Over the last few months, Taliban orchestrated attacks have wreaked havoc across Afghanistan on a near-daily basis, leading to mounting deaths tolls for Afghan and U.S. forces as well as for Afghan citizens. To make matters worse, earlier this year, reports began to circulate in the U.S. that Russia is providing arms to the Taliban as they battle Afghan and U.S. troops. The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel spoke with Mike Sulick, former Director of CIA’s National Clandestine Service, about Russia’s strategy and objectives in Afghanistan and how the U.S. can more effectively counter subversive Russian activities.
TCB: It has been reported that Russia is arming the Taliban as they fight U.S. and Afghan troops in Afghanistan. What do you make of these reports?
Mike Sulick: I’ve seen those reports, including one from CNN with videos on it, which has been criticized by some because that whole area is awash in Russian and U.S. arms, and it is difficult to tell where the weapons are coming from. But you do have to take seriously statements by the commanding U.S. general in Afghanistan, John Nicholson, in front of Congress where he didn’t dispute information about Russian arms being sent to the Taliban. The chief of U.S. Central Command, Joseph Votel, has also said it is fair to assume that there has been Russian arms support for the Taliban. At the same time, however, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, appeared before Congress and said that they don’t have any physical evidence of this.
But to me, it’s still important regardless if Russia is supplying arms or not. It’s more serious if they are, but the Russians, by their own admission, say they have contacts with the Taliban, and they’ve had meetings with them. The Russians claim that it is to bring the Taliban back to the negotiating table.
TCB: What is Russia’s objective in arming the Taliban? What are Russia’s long-term objectives in Afghanistan?
Sulick: There are a number of objectives. Locally, Russia wants to ensure stability on the Afghan northern border in Kunduz that is adjacent to Tajikistan, which for all practical purposes is a satellite of Russia. They also want to counter the spread of ISIS-affiliated militants in central Asia.
Bigger picture, for Russia long-term, it’s another hot spot for Russian President Vladimir Putin to exercise his influence and portray himself as a problem solver and a peacemaker, while at the same time, show that the U.S. is incapable of doing this. It’s a similar scenario to what happened with Syrian chemical weapons. Doing this also helps undermine the U.S.-NATO alliance.
The Russians have already held meetings on Afghanistan and have managed to lure in representatives from a number of countries including China, Pakistan, and Iran among them. So that is more of a long-term objective for Russia.
TCB: It almost seems as though Russia and the United States have effectively switched roles in Afghanistan: In the 1980s, American CIA officers supplied weapons to anti-government rebels who were fighting the then-Soviet backed government and the Soviet troops supporting it. Do you see any similarities in the two circumstances? How does this bode for the U.S. in Afghanistan moving forward?
Sulick: The Russians probably look at this “role reversal” as a delicious irony and a payback for their own involvement in Afghanistan years ago. They have a long memory. I’m sure many of them still resent the U.S. provision of weapons to the Afghans and eventually, the Russians walking from the area with their heads held down.
The similarities probably end there because the Soviet Union wanted to install a communist regime on its border, while the U.S. is combatting a regime that supported terrorists who conducted probably one of the most devastating attacks in history against the U.S. But the more and more the Russians are involved, and if it is indeed proven that they are providing weapons to the Taliban, it complicates a short or long-term solution to end the conflict. It could turn it into a proxy war between the two super powers much like Syria has become.
TCB: Could Afghanistan become the next battleground for Russian and U.S. competition – in essence, the next Syria?
Sulick: Yes, definitely. I don’t think the U.S. is going to withdraw from Afghanistan, but we don’t really know what the new administration’s policy on Afghanistan is. There is still a lot of debate on that. But if in fact we do stay and increase troops as some of the generals have suggested, it does start to turn it into a proxy war, especially if it’s proven that Russia is providing the Taliban with arms.
TCB: If these reports about Russia arming the Taliban are accurate, how should the U.S. respond on the global stage?
Sulick: I’d like to see the Trump administration press Russia more on the nature of its contacts with the Taliban. If the reports are proven to be accurate, I would certainly publicize them and the evidence to the extent that you can while protecting sources. The more it is emphasized publicly, we may see the media pay closer attention to it. Aside from this analysis, it seems that the media doesn’t pay much attention to this at all because it’s following the circus antics inside Washington. And in this hawkish, anti-Russian atmosphere, I would think that this issue would receive a lot more attention. I’m surprised that it hasn’t.
This is serious stuff. I don’t want to diminish the importance of Syria or Ukraine, but arming a group that essentially provides a safe haven for terrorists to attack the U.S. is serious business. I’m certainly glad The Cipher Brief is watching this, but I hope the media in general would pay more attention to it. And they will if the administration and Congress takes more note of this and publicizes it more.
TCB: Can we identify any patterns or trends in terms of Russia’s subversive behavior against the U.S. whether in Afghanistan, Syria, or elsewhere?
Sulick: I’m not sure of any specific trends. The military on the ground could probably determine this with sources. I would look towards Tajikistan, which is probably an avenue though which arms might be sent from Russia to the Taliban.
The difficulty in all this is that the region is so awash in Russian arms – the AK-47 is probably the most popular weapon in the world – as well as in arms from other countries, including the U.S., that it is challenging to prove a direct link between Russian arms and the Taliban. That’s where intelligence plays a key role in determining whether this is in fact true. The Russians will always deny it, but let’s face it, they are the inventors of fake news.
TCB: Does Russia still wield significant influence in Afghanistan?
Sulick: Yes. Russia’s interest in Afghanistan has always been because of the border with Russia. This goes back to the great game in the 19th century between the British and the Russians. We have just basically supplanted the British in the region thanks to the Soviet’s war in Afghanistan and, years later, the post-9/11 incursion into Afghanistan.