Top U.S. military commanders and diplomats are weighing a proposed strategy shift in the Afghanistan War centered on expanded military collaboration with Russia.
On separate occasions this week, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and Army Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, spoke publicly of Washington and Moscow’s shared interests in the fight that could also align with each country’s larger regional security goals.
“There may be opportunities for cooperation in Afghanistan. We’ve not yet come to what that might be, but we’re talking about it,” Mr. Tillerson said Tuesday at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
Analysts say such a partnership would signal a dramatic reversal for the Pentagon, but Washington and Moscow are having behind-the-scenes military communications at the highest level more regularly than have been reported.
Pentagon officials told The Washington Times that Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has spoken roughly a dozen times over the past year with his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, a close confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“They last spoke on Tuesday of this week,” said Col. Patrick Ryder, Joint Chiefs spokesman. The discussions have generally not been publicized because the two generals “have agreed to keep the details of those conversations private,” Col. Ryder said.
He stressed that the two generals focused on avoiding clashes on the battlefield in Syria, where both countries have forces on the ground, but a U.S. official familiar with the calls said it is “not beyond the realm of possibility” that Gen. Dunford and Gen. Gerasimov could share notes on Afghanistan.
Russia provided logistical support and supply routes for the U.S. and its allies in the early years of the Afghanistan War after 2001, but that assistance waned as U.S.-Russian relations worsened.
Reports earlier this year — not denied by Gen. Nicholson on a trip to Kabul in April — said Russians may be supplying weapons to the Taliban, the Islamic insurgent movement fighting the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, as a way to contain the growing threat of Islamic State in Afghanistan.
The U.S. recommitment to the Afghanistan War under President Trump’s strategy announced in August could result in a reduction in such support, diplomatic sources say.
Zamir Kabulov, the Kremlin’s special representative on Afghanistan, told reporters on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meetings in September that U.S. and Western sanctions on Russia made it difficult to collaborate more extensively on other fronts. But he did acknowledge a willingness to explore a “very narrow area of cooperation” in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan, Mr. Kabulov said, was one area offering the prospect of “relatively pain-free” cooperation between Moscow and Washington.
The Pentagon’s new war plan for Afghanistan also addresses a key complaint from Moscow that U.S. and allied forces were not doing enough to curb illegal drug production in the country.
The possible U.S.-Russian collaboration in Afghanistan was discussed this week as implementation of the Trump administration’s strategy for American forces hit the 100-day mark.
Gen. Nicholson told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday that American and NATO-supported counterterrorism and counternarcotics operations in Afghanistan coincide with not only Russia’s security goals in the region, but with those of Iran as well.
“We have shared interest with Iran and Russia in Afghanistan. So we have the shared interest of counternarcotics, the shared interest of counterterrorism,” the general said in a briefing from NATO headquarters in Kabul.
Noting that heroin processed from Afghan poppy crops that flood drug markets in Eastern Europe “kills tens of thousands of Russians every year,” Gen. Nicholson said the authorities granted by the White House to go after Taliban drug networks “is precisely what the Russians and Iranians want.”
Mr. Tillerson said that “Russia has great fear of migration out of the Central Asian regions and terrorism inside of Russia.”
“We think there’s areas of greater cooperation on counterterrorism with Russia,” the secretary of state said.
But analysts say such cooperation could be difficult, particularly given the history of a violent proxy war in Afghanistan, where a U.S.-backed mujahedeen force battled Soviet military occupiers during the 1980s.
But a military pact between Moscow and Washington could serve as a check on expanding Iranian influence in the Middle East and southwest Asia, as Tehran looks to leverage the successes of its proxy forces in Iraq, Syria and Yemen across the region, analysts say.
A partnership between Washington and Moscow in Afghanistan would be a dramatic reversal for the Pentagon, which has consistently resisted any type of collaboration with Russian forces fighting alongside Syrian troops in the fight against the Islamic State.
The uneasy bond between American commanders with the U.S.-backed coalition battling Islamic State in Syria and their Russian counterparts supporting the regime of President Bashar Assad has come under further strain amid Damascus’ push to regain territory formerly held by the terrorist group.
Regime forces, with the support of a powerful Russian air campaign, retook the Syrian rebel stronghold of Aleppo last year. Since then, government troops and Iranian militias have quickly secured former Islamic State redoubts in al Bab, Deir el-Zour and other strongholds in the Euphrates River Valley.
Russia has also drawn the ire of top leaders at the Pentagon and State Department over Moscow’s efforts to undermine the Arab-Kurdish coalition battling Islamic State in Syria. Russia and Syrian regime forces have repeatedly attempted to drive a wedge between the anti-Islamic State paramilitaries known as the Syrian Democratic Forces and their American commanders, analysts at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation told The Washington Times in September.
Any U.S.-Russian cooperation or coordination in Afghanistan could set off alarm bells in Iran, said Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
Despite close cooperation in Syria between Russian forces and Iranian paramilitaries, Tehran “suspect[s] the Russians are cutting deals over their heads, not only with the Americans but perhaps even with the Israelis and Iran’s Arab rivals,” Mr. Vatanka wrote in a recent analysis of the relationship between Moscow and Iran.
“In the short term, the deepest Iranian fear is that Moscow is promising the Americans, the Israelis and others that Russia will work toward reducing and eventually ending the Iranian military presence” in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, he said.