WASHINGTON • The top United States general in Europe has told lawmakers that Russia and the Taleban are growing increasingly close, suggesting that the Kremlin might even be supplying the insurgent group, a charge denied by the Russians yesterday.
Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, who is also the supreme allied commander of Nato, did not elaborate to the Senate Armed Services Committee on what type of equipment the Taleban might have received or when.
Any type of material support, however, would be a significant escalation of Russia's involvement with the Taleban. Russia has said in the past that it maintains only limited communication with the group.
Taleban fighters on Thursday captured Afghanistan's strategic district of Sangin in Helmand province, where US and British forces suffered heavy casualties until it was handed over to Afghan personnel.
"Russia, of late, increased influence in terms of association and perhaps even supply to the Taleban," Gen Scaparrotti said.
Much to the chagrin of US officials and military officers, Russia has justified its communications with the Taleban by saying the insurgent group is fighting militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which is also in Afghanistan.
Army General John Nicholson, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, has decried Russia's contact with the Taleban, saying that it has given cover to a group that has worked for years to undermine the US and the government in Kabul.
Russia fought its own bloody war of attrition in Afghanistan in the 1980s, pulling out after suffering heavy losses from US-supplied insurgents. "This public legitimacy that Russia lends to the Taleban is not based on fact," Gen Nicholson told reporters in December last year.
Russia yesterday denied allegations that it may be assisting the Taleban in its fight against US and Nato forces in Afghanistan.
"These claims are absolutely false," the Kremlin's special envoy in Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov, who is also head of the Russian foreign ministry's department responsible for the country, told RIA Novosti state news agency. "These fabrications are designed, as we have repeatedly underlined, to justify the failure of the US military and politicians in the Afghan campaign. There is no other explanation."
On Thursday, the district centre of Sangin in Afghanistan's restive south province of Helmand was overrun by the Taleban after months of heavy fighting with Afghan forces backed by US air support.
In recent months, the Taleban has steadily increased control over large swathes of the country, prompting Gen Nicholson to suggest that thousands more troops are needed to help better train the Afghan military and reverse the "stalemate" in the country.
His assessment was subsequently echoed by General Joseph Votel, the head of US Central Command.
Currently, about 5,000 Nato troops are in the country, in addition to the 8,400-strong American presence. US forces primarily support the Afghans through training and air strikes while small contingents of Special Operations forces continue to conduct counter-terrorism missions against the network of terrorist groups still located in the country.
WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE