KABUL, Afghanistan – During one of the most violent battles in northern Afghanistan, when the Taliban won victories that had avoided them since the start of the conflict, the US Supreme Commander went public with a suspicion that had been rife for years: Russia was helping the rebels.
In diplomatic circles in Kabul around the time of that indictment, in 2017, there were murmurs that Russian aid had included night vision goggles and armor-piercing ammunition.
But General John W. Nicholson, the commander, gave no definitive evidence, and it spoke of how confusing the battlefield had become as three longtime opponents ̵
“We have had weapons brought to this headquarters and given to us by Afghan leaders and said, ‘This was given by the Russians to the Taliban,'” General Nicholson said a year later. “We know that the Russians are involved.”
It recently revealed a US intelligence evaluation that Russia had provided the Taliban with masses to attack US and coalition troops stunned political leaders in Washington, adding a strong dose of cold war forms in discussions about Afghanistan’s future. Both Russia and the Taliban have rejected the claim.
But even though it would be a noticeable escalation of the Russian intervention in Afghanistan, it was clear to many officials that Russia has been working to secure its efforts with the Taliban for several years. The Russians saw the Afghan government as completely controlled by the United States and, in the worst case, so fragile that it would fight to survive the US withdrawal.
In interviews, Afghan and US officials and foreign diplomats with many years of experience in Kabul say that what started as a diplomatic channel between Russia and the Taliban barely a decade ago blossomed into a mutually beneficial alliance that has allowed the Kremlin to reclaim its influence in the region.
The change coincided with increasing hostility between the US and Russia over Syria’s civil war and other conflicts, say analysts, as well as Russia’s frustration over the rising instability in Afghanistan and the slow pace of the US withdrawal.
Now, the United States is carrying out the troops they joined with the Taliban even without a definitive peace treaty between the uprising and the Afghan government that the Americans have supported for several years. But Russia’s hidden efforts, officials and analysts say, are aimed at harassing and embarrassing the United States as the troops leave rather than profoundly change the course of the conflict.
“It was in modest quantities; it was not designed to be a game-changer on the battlefield, “General Nicholson, who has since retired from the military, told the Thursday Committee on Foreign Relations on Russian Arms and Assistance to the Taliban. “For example, the Taliban wanted to air-to-air failure, the Russians did not give them. So I always concluded that their support for the Taliban was somehow calibrated. “
Some pointed to the far more extensive US efforts to support the Mujahden uprising against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
“We did the same thing,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA field official in Afghanistan who retired last year as the agency’s chief operating officer in Europe and Eurasia. “We turned up the heat when the Russians left Afghanistan.”
“Putin,” he said, “is a history student.”
As things began to turn on the battlefield in recent years, officials described growing suspicions of a larger Russian role in helping the Taliban. But they often struggled to establish details, other than sometimes inflows of new weapons and ammunition that could have had multiple sources. In addition to Pakistan’s well-established support for the Taliban, Iran took a bigger hand in helping the rebels and often used similar channels to the Russians, Afghan intelligence officials said.
The dots began to connect more clearly during a stretch of alarming violence in northern Afghanistan, when the Taliban twice crossed Kunduz City, a provincial capital, in 2015 and 2016, sending the US military confused.
As Afghan intelligence fell on the ambitious Taliban regional commander behind the attacks, they traced his travels back and forth across the nearby border to Tajikistan, a Russian intelligence fortress, according to current and former senior Afghan security officials. Kunduz is also the base for operations for two Afghan businessmen that US intelligence officials say acted as middlemen in the bounty program between Russian intelligence officials and Taliban fighters.
US officials say they confronted Russia about its assistance to the Taliban on several occasions, but their public statements lacked details, and it never mattered. Russian officials said they received no documented evidence.
Three decades after the withdrawal of the Soviet military from Afghanistan, Russia’s cultural, economic and personal ties to the country remain deep. When Russia has seen influence, whether benign or otherwise, it has had a number of friends call: Soviet-trained generals who led the Afghan forces for several years on American pay; businessmen boasting friendship with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia; politicians who stayed in Moscow even when they became rich on US contracts.
During much of the first decade of the war, the United States did not really have to worry about the deep Russian reach of Afghan society, because Mr. Putin’s government was in line with the US mission to defeat Al Qaeda and Islamist groups that Moscow also saw as a threat – including the Taliban.
Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks show real attempts by both sides to coordinate efforts in Afghanistan. Russian officials spoke of a “collective fist” in the fight against terrorism and called for unity “with one voice – the American voice.”
But as the war in Afghanistan went on, and the two powers took opposing sides in the crises in Syria and Ukraine, the Russians increasingly saw the US missions fail, and the US presence in the region as a threat.
US intelligence officials now join Russia’s discreet outreach to the Taliban about eight years ago – about the time when Putin, after a four-year stint as prime minister, resumed the presidency with a more confrontational position with the West.
The mistrust soon became intense enough that Russian officials accused the United States of playing a hand in the rise of an Islamic chapter in Afghanistan around 2015, with many of its earliest fighters as Central Asian extremists longing to wage a holy war against Russia.
At a meeting of the Russian Security Council in 2013, Mr. Putin that his country could no longer stand in the face of failure of the United States and its partners.
“We need a clear action strategy that takes into account various possible developments,” Putin said at the meeting. “The task is to reliably protect Russia’s interests in all circumstances.”
Leading the diplomatic front was Zamir Kabulov, a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan and reportedly a former Russian intelligence activist.
Kabulov began publicly criticizing the United States for weaknesses in the Afghan government and for not failing the Islamist militancy there – and increasingly described the Afghan Taliban as a national entity that posed no threat beyond the country’s borders and could be dealt with.
Reports increased about Taliban making trips to Russia. And just as the United States and the Taliban completed the details of the US withdrawal, Russia brought the same Taliban leader to Moscow meetings with a large number of Afghan politicians to discuss the country’s political future.
As the United States has reduced its military presence, they have increasingly relied on Afghan intelligence and counterintelligence partners. The Afghan security ombud saw in recent years, especially in the north, was a deeply troubling reality.
About the time they began to focus more on Russian activities, the Afghans also revealed an Iranian scheme to distribute weapons to dissatisfied warlords and militia commanders – the weapons were Russian, and the road was through Tajikistan, officials said. The Iranian system was short-lived, a senior Afghan official said, after Iran realized that the weapons it provided would emerge in the saturated black market.
The Russians often used hundreds of millions of dollars in fuel imports for NATO and Afghan forces as a way to distribute cash to Afghanistan to secure influence and keep intelligence assets on their side. A former senior Afghan official said that instead of direct cash transfers, the Russians would mostly arrange for the oil tankers’ convoys that entered Afghanistan to be loaded with extra fuel that would get cash for circulation in the country.
Although the countries of Central Asia gained their independence after the Soviet collapse, Russia has never let a foothold in the region. In a cable, a Russian diplomat described the borders of countries such as Tajikistan, where the Russian Air Force still has about 7,000 troops, as “an extension of its own border.”
When the Taliban was in power in Afghanistan in the 1990s, Tajikistan was a hub for the Resistance commanders who received assistance from Russia and Iran. In 20 years since the US invasion, the country has become a center for criminal traffic and vice, a kind of adult playground for many of the Afghan elite who often travel back and forth to Tajikistan and often have family there.
In that mix of spies, money and mafia, the Taliban also found a foothold. The rebels made a point of taking control of some of the border crossings from Kunduz Province to Tajikistan. From the south of the country all the way to the north, they had border access to avoid military pressure, maintain ties with friendly foreigners and maintain a channel for opium trading that partially financed the uprising.
Several Afghan officials, including Asadullah Omarkhel, who was the governor of Kunduz at the time, said they shared with the US intelligence that Mullah Abdul Salam, the Taliban commander who led the Kunduz attacks, repeatedly crossed into Tajikistan for what they suspected was discussing with Russian agents. A news in Tajik reported meetings between Russian officials and Taliban commanders at a Russian air base in Tajikistan as early as 2015. And it was these border crossings that the Taliban used to deploy weapons, officials say.
Mr Omarkhel said the Americans were initially unsure of claims about Taliban ties to Russia, but then began to strike the Taliban bases along the border, including a strike that killed Mullah Salam.
At Thursday’s congressional hearing, General Nicholson reiterated his accusation that Russia was arming the Taliban, noting that even though the support was not extensive, it still had an effect.
“In northern Afghanistan, particularly in Kunduz, Russian aid helped the Taliban to increase the Afghan security forces and put more trouble on the Afghan people,” he said.
Najim Rahim, Eric Schmitt and Taimoor Shah contributed to the reporting.