Top commander: Russia ‘legitimizing’ Taliban to undermine US, NATO

Russia is trying to legitimize the Taliban in order to undermine the United States and NATO, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan said Thursday.

“The Russian involvement this year has become more difficult,” Gen. John Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “First, they have begun to publicly legitimize the Taliban. This narrative that they promote is that the Taliban are fighting Islamic State and the Afghan government is not fighting Islamic State and that, therefore, there could be spillover of this group into the region. This is a false narrative.”

“I believe its intent is to undermine the United States and NATO,” he later added.

Nicholson was testifying about the current situation in Afghanistan, which he called a stalemate that he needs a few thousand more troops to break.

Among the challenges in the country are the actions of external actors such as Pakistan, Iran and Russia, Nicholson said.

He said Russia’s meddling in Afghanistan started in 2016 and continues to increase.

In addition to spreading a narrative that the Taliban is fighting the Afghan branch of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Russia has also organized a series of meetings to discuss the future of Afghanistan without inviting the Afghan government, Nicholson said.

“Afghanistan is trying to work with all of its neighbors and all of the stakeholders,” he said. “They’ve reached out to the Russians about this. And we believe, that a peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan should be Afghan-led.”

Nicholson also alluded to “reports” about Russia supporting the Taliban more directly.

Nicholson’s comments on the difficulty Russia poses in Afghanistan come as President Trump has talked about wanting to mend relations between Moscow and Washington.

Senators from both parties have been critical of Trump’s position on Russia, and Nicholson’s testimony could add fuel to their arguments against improving relations with Moscow.

After hearing Nicholson’s testimony, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said Trump should know that Russia has been “cozying up” to the Taliban.

“I think we better let President Trump know that,” he said. 

Nicholson replied: “Yes, sir.”

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