Russia has a long history in Afghanistan – this is how we got to this point
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Ten years ago, on a visit to Afghanistan, I was told by senior Afghan officials that the Russians had returned to the war. They were training army units and counter-narcotics troops. Not only that but Moscow had also agreed to supply Nato forces in the country with helicopters.
Western military officers in Kabul and Kandahar were guarded at first, but then confirmed that training had been agreed and a number of helicopters had already been sold by Russia to Poland, a member of the US-led coalition in the country, with former Warsaw Pact weaponry in its arsenal.
It was confirmed later in Brussels that Nato had invited Moscow back into Afghanistan, 21 years after the west had been instrumental in driving Soviet forces out with its backing of the Mujahideen. Negotiations were under way for the use of Russia’s central Asian territories to transport supplies, including arms and ammunition, to the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in Kabul.
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Ten years on, US intelligence reports claim that Russia has been offering bounties to the Taliban and other insurgent groups to kill soldiers from the US and its allies, including the UK, which has about 1,000 troops still based in Afghanistan.
The intelligence reports, first revealed by The New York Times, charted a lethal campaign by the GRU, Russia’s foreign military intelligence service. Donald Trump, it is claimed, was briefed by his security advisers about Moscow’s incitement to carry out lethal attacks, but he did not make it public and took no retaliatory measures against Vladimir Putin’s government.
The White House does not dispute that the intelligence exists, but it maintains that the president was never told. His latest press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, denied that Trump, who is notoriously poor at reading reports, may even have missed the information. “The president does read”, she insisted. “The president is the most informed person on planet Earth when it comes to the threats that we face.” However, a number of officials, including John Bolton, the recently departed national security adviser, have said that the president was informed of the Russian plot both verbally and in writing.
The issue is not going to go away. Families of US servicemen killed in Afghanistan have demanded an investigation. A former Navy Seal, Dan Barkhuff, is appearing in a TV ad by the the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump Republican group, demanding to know whether he is just a “coward” or is “complicit” when it comes to Putin. The Democrats are demanding to see the record of what the president was told.
It should be noted that Moscow has strongly denied the allegation, as have the Taliban. Nevertheless, the allegations are detailed and damning.
Looking at the chronology of Russia’s return to Afghanistan may help to explain how relations between the Kremlin and the Taliban developed over the years, with the twists and turns both of the Afghan war and relations between Russia and the west.
The request for Russian helicopters a decade ago was made by the then secretary-general of Nato, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, during a visit to Moscow. He was quite upbeat at the time, speaking to a group of journalists in Brussels, about the future of relations between the west and Russia in Afghanistan and other areas as well.
The officials, military and civil, whom I spoke to in Afghanistan had mixed feelings about the Russians once again getting involved in their country. Some had fought in the Soviet war: many had grown up in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran after their families had been forced out of the country by the conflict. But there were also those who had fought for the Russian-backed governments in the country.
There was one common view: with the west withdrawing from the long and costly conflict, they would need all the help they could get against the expected offensive from the Taliban and other insurgent groups based in Pakistan.
Nato’s request for the use of border territories to bring military supplies into Afghanistan was seen an imperative at the time because the existing route, through Pakistan, was becoming extremely hazardous. It had, in effect, become a bargaining chip for the Pakistani government in the face of US and western complaints that Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, was feeding and watering the Taliban – something Pakistan has repeatedly denied.
Threats by Washington to cut aid to the Pakistani armed forces would often lead to attacks on the convoy – a reminder of what could happen if the Pakistani forces stopped protecting the convoys altogether because of a lack of resources.
Moscow expected some returns for its help in Afghanistan a decade before: the Kremlin wanted Nato to accept a fait accompli over Georgia, where Russian troops remained in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, territories seized in the war two years previously, in 2008; they also wanted a limit on the numbers of Nato troops being based in eastern European countries that had newly joined the alliance.
But it was also in Moscow’s interest for the west to stay in Afghanistan. There was a rise in violent Islamist movements in Russia’s Asian republics, and letting Afghanistan once again become a training ground for international jihad was not something that Moscow wanted. The US-led Isaf protected Russia’s southern flank, while, at the same time, keeping the west occupied with a cost in “blood and treasure”.
Anatoly Serdyukov, Russia’s defence minister, said: “I hope that western peacemaking troops will not withdraw before they have fulfilled their mission. We are watching things in Afghanistan very closely and we are exchanging our experience with the Americans. Russia is ready to pass on to America the experience gained by our veterans of the war in Afghanistan. Withdrawal of the [western] troops would naturally affect the situation in central Asia; we currently cannot even imagine how. For this reason we want to help the west.”
Five years later, on another trip to Afghanistan, I found that the Russians had firmly established a working relationship with the Taliban. And it wasn’t just the Russians – the Chinese and the Iranians were also keen on getting alongside the group.
For all of them, the reason was a common enemy. The Taliban were at the time engaged in a bitter struggle for jihadi supremacy against Isis, which had arrived in the country. Putin had just started airstrikes against Isis in Syria and, apart from helping out his ally Bashar al-Assad, the reason given by the Russian president was concern about jihadis returning to carry out attacks. China was alarmed by links between Isis and the East Turkestan independence movement, the latter popular among China’s Uighur Muslims. Iran, battling Isis in Syria and Iraq, saw a serious threat in the group’s growing presence across its eastern border.
Zamir Kabulov, the Kremlin’s special envoy to Afghanistan, told us: “Taliban interests objectively coincide with ours. The Taliban have said they don’t recognise Isis and they don’t recognise the Isis leader [Abu Bakr] al‑Baghdadi as the caliph; that is very important. We have communication channels with the Taliban to exchange information. There is no doubt that Isis is training militants from Russia in Afghanistan as part of its efforts to expand into central Asia.”
Kabulov had been specially chosen for Kabul. Not only was he a former KGB colleague of Putin, he was the service’s top ranking officer in the country during the Afghan war. He had met the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, in 1995 while negotiating the release of a Russian air crew after their plane had been forced to land in Kandahar.
The Russians insisted that their liaison with the Taliban was limited to intelligence-sharing. Some Taliban commanders in the north of the country claimed, however, that they had received weapons through Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic with a pro-Moscow government. Dushanbe, the capital, is said to have been a venue for talks between the Russians and the Taliban.
Relations between Russia and the west had plummeted by then. The Ukraine war, the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the resultant imposition of sanctions by the west, and the repeated criticism of Putin’s human rights record by Barack Obama’s administration seemed to be heralding a new cold war.
Isaf had officially finished its combat mission in 2013, although there were still western forces present in numbers in Afghanistan. However, there was no evidence at the time that the Russians had asked the Taliban or any other insurgent groups to carry out attacks against them.
It may seem strange that the Russians would do so now, with the most pro-Russian president in American history in the White House, a waning appetite in the west for renewing Ukraine sanctions, and Moscow (thanks to Trump) heading back to the G7.
Could it be, ask diplomats and the military, that Putin, who is known to want to redress historic reverses inflicted on Russia, sees the chance of payback for what the west did at the time of the Soviet war? And that the Russian president knows that he can get away with it while Trump is in the White House?
Or is it the case that the GRU may have been carrying out the Afghan operation without orders to do so from Moscow? Its unit 29155, which is accused of carrying out the Novichok attack in Salisbury and a number of other covert missions in Europe, is said to have a degree of autonomy.
General Sir David Richards, who commanded Isaf in Afghanistan, sees what has happened as an example of the sheer fracturing of the relationship between Moscow and the west.
“Times have certainly changed. When I was in Afghanistan I had quite good relations with the Russians. I remember discussing tactics they used in the 1980s and they were quite helpful for our mission. I got on quite well with the Russian ambassador in Kabul when I was head of Isaf there; there was no question then of collusion with the Taliban or anything like that. The Russians were more worried about Islamist extremists and the connections they had with their own extremists in the south than they were about Nato” he said.
The general, now Lord Richards, who later became head of the British military, said: “Good relations continued when I was CDS [chief of defence staff]. This was when Putin was talking about cooperation with Nato. The relationship with the west was nowhere near the poisonous level it has reached now. Both sides, I think, are partly to blame for this state of affairs.”
But Lord Richards also said it may be worth examining whether the Russian government was fully aware of what was going on.
“I wonder if the Russian ‘deep state’, so to speak, was at play here. The GRU loathe the west and one can see them trying to whip up trouble. It could also be them doing something they think Putin wants – guessing the commander’s intentions and going off at a tangent with such dangerous consequences.”
General Sir Richard Barrons, a former chief of joint operations, who also served in Afghanistan, did not think that the Russian security system would allow such autonomous action. “If we look at Russian actions, it takes place at a strategic level with all the dots joined up. Putin wants to re-establish Russian influence internationally and he is doing so in a wide arc – the Middle East, Asia, in places like Afghanistan, and even central Europe – and weaken the west while doing so.
“Helping to ensure a defeat for the US in Afghanistan would be seen as a huge victory by the Russians. Would Putin fear the consequences? Well, we see that the intelligence was delivered in Washington. And nothing was done.”
Last autumn, in Kandahar, I met Maulvi Manzoor, a senior Taliban leader, who had returned to Afghanistan after an assassination attempt in Pakistan – in which he was shot six times – by a “powerful organisation” whose name he did not want published.
Manzoor, who had once fought alongside Mullah Omar, was interviewed at a CIA base in Kandahar where he was asked to work for the Americans: an offer he refused (a US official confirmed the meeting had taken place but refused to say what was discussed).
“I left Pakistan because I did not want to be used by foreigners and I told the Americans that I did not want to work for them,” said Manzoor. “There are other countries who are trying to use us, we know, against each other. That has been our misfortune: other people want to fight their wars on our land, and we are left suffering.”