US officials suggest Russia is arming Taliban fighters in Afghanistan

Head of US coalition forces in the country refuses to refute reports Moscow has provided militants with accelerated funding and weapons in last 18 months 

US Defence Secretary James Mattis (R) and US Army General John Nicholson (L), commander of US forces in Afghanistan, hold a news conference at Resolute Support headquarters 24 April 2017 in in Kabul, Afghanistan
US Defence Secretary James Mattis (R) and US Army General John Nicholson (L), commander of US forces in Afghanistan, hold a news conference at Resolute Support headquarters 24 April 2017 in in Kabul, Afghanistan

The leader of US and international forces in Afghanistan has said that he is “not refuting” reports that Russia is providing weapons to the Taliban.

General John Nicholson made the comments to reporters in Kabul on Monday during US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis’s first trip to the country as part of US President Donald Trump’s administration.

While Gen. Nicholson did not provide details, he said he would not dispute claims made to media by an anonymous senior US military official in Kabul earlier that day that Russia had stepped up its assistance to insurgents over the last 18 months, providing machine guns and other medium weight weaponry to fighters in Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan.

Afghanistan: Fifteen years since US-led invasion

Russia has denied providing the Taliban - which ruled Afghanistan until the US invasion in 2001 - with any material or financial aid.

It says it maintains diplomatic ties with Taliban officials in order to push for peace negotiations with the Afghan government and to maintain security.

The US has called Russia’s presence in the country a “malign foreign influence.”

Moscow has long been critical of the US’ handling of its war in Afghanistan, and the years of failed efforts to bring peace.

The Soviet Union fought its own bloody war in the country in the 1980s, which ended in defeat. The CIA provided arms to Afghans resisting Soviet troops which analysts believe ended up falling into the hands of both the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Monday's comments are among the strongest US suggestions yet that Moscow is providing arms to the Taliban.

The US must “confront” Russia on the issue, Secretary Mattis said.

“We’ll engage with Russia diplomatically… We’ll do so where we can, but we’re going to have to confront Russia where what they’re doing is contrary to international law or denying the sovereignty of other countries.”

“For example,” Mr Mattis told reporters, “any weapons being funnelled here from a foreign country would be a violation of international law.”

More than 140 Afghan troops were killed in a huge Taliban gunmen and suicide attack on a military base in Balkh province last week.

Referring to the massacre, Gen. Nicholson said that “anyone who arms belligerents who perpetuate attacks like the one we saw” isn’t focused on “the best way forward to a peaceful reconciliation.”

The US maintains around 9,800 troops in Afghanistan, mainly to support Afghan security forces. In recent comments to Congress Gen Nicholson said a “few more thousand” were necessary to make sure Afghan troops can eventually handle the Taliban insurgency on their own.

“2017 is going to be another tough year [in Afghanistan],” Mr Mattis said on Monday.

Agencies contributed to this report

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