The US military has increased its confidence in reports accusing Russia of arming the Taliban.
Defense Secretary James Mattis and Gen. John Nicholson, the Commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, spoke about the claims on Monday, at a press conference in Kabul.
When asked directly by a reporter about alleged Russian weapon shipments to the Taliban, Gen. Nicholson said: “Oh no, I’m not refuting that.”
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“The level of granularity and the level of success they’re achieving, I think the jury is still out on that,” Mattis noted. He said that arm shipments from Russia to the Taliban “would have to be dealt with as a violation of international law.”
Late last month, other top ranking US military officials spoke to the allegations, but discussed them with greater uncertainty.
“I think it is fair to assume they may be providing some sort of support to [the Taliban], in terms of weapons or other things that may be there,” said Gen. Joseph Votel, the leader of US Central Command.
NATO commander Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti said that Russia had increased “association [with] and perhaps even supply to the Taliban.”
In February, Gen. Nicholson also discussed Russian interactions with the Taliban, but he did not openly accuse Moscow of offering material assistance to the group.
“There is some classified reporting that I’d request to share with you in another venue,” Nicholson told Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “But we are concerned about, in general, support, and I’ll just leave it at that.”
In late January, the Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Alexander Mantytskiy, said that Moscow had started conducting outreach to the Taliban, but claimed it was “just political” support designed to counter the Islamic State presence in Nangahar Province. He told The Wall Street Journal that Russia was not offering “money or materiel” to the Taliban.
The US military reacted to this “just political” support from Moscow by decrying it as unacceptable.
“This narrative that they promote is that the Taliban are fighting the Islamic State, and the Afghan government is not fighting the Islamic State,” Nicholson said in February. “This is a false narrative. The Afghan government along with US counterterrorism forces are successfully fighting against Islamic State in Afghanistan.”
Nicholson had also said that Russian officials “have begun to publicly legitimize the Taliban.”
On Monday, the general described Russian support as having a far more tangible negative impact, linking Moscow to a recent deadly attack.
“Arming belligerents or legitimizing belligerents who perpetrate attacks like we saw two days ago in Mazar-i-Shariff is not the best way forward to a peaceful reconciliation,” Nicholson said. The attack, on an Afghan military base, reportedly killed at least 140 Afghan soldiers.