Is Russia undermining US efforts in Afghanistan?

Is Russia undermining US efforts in Afghanistan?
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While Vladimir Putin basks in the afterglow of his convincing (if unsurprising) re-election as Russia’s president, his foreign ministry has been busy denying allegations of disruptive behavior from the United States and its allies. In addition to accusations that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and is complicit in the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy in the United Kingdom, the latest episode concerns Moscow’s support for the Taliban in Afghanistan.  

In a recent interview, Gen. John Nicholson, the senior U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, said that he has witnessed “destabilizing activity by the Russians” over the past 18 to 24 months that includes providing financial support and military weapons to the Taliban. Secretary of Defense James MattisJames Norman MattisTrump turns Pelosi's 'meltdown' criticism around: 'She is a very sick person' War of words at the White House Trump calls Mattis 'world's most overrated general' over ISIS comments MORE argues that funneling weapons into the country is a violation of international law “unless they were coming to the government of Afghanistan.”

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In response, the Russian embassy in Kabul called Nicholson’s comments “idle gossip” and “absolutely baseless,” while insisting its interactions with the Taliban are limited to safeguarding its citizens and encouraging the militant group to come to the negotiating table for peace talks.

 

Such accusations and denials may seem implausible, given the two countries’ common interests in preventing Afghanistan’s resurgence as a terrorist safe haven and staunching the flow of drugs harvested from plentiful poppy fields around the country. In fact, Russia initially was supportive of U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks.

However, Moscow has grown increasingly frustrated with the U.S. strategy that has failed to stabilize the country after 16 years of fighting, and President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP congressman slams Trump over report that U.S. bombed former anti-ISIS coalition headquarters US to restore 'targeted assistance' to Central American countries after migration deal Trump says lawmakers should censure Schiff MORE’s August 2017 address to the nation offered more of the same. Additionally, the geopolitical situation has changed; U.S.-Russian relations are at a low point and Putin is emboldened domestically while seeking to expand Russia’s sphere of influence within the region and beyond.  

Gen. Nicholson is concerned that Russia is overtly lending legitimacy to the Taliban in order to undermine NATO efforts in Afghanistan by extending the conflict and raising the costs for continuing the strategy. Ironically, this approach is similar to U.S. support for the mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-89) that resulted in a humiliating defeat for the Kremlin. Putin would relish driving a wedge within the U.S.-NATO alliance over Afghanistan, and the imminent departure of U.S. National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster removes one of the current strategy’s staunchest supporters from the White House.  

Nicholson also cited a “false narrative” that exaggerates the number of ISIS fighters in the country and contends that only the Taliban are fighting the terror group, in order to justify Russia’s continued support. While the Taliban and ISIS are rivals, the former is an insurgent group and the latter is an increasing transnational threat to the region and the Russian homeland, as fighters return from Iraq and Syria. Thus, supporting the Taliban makes sense from Moscow’s perspective. And Putin may be hedging his bets regarding the future of Afghanistan, as a recent BBC study found the Taliban openly active in 70 percent of the country’s districts.

Moscow also appears ready to take advantage of the growing rift between the U.S. and Pakistan, which Washington long has accused of playing a “double game” by providing safe havens for terror groups. The Trump administration has announced plans to suspend $1.3 billion in military aid to Pakistan; Congress is reportedly considering even tougher measures against Islamabad, such as revoking Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally. In response, Russia and Pakistan recently formed an anti-terror military cooperation commission, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announcing “Russia’s readiness to continue boosting Pakistan's counter-terrorism capacity, which is in the entire region's interests.”

More broadly, Russia’s support for the Taliban and its offer to host negotiations bolster its influence in the region as a peace-maker while strengthening its negotiating leverage over the U.S. in other contentious hotspots, including Ukraine and Syria.  

Meanwhile, the challenges in Afghanistan remain, including violent and deadly attacks on a daily basis, record high opium production, rampant corruption, weak governance and political uncertainty surrounding parliamentary elections scheduled for later this year. U.S. Central Commander Gen. Joseph Votel recently offered a sober assessment in his testimony before Congress: “We are at a stalemate right now. Right now I would say that it is generally in favor of the government of Afghanistan, but stalemates have a tendency to decline over time.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford just returned from Afghanistan and is reportedly encouraged by the overall strategy that supports a strong central government and a military approach centered on training, advising and assisting Afghan security forces, doubling special operations forces, and continuing to grow and develop the Afghan air force. He argues that the “key” to Afghanistan is the simultaneous application of political, social and military pressure on the Taliban to convince them that they cannot win or negotiate from a position of strength.  

Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani recently offered talks with the Taliban without preconditions, as part of a political reconciliation process supported by the U.S. and NATO. Whether the overall strategy will succeed remains to be seen, but Russia’s actions directly contradict its methodology and the Trump administration must confront Moscow, if it wishes to see any meaningful change in behavior.  

A good place to start would be an official announcement of a presidential visit to Afghanistan as a clear message to Putin regarding U.S. commitment to the strategy and its enduring support for the Afghan government. Perhaps a more forceful approach will convince Russia that it can achieve its strategic aims and play a constructive role in Afghanistan by working with the government in Kabul, as opposed to taking actions that undermine its legitimacy.

Jim Cook is an associate professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, where he specializes in strategy, military force planning and the Middle East. A retired Army lieutenant colonel, he has served in a variety of command and staff assignments in the United States, Europe and the U.S. Central Command region, most recently in Afghanistan. The views expressed here are his own.