Russia Backs Afghan Taliban Demand to Withdraw Foreign Troops

  • Putin envoy says Kremlin opposes long-term U.S., NATO presence
  • U.S. accuses Russia of arming Taliban after Moscow’s contacts

Russia said it supports the Taliban’s demand for foreign troops to leave Afghanistan as it criticized agreements that allow U.S. and NATO forces to remain for the long term in the war-torn country.

“Of course it’s justified” for the Taliban to oppose the foreign military presence, President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said in an interview in Moscow. “Who’s in favor? Name me one neighboring state that supports it.”

Zamir Kabulov

Photographer: Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Russia and the U.S. are increasingly at odds over Afghanistan. Officials in Moscow disclosed at the end of last year that they’ve been having contacts with the fundamentalist Islamic movement that ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, when it was overthrown in a U.S.-led invasion to destroy terrorist training camps run by Osama Bin Laden. U.S. generals say Russia may be supplying weapons to the Taliban, which is waging an expanding insurgency against the pro-Western Afghan government. Moscow denies the allegation.

Around 13,000 U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops are currently in Afghanistan, and the top U.S. commander is pushing for several thousand more to help reverse the course of the war. The U.S. estimates that only 57 percent of Afghanistan is under government control, a 15 percent decrease since November 2015.

The foreign forces are in Afghanistan as part of security accords signed under President Ashraf Ghani a day after he took office in September 2014. They allow for U.S. and NATO troops to stay through the end of 2024 and beyond, mending a relationship that had soured under his predecessor Hamid Karzai.

Peace Talks

The tensions over Afghanistan come as Russia’s hopes for better ties with new U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration fade amid continuing disputes over alleged Kremlin interference in last year’s election campaign. The two powers are also competing in Syria and Libya as Russia seeks to restore its influence in the Middle East.

Kabulov accused the U.S. of sabotaging Russian efforts to help end the Afghan war by boycotting a Moscow meeting planned for mid-April between Afghanistan and outside powers. Russia, where memories remain fresh of the Soviet Union’s Afghanistan experience 28 years after the Red Army’s humiliating withdrawal in 1989, says it’s offering to host peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Kabulov blamed the U.S. decision on a fit of pique that Russia is taking the lead, and suggested that the military establishment in Washington is undermining Trump’s campaign pledge to cooperate with Russia in fighting terrorism. “The U.S. won’t tell us and others what to do in Afghanistan,” he said.

‘Global Jihad’

While some Taliban elements are in a tactical alliance with Islamic State, the “bulk” of the movement and its leadership is determined to fight the terrorist group, the Russian diplomat said. This means the Taliban has “common interests” with Russia, said Kabulov.

“They have given up global jihad and have become a national force,” he said.

The Soviet Union lost 15,000 soldiers during a disastrous 10-year occupation of Afghanistan. Russia criticizes the U.S.-led military campaign there as a total failure, though Kabulov warned in January that an immediate withdrawal of American troops would lead to the “collapse” of the Afghan state.

Russia’s acting partly because it wants to counter the threat from Islamic State as the jihadists gain ground in Afghanistan amid the widening conflict, said Petr Topychkanov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. But it also “views American bases in Afghanistan as a threat to its interests” and is maneuvering to maximize its influence by keeping channels of communication with all sides, he said.

“It doesn’t matter for Russia if the Afghan state is a democratic or Islamist one,” Topychkanov said.

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