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Russia and Iran ‘hedge their bets’ to support Taliban, State Dept. says

Taliban insurgents turn themselves in to Afghan forces, 2010. (Resolute Support Media/Flickr)
June 22, 2018

A senior State Department official this week said that Russia and Iran continue to back the Taliban terrorist group in the Middle East, which is not helping the United States’ stabilizing efforts there.

Alice Wells, a top diplomat for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, this week told the House Foreign Affairs Committee: “We are concerned about countries that are seeking to hedge their bets in Afghanistan, typically by viewing the Taliban as a legitimate force in fighting ISIS-Khorasan,” the Washington Examiner reported.

U.S. officials have long suspected and accused Russia of supplying the Taliban, thus undermining efforts of U.S. forces to stabilize Afghanistan.

Russia has continually denied its involvement, despite their weaponry found in the hands of Taliban fighters.

In March, Gen. John Nicholson, head of U.S. Forces – Afghanistan, said that Russian arms were actively smuggled into Taliban hands across the Tajikistan border. He added that the destabilizing activity had significantly increased in the previous 18 to 24 months. Russian counterterrorism forces were also leaving behind large amounts of equipment and weaponry.

In October 2017, Afghan officials pleaded with Moscow to end their support of the Taliban after the militant group used Russian weapons in an increase of attacks, The Guardian reported.

Afghan army Brig. Gen. Mohammad Naser Hedayat said: “Many large countries are involved in the Afghan War. We can name Russia, who is actively meddling in Farah, and we have seized Russian-made weapons, including night vision sniper scopes.”

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said at an April 2017 press conference that the influx of Russian weapons into Afghanistan conveyed how “the Russians seem to be choosing to be strategic competitors in a number of areas. The level of granularity and the level of success they’re achieving – I think the jury is out on that.”

Mattis added that “we will engage with Russia diplomatically. We’ll do so where we can. But we’re going to have to confront Russia where what they’re doing is contrary to international law or denying the sovereignty of other countries.”

Funneling weapons to militant groups in a foreign country is a violation of international law.

U.S. Ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, told Radio Liberty, a U.S.-backed radio outlet, that Russia and Iran are not contributing to stabilization efforts in Afghanistan. Instead, she called them “enablers” who are “propping up the terrorist networks that are killing innocent people.”

In 2016, Afghan authorities described evidence of Russian and Iranian support of the Taliban. They also accused Iran of harboring Afghanistan-based Taliban fighters.

Asif Nang, governor of the western Farah province, told Radio Liberty that Iran harbored more than 5,000 Taliban fighters, including families of high-ranking Taliban leaders, VOA News reported.

The Afghan government remains committed to peace for the reconciliation and stability of the nation. It is unclear, however, whether or not Russia and Iran will support these efforts.

NATO Secretary Gen. Jens Stoltenberg praised Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s offer of peace talks with the Taliban, as well as their decision to hold parliamentary elections in October. Stoltenberg also called on Iran and Russia “to contribute to regional stability.”

NATO has maintained its position of supporting the Afghan government.

“Our strong view is that the only way to defeat terrorism and to bring peace to Afghanistan is to strengthen the Afghan government and to strengthen the government’s ability to fight terrorists,” Wells said.

She acknowledged that “Russia and Iran do have an important role to play in the future stabilization of Afghanistan,” adding that the two will have to support any peace efforts established by the Afghans and Taliban.