Is Russia really backing the Taliban?


Nobody has less patience than CounterVortex with the kneejerk squawking of “McCarthyism” any time new revelations of Moscow misdeeds emerge. Unlike all too many on the “left,” we have no illusions about Russia’s increasingly fascist direction, or its obvious designs on the political process in the United States in favor of Donald Trump. But we nonetheless must register our skepticism about the claims that Russia is arming the Taliban in Afghanistan, and offering them a bounty to kill US troops. This makes little sense in terms of the regional alliances. Russia and the Taliban have traditionally been on opposite sides, and the mutual animosity between them was the basis for the post-9-11 rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. We also aren’t sure why the Taliban would need any extra motivation to kill US soldiers—they seem quite sufficiently motivated on their own.

Now, alliances can certainly shift, and Great Powers are not above playing two different enemies off against each other. The arrival of ISIS on the scene in Afghanistan may also be leading Moscow to view the Taliban as, at least, the Devil they know. (We think this consideration is part of what is driving the US peace overtures to the Taliban.)

But these claims seem pretty sketchy. They were first reported in the New York Times June 26, when it was revealed that “intelligence assessments” about the allegations had reached Trump’s desk—to his total inaction, of course. It was also claimed that the former US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John W. Nicholson (ret), had been warning of Russian support for the Taliban.

A NY Times follow-up piece on July 13 was entitled “How Russia Built a Channel to the Taliban, Once an Enemy.” It further fleshed things out—but still in very vague terms. Note the total reliance on unnamed sources here: “In interviews, Afghan and American officials and foreign diplomats with years of experience in Kabul say that what began as a diplomatic channel between Russia and the Taliban just under a decade ago has more recently blossomed into a mutually beneficial alliance that has allowed the Kremlin to reassert its influence in the region.”

Gen. Nicholson is this time quoted—but actually to downplay the claims. “It was in modest quantities; it was not designed to be a game-changer on the battlefield,” Nicholson told the House Foreign Affairs Committee about Russian arms and aid to the Taliban. “For example, the Taliban wanted surface-to-air missiles, the Russians didn’t give it to them. So I always concluded that their support to the Taliban was calibrated in some sense.”

Yeah, we’d bet that if Russia was really offering aid, it was harshly proscribed. When the Taliban were in power before 9-11, Moscow was backing the Northern Alliance in a bid to oust them. US ally Pakistan has been the traditional patron of the Taliban. Russia’s closest ally in the region is Iran, however strained the Moscow-Tehran alignment may now be. And while there have been similar claims here and there of Iran backing the Taliban, we’ve always been skeptical of them too. Tehran’s traditional ally on the ground in Afghanistan has been the Shi’ite Hazara party and militia, Hezb-i-Wahdat—the Taliban’s bitterest enemies.

The inevitable rote denials from the Russian national security establishment are noted by the Christian Science Monitor:

The bounty story makes “no sense at all” in terms of Russian concerns, says Andrei Kortunov, director of the Russian International Affairs Council. Hastening a US retreat from the region increases the chance of a revival of past eras, when Russia and the USSR became mired in Afghan conflicts and drug trafficking.

“The biggest nightmare is that Afghanistan becomes a ‘failed state’ again, with dangerous repercussions all over the region,” says Vladimir Sotnikov of the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. “We have no interest in aggravating the situation, or hastening US departure. Afghanistan is going to be our problem long after the US has left.”

This may be dismissed as ritual propaganda-spewing, as can the kneejerk denialist prattle from those sectors of the American “left” that dutifully follow the Moscow line, even now.  But the notion that Moscow would do anything to strengthen the hand of Sunni extremism in a country where it faced its own counterinsurgency quagmire in the ’80s, and which still borders its “near abroad,” does stretch credulity.

So if these claims are not accurate, where did they emerge? From old-school Russophobe Cold Warriors in the Pentagon (if there are any left)? Or is it a ploy by what is called in paranoid parlance the “Deep State” to embarrass Trump?

Trump’s reaction, of course, has been risible. But we’re slightly appalled that nobody has caught the blatant howler in this oft-quoted line from his July 29 Axios interview on the matter: “Well, we supplied weapons when they were fighting Russia, too. When they were fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan.”

It is, hopefully, superfluous to point out the cynicism of implying that if the US backed extremists to fight Russia, it’s OK for Russia to back extremists to fight the US. What’s alarming is that nobody seems to have noticed how factually garbled this is. Even some critical commentators have made the rather petty point that it was the Soviets rather than the “Russians” who were in Afghanistan in the ’80s—as if the Soviet Union had not been a Russian empire. The more critical point is that there was no Taliban in the ’80s. The Taliban only came into existence in 1994—and then to fight against the Mujahedeen leaders that the US had been backing a decade earlier. Driven from power by the Taliban in 1996, these Mujahedeen leaders wound up in the rebel Northern Alliance, which would in turn drive the Taliban from power with US air support in 2001. The US never armed the Taliban, but their enemies. This ubiquitous misreading of quite recent history is fucking backwards.

Nearly all the commentary on this affair, from either “side,” appears to be more hype than substance.

Photo of abandoned Soviet tank in Afghanistan via Wikimedia Commons