The Washington Post

Russia, Iran assert themselves in Afghanista­n

Afghan officials accuse both countries of boosting the Taliban

- 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.
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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