Moscow recently invested $20 million to rebuild the ruined edifice of an old Soviet Union-era cultural center in downtown Kabul, giving it a new name as Russia continues to rebrand itself in a country where it waged a long and bloody war.
The building, named the Russian Cultural Center in Afghanistan, is a symbol of how Moscow aims to boost its influence in Kabul with both gifts and an aggressive propaganda campaign that Western and Afghan analysts believe is aimed at discrediting the West.
Moscow’s latest tactic: exaggerate the threat of Islamic State in Afghanistan, according to top U.S. generals. These “soft-power” efforts by Russia aim to exploit Afghan disappointment about the post-9/11 intervention by America and its allies, said Arturo Munoz, a researcher with the RAND Corporation.
“It tracks with their whole strategy to paint a picture of the United States as having failed to bring security to Afghanistan,” Munoz said. “Rumors and conspiracy theories — it’s a way to increase your influence and lower others’ without shooting.”
The U.S has been concerned about Russian efforts to gain influence in Kabul for at least a decade. Leaked military cables from the spring of 2007 highlighted fears that Russia and Iran were working together to thwart Western influence in Afghan media.
In March, two U.S. generals publicly accused Russia of exaggerating the threat of the terrorist group ISIS in Afghanistan as a way of promoting the Taliban.
“We see a narrative that’s being used that grossly exaggerates the number of ISIS fighters here,” Gen. John Nicholson told BBC News Friday, in an interview where he also accused Russia of arming the Taliban. “This narrative then is used as a justification for the Russians to legitimize the actions of Taliban and provide some degree of support to the Taliban.”
Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, has voiced similar concerns, saying Russia is deploying “familiar propaganda techniques” to brand ISIS’s presence as a U.S. and NATO failure.
Moscow’s relations with Washington have grown increasingly strained since 2014. NATO suspended all cooperation after Russia’s annexation of Crimea that year. In Syria, Russia cited the threat of ISIS as it backed government forces fighting against American-backed rebels. U.S. intelligence agencies have accused Russia of meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and Washington ordered the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats last week in retaliation for the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain.
Exaggerating the ISIS presence has several aims, according to Thomas Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. These include presenting Western efforts as failing, keeping its options open, and also pressuring the former Soviet republics in Central Asia to cooperate with Russia against the ISIS threat.
In December, Russian envoy Zamir Kabulov told a state media outlet that the number of ISIS militants in Afghanistan exceeds 10,000. Late last year, Nicholson estimated there to be around 1,100 fighters. Afghanistan Defense officials, using the Arabic initials for ISIS, put the number closer to 1,500.
“Russia and Iran are talking about Daesh’s threat with more exaggeration,” said Afghan deputy Defense spokesman Gen. Mohammad Radmanish, using the common local name for ISIS. “Some people will continue their propaganda about Daesh presence in Afghanistan, but what we know is that they are not a big threat.”
ISIS has claimed several bloody attacks in Kabul in recent months, but Nicholson in November said the terror group has presence in just three provinces: Nangarhar, Kunar and Jowzjan.
Conflict Intelligence Team, a group of Russian online investigators who fact check claims by the Russian military, said it had has observed local media efforts to use ISIS as justification for a continuous Russian presence in Central Asia. “This is no overwhelming propaganda effort like on Ukraine, yet it’s there,” a spokesperson from the group said.
A dangerous ISIS threat could be used to justify continued Russian presence in countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, said Edward Lemon, a researcher at the University of Exeter.
Citing the ISIS threat, Russia pledged $1.2 billion in military aid to Tajikistan, which borders Afghanistan’s northern provinces, in 2015.
Russia views these nations as part of its sphere of influence, Lemon said.
Afghanistan has long been a battleground for Russian influence, going back to the “great game” between Russia and colonial Britain in the 1800s. The Soviet Union waged a bloody war from 1979 to 1989 on behalf of a communist government in Kabul, a conflict that led to the deaths of more than 14,000 Russian soldiers and around 1 million Afghans.
Russian support to the Taliban has picked up in the last 18 to 24 months, Nicholson told the BBC. Moscow has repeatedly denied the U.S. claims.
Meanwhile, Russian state funded media outlets frequently pursue a narrative that alleges secret U.S. support for ISIS in both Syria and Afghanistan. These kinds of information wars aim to cast confusion about who is telling the truth, according to former State Department diplomat Brett Bruen said.
“We face an enemy now who understands far better than we do the power of information in the modern age,” said Bruen, who was director of Global Engagement for the National Security Council. “Our enemies are using information as one of their most powerful weapons, and the United States does not have a strategy for dealing with it, and that is why we’re falling behind.”
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