Do videos show the Taliban receiving arms from Russia?
Is the Russian government arming the Taliban in Afghanistan? CNN claims two videos it obtained strongly suggest that the Russians are supplying weapons to at least some Taliban factions.
US generals first suggested they were concerned the Russian government was seeking to arm the Afghan insurgents back in April, but images from the battlefield here corroborating these claims have been hard to come by.
These two videos show sniper rifles, Kalashnikov variants and heavy machine guns that weapons experts say are stripped of any means of identifying their origin.
Two separate sets of Taliban, one in the north and another in the west, claim to be in possession of the weapons, which they say were originally supplied by Russian government sources. One splinter group of Taliban near Herat say they obtained the guns after defeating a mainstream rival group of Taliban. Another group say they got the weapons for free across the border with Tajikistan and that they were provided by "the Russians."
The videos don't provide incontrovertible proof of the trade, of which Moscow has categorically denied involvement. Yet they offer some of the first battlefield evidence of a flow of weapons that has the Afghan and American governments deeply concerned about Moscow's intentions here.
"The Russians have said that they maintain contact with the Taliban, we have lots of other reports from other people they are arming the Taliban ... there is no smoke without fire," Afghan government spokesman Sediq Sediqi said. "That's why our intelligence agencies are up to the job to find out what level of support that is to the Taliban."
Another Afghan official said they were sure that trade was happening between Russia and the Taliban.
Russia's Foreign Ministry declined to comment for this article but has previously called claims they are arming the Taliban "utterly false" and said they were made to cover up for the United States' failure in Afghanistan. The Russians talk to the Taliban purely to promote peace talks, they said.
US officials have long voiced concerns about any weapons flow to the terror group. Asked in April whether he would refute the reports Russia was arming the Taliban, the US commander here, Gen. John Nicholson, said: "Oh, no I'm not refuting that... Arming belligerents or legitimizing belligerents who perpetuate attacks ... is not the best way forward."
CNN does not identify the source of the videos. The weapons shown in the videos can be obtained from many sources besides Russia. And all we have to go on is the word of Taliban fighters who say they got the weapons from Russia.
It wouldn't surprise a lot of people if Russia had, indeed, been sending small arms to the Taliban. But the "evidence" supplied by CNN shouldn't convince anyone.
So we're left with the question: why make the accusation in the first place? The Trump administration is in the midst of a fierce debate about the future U.S. role in Afghanistan. While we've all been distracted by Russia, the Taliban has been steadily gaining ground in Afghanistan, taking over more and more territory and easily pushing back the U.S.-trained Afghan army.
It is not a crisis yet. But the trends are not good, and the Trump administration is considering sending as many as 10,000 more troops to assist the Afghan government in fighting off the terrorists.
Even if this story is true, the weapons being supplied to the Taliban are not game-changers. But accusing Russia of backing the Taliban might result in the Trump administration being more inclined to send troops to shore up the Afghan government.
The "evidence" in these charges is extremely thin. Whatever the U.S. military believes about Russian involvement in arming the Taliban, there is little proof of it here.