Almost thirty years ago, Billy Joel wrote the lines “Ayatollah’s in Iran, Russians in Afghanistan” about some of the major events of 1979, but it’s looking like they might ring true all over again. Anecdotes from on the ground in Afghanistan and new video evidence released by CNN are creating a still unproven, but increasingly strong impression that Russia is once again in Afghanistan, or at least their weapons are. Is the Kremlin arming the Taliban? And if so, what are their motives this time around for arming the same rebels they fought against at the end of the 1970s?
It’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on with the weapons because identifying markings have been removed in most instances. However, many of the guns appear to be in the style of Russian weapons like the Kalashnikov sniper rifle. That said, other weaponry and accessories observed include the JGBG M7 scope, which is made in China. It’s possible that some of these guns are indeed modeled on the Kalashnikov but aren’t actually Russian in origin, or they are indeed genuine Russian manufacture but weren’t actually distributed by Moscow. Russia strongly denies any involvement in arms supply to Afghanistan. But at least one Taliban splinter group says differently.
“These weapons were given to the fighters of Mullah Haibatullah by the Russians via Iran,” said Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, a Taliban deputy leader near Herat. He claims the Russians are arming the Taliban to help in the fight ISIS. That was true of when, in February of 2016, Russia gifted the Afghanistan government 10,000 Kalashnikovs. But that wasn’t the Taliban, it was the Afghan state itself. If Russia were also arming non-state groups, that “is something that would really concern us as well,” said Afghan government spokesperson Sediq Sediqi.
If what Niazi says is true, there’s one major problem — as all sides have learned since the 1970s, once weapons are in hand, they tend to stay in circulation even after the initial cause is won. When the U.S. went into Afghanistan during George W. Bush’s presidency, American troops found themselves facing American weapons distributed decades before to support the overthrow of Afghani socialism. Now the U.S. is afraid that once the Taliban is done fighting ISIS, they’ll be freshly armed for new conflict with other enemies, including the United States.
For now, it’s not entirely clear how, why, or from where these Russian-style guns are crossing the border from Tajikistan and Iran. It’s hard to piece together eyewitness evidence from remote areas of multiple countries, and videos like the one released by CNN are few and far between. By the time it becomes definitively clear who is supplying the Taliban, who knows what new 21st century conflict will have taken shape — or how much it will resemble the past.