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The evidence is mounting that Vladimir Putin’s government supports the Taliban as a means of thwarting NATO interests in Afghanistan. Russia has long manipulated terrorists, internally and abroad, to suit its policy aims, but as Moscow solidifies its relationship with the Iranian revolution the Russian policy, particularly in Syria, has become something more like a conventional alliance—not least because those who run Tehran’s foreign policy and the clerical regime’s most powerful assets are themselves terrorists.
RUSSIA AND THE TALIBAN
General John Nicholson, the commander of the 8,400 U.S. troops conducting Operation RESOLUTE SUPPORT in Afghanistan, was asked, while standing alongside Secretary of Defence James Mattis on 24 April, about the reports of weapons and other resources flowing from the Russian government to the Taliban. Gen. Nicholson responded
We continue to get reports of this assistance. We support anyone who wants to help us advance the reconciliation process, but anyone who arms belligerents who perpetuate attacks like the one we saw two days ago in Mazar-e Sharif is not the best way forward to a peaceful reconciliation.
The attack referred to took place on 22 April. At least eight Taliban jihadists stormed the northern region headquarters of the Afghan Army in the Balkh Province, of which Mazar-i-Sharif is the capital, and massacred 140 people.
U.S. officials, speaking to The Washington Post, said that Russia’s support to the Taliban has increased over the last eighteen months under the guise of assisting the Taliban in its fight with the Islamic State (IS) in eastern Afghanistan, but the weaponry has been “showing up in some of Afghanistan’s southern provinces, including Helmand and Kandahar—both areas with little Islamic State presence.”
It is the myth that will not die that the U.S. supported Usama bin Ladin and other Islamists to defeat the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan who later became the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The reality is Bin Ladin neither wanted nor needed U.S. funding, and the Taliban’s rise was exactly in opposition to the feuding warlords of the 1980s who reduced Afghanistan to rubble in an internecine war once the Red Army was out. By the late 1990s, Moscow had good relations with some of these warlords, notably Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. When the Taliban was trying to reach an accord with Hekmatyar to stop the fighting, it was to Moscow they looked—via Saddam Husayn. Hekmatyar remained aloof from the Taliban, fleeing to Iran (on which, more below), but, after the Taliban’s ouster, Hekmatyar and his Hizb-i-Islami would join with the Taliban and the Haqqani Network as one of three pillars of the Afghan insurgency—all of them working in varying degrees of coordination and cooperation with al-Qaeda.
Gen. Nicholson’s statement adds to a growing body of evidence that Russia is supporting anti-Western terrorists in Afghanistan.
In December 2015, the Russian Foreign Ministry stated openly that it was sharing intelligence with the Taliban because “the Taliban interest objectively coincides with ours,” ostensibly referring to combating IS. The Taliban quickly denied this, but by the spring of 2016, the Russians were running training camps for the Taliban in Tajikistan.
Signs of this increasing embrace could be seen this past December, too, when the Taliban praised the Russia-China-Pakistan meeting in Moscow that concluded with recommendations for a “flexible” approach to the Taliban, both as a bulwark against IS and in regards to the terrorism listing of the Taliban’s leaders by the United Nations. Gen. Nicholson at the time flatly stated that Russia had “overtly lent legitimacy to the Taliban” on a fabricated basis since it was the Afghan government, not the Taliban, that was battling IS.
Last month, U.S. Army General and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Curtis Scaparrotti, told the Senate that the U.S. knew of “increased [Russian] influence in terms of association and perhaps even supply to the Taliban”.
IRAN AND THE TALIBAN
The banner of “anti-IS” has been used to legitimize many bad actors across the Middle East, and in Afghanistan this includes not only Russia but the Iranian revolution, now as ever the premier state sponsor of terrorism. As I pointed out nearly two years ago, Tehran has been extending its power, antagonistically to the West and the elected government in Afghanistan, via the Taliban, while decreasing the West’s hostility to this power-play by framing it as a common interest against IS.
The Iranian government’s relationship with the Taliban preceded the Taliban’s fall—Iran offered the Taliban heavy weapons against the U.S. during the invasion, among other things—and Iranian support for the Taliban has been on the rise since the mid-2000s, formalized in early 2014 when Iran publicly opened four terrorism training camps for the Taliban near the border and a political office in Mashhad.
Iran also has a more direct paw in the Afghan insurgency: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a long-time asset of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The closeness of relations can be seen with one recently-released inmate of Guantanamo Bay, Hamid al-Razak (Haji Hamidullah), a founder of Hekmatyar’s group and personally close to al-Qaeda, who was an agent of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (VEVAK).
RUSSIA AND IRAN IN SYRIA
Iran’s omnidirectional affinity for anti-Western terrorists is hardly news. Tehran has a long relationship with al-Qaeda, which continues to this day, with al-Qaeda’s leaders—manning the key artery for resources to al-Qaeda’s affiliates in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere—sheltered out of range of American drones on Iranian territory. While allowing al-Qaeda to move resources and some of its most senior officials into Syria to co-opt the insurgency against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Iran mobilized a multinational Shi’a jihad to rescue Assad.
In Syria, the Assad regime has, since the outbreak of the peaceful protest movement in 2011, largely staked its life on the claim that it is the lesser-evil since its enemies are jihadists and terrorists—and then worked assiduously to make this come true. This regime’s message was carried around the world by an extensive disinformation campaign, and amplified by the governments in Iran and Russia. Moscow, which abetted this strategy by focusing its firepower after its intervention on the mainstream opposition in places like Aleppo and largely leaving IS alone, has been particularly firm on this point in deflecting attention from the industrial-scale crimes against humanity of its client. The hypocrisy of this stance—even if it was true that Assad’s foes were all extremists, which it wasn’t (and even now isn’t)—is acute.
The lack of manpower of the Assad regime is its most chronic problem, and Iran’s Shi’a jihadist proxies—principally Lebanese Hizballah, Iraqi Shi’a militias once used to murder Western troops, Afghan Hazaras who are pressed into the IRGC-run Liwa Fatemiyun, and Pakistani Shi’is in Liwa Zaynabiyun—have made up the difference. An Afghan who deserted noted that on Assad’s frontlines, there were “almost no Syrians with us,” a reflection of Iran’s power—and Assad’s weakness.
Hizballah and one of the Iraqi militias, Kataib Hizballah, are registered terrorist organizations, as is the organization that controls them and the other proxy militias, the expeditionary wing of IRGC, the Quds force led by the near-mythical Major-General Qassem Sulaymani. Sulaymani himself, and his deputy Jamal al-Ibrahimi (Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis), are designated terrorists. It is these Iranian-controlled pro-Assad terrorists that have been given Russian air support since September 2015, and Hizballah claims that Russian assistance has been more extensive and direct.
The notion of an alliance with Russia and Iran against “terrorism” (Sunni jihadism) is one that tantalized the last American administration. It led at one point to the proposal of a formal military pact with the Russians that—if it worked—would have collapsed the anti-Assad opposition and bolstered the recruitment of groups like al-Qaeda. The notion was among the constellation of reasons the Obama administration allowed Syria to become a Russian-Iranian condominium with Assad at the helm. The idea even seemed to find some rhetorical support from then-candidate Donald Trump.
But non-state terrorists like al-Qaeda and IS can never match the menace of a terrorist regime like Iran’s, with the wealth of a petro-state behind it, and the blind-eye turned to the growth of the ideology and infrastructure of Shi’a jihadism under Iranian auspices in the last half-decade will be one of the many parts of President Obama’s legacy that will take many years to deal with. Iran has struck at Western interests with terrorism around the globe for decades, and the integration of its networks under a Russian-backed protectorate across the Fertile Crescent is immensely dangerous. That Iran’s hegemony might one day be underwritten with nuclear weapons, delayed at best by the deal, makes Iran more dangerous still.
With the cruise missile strikes at Assad over the chemical weapons attack in Khan Shaykhun it seems possible Trump is reassessing his stance. As he does so, it might be tempting to revert to trying to pull Russia and Iran apart. Even if this idea hadn’t also been tested to destruction by the last administration, the above should make clear that Russia is no ally against terrorism, whether in state or non-state form.