Rus­sia, Iran as­sert them­selves in Afghanista­n

Afghan of­fi­cials ac­cuse both coun­tries of boost­ing the Tal­iban

The Washington Post - - THE WORLD - BY ERIN CUN­NING­HAM erin.cun­ning­ham@wash­post.com Sayed Salahud­din and Walid Sharif con­trib­uted to this re­port.

kabul — Iran and Rus­sia have stepped up chal­lenges to U.S. power in Afghanista­n, Amer­i­can and Afghan of­fi­cials say, seiz­ing on the un­cer­tainty of fu­ture U.S. pol­icy to ex­pand ties with the Tal­iban and weaken the coun­try’s West­ern-backed gov­ern­ment.

The moves come as ten­sions have flared be­tween the United States, Iran and Rus­sia over the con­flict in Syria, and of­fi­cials worry that the fall­out could hurt Afghanista­n’s chances for peace. For years, Iran and Rus­sia have pushed for a U.S. with­drawal.

Now, as the Tal­iban gains ground and the White House ap­pears to lack a clear Afghan pol­icy, Iran and Rus­sia have boosted sup­port for in­sur­gents and side­lined the United States from re­gional diplo­macy on the war.

Rus­sia on Fri­day will host high­level talks on Afghanista­n with Ira­nian, Pak­istani and Chi­nese diplo­mats, the Krem­lin said. But the United States, irked by Moscow’s re­cent out­reach to the Tal­iban, has not con­firmed whether it will at­tend.

Rus­sia has “be­gun to pub­licly le­git­imize the Tal­iban,” and re­cent Rus­sian and Ira­nian ac­tions in Afghanista­n “are to un­der­mine the United States and NATO,” the top com­man­der of U.S. forces in Afghanista­n, Army Gen. John Ni­chol­son Jr., said in Se­nate tes­ti­mony in Fe­bru­ary.

The United States has roughly 8,400 troops in Afghanista­n, most of whom are part of the NATO mis­sion to as­sist Afghan forces. The re­main­der are part of a coun­tert­er­ror­ism op­er­a­tion tar­get­ing al-Qaeda and a lo­cal af­fil­i­ate of the Is­lamic State.

Ni­chol­son said that Iran and Rus­sia “are com­mu­ni­cat­ing about the ef­forts” to sup­port Tal­iban in­sur­gents and that Rus­sia has “be­come more as­sertive over the past year.”

“We know there is a di­a­logue. We know there is a re­la­tion­ship be­tween Iran and Rus­sia” in Afghanista­n, he said. And Iran, which shares a long, por­ous bor­der with Afghanista­n, “is di­rectly sup­port­ing the Tal­iban” in west­ern Afghanista­n, he said.

While Rus­sia and Shi­ite Iran ap­pear to be un­likely al­lies of a hard-line Sunni group such as the Tal­iban, the two coun­tries have for years played the dif­fer­ent sides in the con­flict. Both sup­ported the U.S.-backed ouster of the Tal­iban in 2001, and Iran was the chief bene­fac­tor of the anti-Tal­iban North­ern Al­liance.

But Iran and Rus­sia even­tu­ally soured on the U.S. pres­ence, which they both grad­u­ally saw as a threat.

“Iran is wor­ried that with Amer­i­can troops in Afghanista­n, the two mil­i­taries will end up con­fronting each other,” said Mo­ham­mad Akram Arefi, an Ira­nian-ed­u­cated pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics at Kateb Univer­sity in Kabul.

“Iran also wants to re­vive its power in the re­gion by hav­ing in­flu­ence over Afghanista­n. And with Amer­ica here, they can’t have the type of in­flu­ence they want,” he said.

Rus­sia, which also sees Afghanista­n as part of its Cen­tral Asia sphere of in­flu­ence, has sug­gested that the Tal­iban is an ef­fec­tive bul­wark against the rise of the Is­lamic State. A lo­cal Is­lamic State branch has staged deadly at­tacks but has strug­gled to gain a foothold beyond its base in east­ern Afghanista­n.

In a swipe at the le­git­i­macy of the Afghan gov­ern­ment, Rus­sia has ques­tioned Afghan se­cu­rity forces’ abil­i­ties to tar­get the Is­lamic State. Still, Iran and Rus­sia have both de­nied pro­vid­ing the Tal­iban with weapons or cash.

In an emailed state­ment this week, the Rus­sian Em­bassy in Kabul said that the claims were “ab­surd fab­ri­ca­tions” de­signed to dis­tract from the fail­ure of the U.S. and NATO mis­sions here.

There is “a con­tin­u­ing se­ries of ground­less ac­cu­sa­tions against Rus­sia about al­leged sup­port of the Tal­iban,” the em­bassy said.

A Tal­iban spokesman also called the al­le­ga­tions un­true.

“Our con­tacts with Rus­sia are for po­lit­i­cal and diplo­matic pur­poses only,” spokesman Zabi­ul­lah Mujahid said in a phone in­ter­view. He did not say whether Tal­iban rep­re­sen­ta­tives would at­tend the Moscow talks.

But U.S. and Afghan of­fi­cials say that the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Rus­sia, Iran and the Tal­iban goes beyond just diplo­macy and that con­flict with the United States else­where could prompt Iran and Rus­sia to raise the stakes here.

Afghan law­mak­ers have launched a probe of al­leged ties, in­clud­ing pos­si­ble Ira­nian-Rus­sian co­or­di­na­tion to get arms to in­sur­gents in restive prov­inces in the south and the west.

Gul Ah­mad Azami is an Afghan sen­a­tor from Farah prov­ince, along the Ira­nian bor­der. He says he was briefed by in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials on re­ports show­ing weapons that had been trans­ported into Farah from Iran, in part to en­sure the al­le­giance of lo­cal com­man­ders. Of­fi­cials in Kabul, Hel­mand, Uruz­gan and Herat all made sim­i­lar claims.

In Hel­mand prov­ince in the south, pro­vin­cial gov­er­nor Hay­at­ul­lah Hayat listed the type of weaponry he says lo­cal in­sur­gents re­ceive from Rus­sia with Iran’s help. The list in­cludes land mines, sniper ri­fles, rocket-pro­pelled grenades and 82mm mor­tar rounds.

“There is no doubt” the two coun­tries are help­ing the Tal­iban, Hayat said. He said he, too, was briefed by in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials.

He claimed that Ira­nian ad­vis­ers have been present on the bat­tle­field, also cit­ing in­tel­li­gence re­ports and tribal el­ders in dis­tricts where there is fight­ing. The po­lice chief in Uruz­gan prov­ince, Ghu­lam Farooq San­gari, also told the Voice of Amer­ica’s Afghan ser­vice that Rus­sian ad­vis­ers were as­sist­ing in­sur­gents there, too.

Nei­ther of those claims could be ver­i­fied, and U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials have not said whether they know of Ira­nian and Rus­sian per­son­nel be­ing on the ground. But the as­ser­tions in­di­cate the ex­tent to which the de­bate over Rus­sian and Ira­nian in­flu­ence has dom­i­nated Afghanista­n re­cently.

“We are wor­ried that Afghanista­n will be­come another Syria, with world pow­ers con­fronting each other here,” said Azami, the sen­a­tor from Farah.

While Pres­i­dent Trump has taken a harsh stance on Iran, he has said lit­tle about what he en­vi­sions for the U.S. role in Afghanista­n. In just the past sev­eral days, U.S.-Rus­sian re­la­tions plum­meted af­ter a U.S. mis­sile strike last week on a Syr­ian mil­i­tary air base. The U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tion says the air base was used to launch air­craft that al­legedly car­ried out an April 4 chem­i­cal at­tack that killed dozens of civil­ians in Syria’s Idlib prov­ince.

The state of U.S., Rus­sian and Ira­nian re­la­tions will de­ter­mine Afghanista­n’s sta­bil­ity, of­fi­cials here say.

“First, peo­ple are con­cerned now about how Amer­i­cans view Afghanista­n, and whether or not they will change their minds about sup­port­ing us,” said Mo­ham­mad Nateqi, an ad­viser in the of­fice of Afghan Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Ab­dul­lah Ab­dul­lah.

“The re­la­tion­ship be­tween Afghanista­n, the United States and NATO has been very strong,” said Nateqi, who spent decades in Iran. “But if there are bad re­la­tions be­tween Iran, the United States and Rus­sia, it will be very dan­ger­ous for us.”

WAKIL KOHSAR/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IM­AGES

U.S. troops in Kabul ar­rive at the site of a sui­cide car bomb­ing that tar­geted an Afghan po­lice build­ing as a fire­fight con­tin­ues be­tween Tal­iban and Afghan forces on March 1.

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