Russia and Iran might undermine Afghanistan’s central government by supporting the Taliban and other local forces, U.S. officials fear.
“The Russian influence has not been welcome,” Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, the second-highest ranking U.S. diplomat, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.
Sullivan explained that Russia is backing “elements” of the Taliban in the region where the United States is carrying out aggressive counter-terrorism airstrikes. Additionally, Iran — the leading Shia Muslim power in the world — has the opportunity to strengthen ties with Shia Muslims in Afghanistan, which shares a border with Iran.
“What we're concerned about is pernicious influence by Iran that would undermine Afghan sovereignty, as we are with respect to Iran's influence in Iraq,” Sullivan said.
Iranian and Russian operations in Afghanistan also recall their cooperation in Syria, where they have fought to prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad. In both Syria and Afghanistan, Russia has accused the United States of working with the Islamic State — charges that Sullivan described as “very unhelpful and of course wildly inaccurate.” Those accusations offset their support for local forces at odds with U.S. policy goals.
“There are reports that Russia has provided support to groups in northern Afghanistan that are aligned with the Taliban,” Sullivan said. “And we're not willing to go to the peace table today with the Taliban because of their violent terrorist activities in Kabul — elements of the Taliban, at least, we believe are dealing with some parts of the Russian government.”
The U.S. military has stepped up the pace of airstrikes in northern Afghanistan, following a pair of terrorist attacks in Kabul in late January. A suicide bomber detonated an ambulance full of explosives, killing 95 people and injuring another 191, just days after gunmen killed 22 people at a hotel in the heart of the city. U.S. military officials have suspected for months that Russia is arming the Taliban, but Russian President Vladimir Putin’s team denies it.
"We have to say this again: Russia is not supplying weapons to the Taliban," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in July. "Russia only maintains contact with them so as to protect the security of Russian citizens in Afghanistan and to encourage the Taliban to join the national reconciliation process."
But Sullivan suggested that Russia is playing a double-game. “It's sort of a hedging strategy, it's playing both sides, dealing with the [Afghan central] government in Kabul but also supporting the Taliban,” he said.