WASHINGTON - The Taliban in northern Afghanistan is seeking Russian assistance to build up its fight against Islamic State-backed militants along the country's border with the former Soviet Union, an Afghan official told VOA.
The governor of the strategic northeastern Kunduz province said Thursday the Taliban is asking Moscow for weapons and training to counter the expanding influence of IS groups in various parts of the country.
“They [Taliban] are now opposing the Islamic State group and are attempting to convince Russia into extending a helping hand to them,” Kunduz Governor Assadullah Omarkhail told VOA's Afghan service on Thursday.
Several militant groups are active in the restive Kunduz province, which borders Tajikistan, a breeding ground for IS sympathizers who have by the thousands gone to fight with IS in Syria and Iraq. Recently, a Tajik militia pledged allegiance to IS, spurring fears IS influence may expand into northern Afghanistan.
Kunduz remains a hot spot
Kunduz, the capital city of the province, briefly fell to the Taliban two years ago. Last year, Taliban militants came close to capturing the city again before Afghan forces pushed them back.
The Taliban reportedly has recently amassed fighters in Kunduz's Imam Saheb district, bordering Tajikistan.
“The Taliban has about 650 fighters, most of whom are local residents, in the district and they have been deployed in 45 groups,” district governor Imamuddin Quraishi told VOA.
According to Quraishi, Taliban fighters are equipped with heavy weapons, and they train in areas along the border with Tajikistan.
“They [Taliban] control the Zangla area near the Tajikistan border where they train terrorists,” said Quraishi.
Local Taliban leaders in Kunduz reportedly have met with Russian advisors across the Amu River in Tajikistan, according to Afghan media reports.
Taliban's connections with Russia came under the spotlight last year as Moscow sought to increase its influence in the nation it once occupied, and to counter IS expansion from Afghanistan to neighboring Central Asian countries.
Russia has acknowledged ties with the Taliban as it views Taliban help as essential in fighting the spillover effects of the IS insurgency in Afghanistan.
Russian officials say Moscow is not supplying Taliban militants with arms and training, though, asserting their contacts with the Taliban are aimed at diplomatically facilitating the peace process in Afghanistan.
Afghan and American officials are increasingly wary, however, of the deepening ties between Russia and the Taliban that is fighting to topple the government in Kabul. Such an involvement on Russia's part, they say, could complicate an already precarious security situation in the country.
“I believe what Russia is attempting to do is they are attempting to be an influential party in this part of the world,” U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel told House lawmakers on Wednesday.
“I think it is fair to assume they may be providing some sort of support to [the Taliban], in terms of weapons or other things that may be there,” Votel said.
According to Wahid Muzhda, a Kabul-based Taliban expert, Moscow has provided the Taliban with a well-equipped mobile clinic, along with a large supply of medicine to treat injured Taliban fighters in the southern Helmand province, where Afghan forces are engaged in heavy battles with Taliban.
A Taliban delegation from its political office in Qatar recently told officials in Moscow the Taliban wanted anti-aircraft missiles, according to Muzhda.
As Moscow's concerns grow that IS is expanding to Central Asia, Taliban is a willing ally, Muzhda said.
“Taliban have been fighting IS in Afghanistan and that has brought the group closer to Russia,” said Muzhda. “The Taliban have killed several IS-linked, anti-Russia Uzbek fighters in Afghanistan.”
While opposed to Taliban insurgency — Taliban controls some 33 of the country's 407 districts — Kabul and the U.S. reject notions that Taliban are fighting IS in Afghanistan.
“This idea that Taliban and Daesh [IS] are opposed to each other is wrong,” Afghanistan national security advisor Mohammad Hanif Atmar told Indian media this month. “It's actually the morphing and mutating of Taliban … into Daesh. They are the same people, but there is a lot of re-branding here.”
Taliban claims discounted
U.S. military officials say Afghan forces — and not Taliban — are battling IS.
“The Taliban is not fighting ISIS-K,” U.S. Navy Capt. Bill Salvin, spokesperson for Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, told VOA last week. “It is the Afghan security forces that are taking the fight to ISIS-K and we are working with our Afghan partners in order to make sure that we continue to keep the pressure on these terrorists groups.”
IS's self-styled Khorasan Province branch (ISIS-K) has taken root in mountainous areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, increasing its recruiting efforts and terror attacks nationwide. Its name refers to a centuries-old description of Afghanistan and surrounding areas of Central Asia and Persia.
IS has been active in eastern Afghanistan for the past two years. It recently has expanded to northern Jouzjan province. Its activities in Kunduz, however, are harder to detect, experts say.