Evidence of Russian-built assault weapons, sniper rifles and heavy machine guns reportedly being used by the Taliban against U.S.-backed Afghan forces in the northern and western parts of the country emerged Tuesday, fueling concerns in Washington that Russia is covertly backing the Afghan insurgents.
Video obtained by CNN shows fighters from a Taliban splinter faction based near the western city of Herat, along the Iranian border, brandishing the Russian-made weapons. In the video, the group's second-in-command Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi says the weapons were taken from Taliban fighters in the area.
Clashes between the Taliban and Niazi's faction have roiled Herat and surrounding areas in recent weeks. Niazi said the weapons had been supplied to Taliban fighters from Russia via Iran. The Russian weapons were then taken by members of Nizai's group after a recent gun battle. "The Russians are giving them these weapons to fight ISIS in Afghanistan, but they are using them against us too," Nizai told CNN.
More Russian small arms and heavy machine guns also appeared in a Taliban video shot near the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, which has become a major flashpoint in this year's fighting season in the country. Those weapons had been funneled into the country by Russian officials via Tajikistan, Taliban leaders told CNN. "These are made in Russia, and are very good stuff," one Afghan insurgent said of the new weaponry.
Aside from Taliban claims and the recently uncovered footage, there has been little evidence linking Moscow to the influx of weapons heading into Taliban strongholds in northern and western Afghanistan. But Tuesday's revelations come months after top U.S. military brass accused Russia of arming the insurgent group which Kabul and Washington have been battling for 16 years.
In March, U.S. Central Command Chief Gen. Joseph Votel was the latest high-ranking U.S. general to accuse Russia of providing weapons and material support to the Taliban, in an effort to expand Moscow's influence in the war-torn country. Gen Votel, U.S. European Command chief Gen. Mike Scaparrotti and Gen. John Nicholson, the top American commander in Afghanistan, see Russia's hand in the country and elsewhere in the region as a way to shore up its borders with former Soviet satellite states in Central Asia, just as the White House and Pentagon struggle to develop a long-term strategy for America's role in the Afghan war.
For the last several weeks, defense officials led by Defense Secretary James Mattis have been assessing the current progress of the Afghan war, determining what level of support - including a 3,000 to 5,000 troop increase - will be required to stabilize the country's security forces.
Government-led analysis, as well as reviews by private sector analysts say upwards of 60 percent of Afghanistan is heavily influences or under direct sway by the Taliban. Afghan forces, advised by U.S. and NATO forces, have suffered heavy casualties to maintain control over the 40 percent of the country ruled by the central government in Kabul.