’ “shadow governors” – travelled to Tajikistan.
According to Afghan and western officials, Russia has met several times with Taliban representatives without the knowledge of the Afghan government. Most noteworthy was a meeting last year in Iran with Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour. On his return to Pakistan, Mansour was killed in an American drone strike.
Though the Taliban has long been viewed, particularly in Afghanistan, as umbilically connected to Pakistan, it has diversified its bases of support, especially since the emergence of Islamic State rallied them and various regional powers against a common enemy.
Taliban fighters in the western province of Farah. Photograph: Javed Tanveer/AFP/Getty Images
Mansour, the late leader, restructured the Taliban’s economy, giving subordinate commanders autonomy to seek out local sources of revenue – a move that may also have helped open the movement up to outside influence.
Iran, China and Saudi Arabia are all believed to be vying more attentively for influence with the Taliban, making it harder to control and to negotiate with.
Russian interference in Afghanistan is not limited to armed Islamists. Russiais also allegedly supplying weapons and cash to local strongmen in northern Afghanistan, destabilising an already fragile region.
Commanders with unpredictable allegiances and vast criminal networks from Baghlan, Kunduz, Sar-e Pol and Badakhshan have received weapons from Russia, according to a researcher with a western organisation in Kabul who is not authorised to speak to media.
The claim was confirmed by a gun smuggler who travels across the Afghan-Tajik border with caches of weapons. As an example, the smuggler said he knew of two deliveries, each of 150 Kalashnikovs, to a prominent figure in the province of Badakhshan.
Qari Abdul Wadood, police chief of Baharak district, also alleged that several militia commanders across the north had received nearly 1,000 Russian machine guns between them. Wadood warned that although the commanders receiving weapons are officially on the government payroll, their loyalties are fluid.
“Some of these people might join the Taliban, or will use the weapons for robbery and kidnappings,” he said.
Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan follows the example of Iran, which although formally an Afghan ally, is padding its pro-Assad militias in Syria with Afghan Shias despite protests from Kabul. Tehran has also been accused of supporting the Taliban, training and arming rebels in the western part of Afghanistan, and even allowing the group to open an office in Mashhad.
According to Muzhda, the former Taliban official, growing foreign interference is a predictable development. With Afghanistan carved up between government, militants and criminal factions, there are plenty of avenues to counter American dominance.
“When Mr Trump pressures Iran, Russia and other countries, they will try to make problems for the United States in Afghanistan,” he said. “That is part of the game in Afghanistan.”
Russian analyst Alexei Malashenko said claims of weapons transfers should be treated with scepticism. “What kind of weapons are we talking about? If we are talking about Kalashnikovs or grenade launchers then this kind of thing could come from anywhere,” he said.
He said, however, that it was not surprising that Russia would be dealing with some elements of the Taliban. “There are different types of Taliban, and there are some who are fighting Isis, so why shouldn’t we speak to them? Without the Taliban, the Afghan state is not viable.”
Additional reporting by Akhtar Mohammad Makoii in Herat