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Challenging the US, Moscow pushes into Afghanistan

Hamid Karzai the biggest boosters of Russian moves in Afghanistan

By JESSICA DONATI, HABIB KHAN TOTAKHIL and EHSANULLAH AMIRI-KABUL: Russia is making fresh inroads into Afghanistan that could complicate U.S. efforts to strengthen the fragile Kabul government, stamp out the resilient Taliban insurgency and end America’s longest war.

Moscow last month disclosed details of contacts with the Taliban, saying that it is sharing information and cooperating with the radical movement on strategy to fight the local affiliate of Islamic State, which has gained a foothold in eastern Nangarhar province, on the border with Pakistan.

Moscow’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Alexander Mantytskiy, and other Russian officials said the cooperation with the Taliban didn’t include supplying it with money or materiel. Taliban spokesman ZabiullahMujahid described the relationship as “just political.”

But the revelation coincides with other Russian moves in Afghanistan that appear aimed, as in the Middle East and Europe, at undermining U.S. influence and seeking regional parity with Washington.

The Kremlin held a conference in Moscow last month with China and Pakistan to discuss terrorist threats from Afghanistan and how to combat Islamic State. Since then, Russia has invited the Afghan government to participate in the continuing diplomatic initiative, but not the U.S.

Moscow also has blocked the Afghan government’s efforts to remove Gulbuddin Hekmatyar from a United Nations sanctions list, a crucial condition of an Afghan government peace deal with the warlord’s al Qaeda-linked insurgent group. The deal, strongly supported by the U.S. and its allies, was viewed by the U.S. and other allies of the government as a template for future talks with the Taliban.

While the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani has publicly criticized any support for the Taliban, one of the biggest boosters of Russian moves in Afghanistan is his predecessor, Hamid Karzai.

Mr. Karzai, who served as head of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul for more than 12 years, views Russia as a healthy counterweight to America’s dominant presence in his Central Asian nation of 33 million people.

“The fact is that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan has not brought security to us. It has caused more extremism,” Mr. Karzai said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “There has to be a balance of power here now.”

The frequency of the contacts between Russia and the Taliban—and the rank and influence of the officials involved in them—aren’t known. But they are sufficiently worrying to the U.S. that Gen. John Nicholson, the top American military commander in Afghanistan, publicly criticized Russia, Iran and Pakistan last month for their “malign influence” in the country. He singled out Moscow for “overtly” lending legitimacy to the Taliban.

Russia’s claim that it is reaching out to the Taliban because of the failure of the U.S. to curb the rise of Islamic State and other new terrorist groups in Afghanistan is designed to rationalize its policies, Gen. Nicholson said.

“Their [Russia’s] narrative goes something like this: that the Taliban are the ones fighting Islamic State, not the Afghan government,” he told reporters last month at the Pentagon briefing.

“This public legitimacy that Russia lends to the Taliban is not based on fact, but it is used as a way to essentially undermine the Afghan government and the NATO effort and bolster the belligerents,” the general said, referring to the 13,000-strong force of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which is led by about 8,400 U.S. troops.

Foreign government contact with the Taliban isn’t new. Pakistan is widely seen as a major patron of the movement, and in recent years Chinese and Afghan government officials have held separate talks with Taliban envoys to discuss peace prospects in Afghanistan.

But in forging open ties with the Taliban, Moscow is befriending the heirs of the insurgency that dealt the Soviet Union its most humiliating military defeat and helped lead to its collapse. In 1989, rebels—many of them Islamic fundamentalists backed by the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Pakistan—drove the Red Army from Afghanistan following a nine-year Soviet occupation.

There are few indications of what President Donald Trump’s administration will do in Afghanistan.

In December, Mr. Trump, at the time president-elect, told Mr. Ghani in a telephone call that he would consider sending more American troops, Afghan officials said, in a step to halt the deterioration of the country’s security. Before most foreign troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan at the end of 2014, former President Barack Obama had more than 100,000 U.S. troops in the country.

Also, the White House said this week that President Trump would be open to military cooperation with Russia to fight Islamic State.

Mr. Karzai said Mr. Trump’s pledge for improved ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin is encouraging.

“I am glad he and Putin are on good terms,” he said. “I hope the two of them will remain friends and work issues out, especially on Afghanistan.”




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