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Russia Plays Both Sides In The Afghan Conflict

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, (file photo).
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, (file photo).

Russia is poised to supply thousands of its infamous Kalashnikov rifles to Afghan security forces amid reports that it is cultivating a covert alliance with the Taliban. The guns are expected to be used against insurgents across Afghanistan's mountains and deserts.

According to Zamir Kabulov, Russia's special envoy for Afghanistan, some 10,000 AK-47 assault rifles, commonly known as Kalashnikovs, will be delivered to Afghanistan this month.

"The issue of the supply of the AK-47 assault rifles through the Russian Interior Ministry has been practically decided," Kabulov was quoted as saying in late December.

He stressed that the military aid was inline with Moscow's support for Kabul's Western-backed government. "Russia has been consistently pursuing the policy of providing comprehensive assistance to Afghanistan in the establishment of a peaceful, independent, stable and self-sufficient state, free from terrorism and drugs," he was quoted as saying by the ITAR-TASS news agency.

But on December 23, Kabulov told Interfax that his country's interests "objectively coincide" with those of the Taliban in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) extremist group.

He also claimed Moscow has created communication channels to exchange information with the Taliban.

While the Taliban denied talking to Moscow about joint efforts to counter its jihadist rivals, Maria Zakharova, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, claimed that the contact between Moscow and the insurgents was limited to intelligence-sharing and information exchange against IS.

Observers say Moscow is hedging its bets in Afghanistan because of worries about the possible spread of Islamist insurgents groups from the country into Central Asia. Afghan pundits claim thousands of Central Asian and Russian Islamist extremists are active in Afghanistan, and that they even played a prominent role in a deadly Taliban offensive on the once-peaceful northern Afghan provinces bordering Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Some of these militants have pledged allegiance to IS.

Kabul-based security expert Javed Kohistani says Moscow is concerned about the possible spillover of these IS-linked fighters into the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, which Russia still sees as its backyard.

He says Moscow's escalating military involvement in Syria, which it claims is focused on preventing jihadists from attacking Russia, has emboldened its efforts in the region including Afghanistan.

"Russian officials recently met with a number of Taliban leaders including Qari Din Mohammad and Abdul Salam Hanafi, in [Tajikistan's capital] Dushanbe," he said. "[For some time] they have been in touch with low-ranking [Taliban] field commanders in Afghanistan, both for gathering information about Central Asian fighters and also preventing these fighters from making inroads [back into their countries]."

The transfer of Kalashnikov assault rifles is Russia's first step towards fulfilling Afghan demands for Russian armaments. Kabul is also seeking Russian artillery and Mi-35 helicopter gunships.

It is yet to be seen whether Moscow will move toward only helping Afghan forces, or continue to hedge bets by seeking a covert alliance with the Taliban.