WASHINGTON - Afghan defense authorities acknowledged this week that Taliban militants have obtained night-vision equipment but fell short of confirming media reports that allege Russia had provided Taliban with the goggles.
The officials said Tuesday they would investigate whether the high-tech equipment that Taliban insurgents were allegedly seen using actually was provided by Russia.
“We don’t rule out that the Taliban possess night (vision) goggles,” but they don’t have many of them, General Dawlat Waziri, the spokesperson for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, told VOA. “They have used them in Farah [province], Helmand [province] and some other places.”
The New York Times on Monday reported that Taliban militants using sophisticated night-vision goggles killed eight Afghan police officers at a checkpoint near Farah, capital of the province of the same name in western Afghanistan.
Night-vision goggles allow users to see in low-light conditions and effectively zero-in on a target without being seen. The equipment is widely used by U.S. forces as well as the U.S.-trained Afghan Special Operation Forces in their fight against Taliban and Islamic State militants in the country.
That Taliban have access to high-tech weapons has been reported in the media for a while. But the recent allegations of Taliban receiving Russian-made equipment prompted the Afghan government to investigate how the militant group is able to get the technology.
Russian embassy officials in Kabul denied that Moscow has been providing military or financial assistance to Taliban, saying the allegations are baseless.
A U.N. report published last year also highlighted that Taliban have access to highly specialized foreign military equipment.
“Several high-ranking officials of the government of Afghanistan highlighted the fact that, during the ongoing fighting season, an increasing amount of highly specialized, modern equipment such as sniper rifles, laser sights and night-vision goggles had been seized from Taliban fighters,” according to the U.N. report submitted to the Security Council.
Analysts charge that Taliban’s access to sophisticated weapons will further intensify the ongoing fight and could further strengthen Taliban against the Afghan security forces.
“This device [goggles] would be installed on rifles. It can prove very dangerous, because it enables its user to see a person at night like a person at daylight. They also have accuracy and precision. Hence, its danger is immense,” Atiqullah Amerkhail, a retired Afghan army general, told VOA.
Defense ministry spokesperson, Waziri, however, downplayed the potential threat to Afghan security forces.
Numerous media reports allege the night-vision goggles used by Taliban bear Russian manufacturers’ markings, which has led Afghan authorities to investigate whether Russia is giving the equipment to the Taliban.
“It is easy to label something. They mark some weapons to create sensitivities against other countries and damage Afghan relations with other countries,” Waziri said. “The Afghan government will investigate to know whether they [goggles] are Russian-made.”
Russia, which fought a war in Afghanistan from 1979-1989, has recently come under increasing criticism by Afghan and U.S officials for allegedly establishing ties with the Afghan Taliban.
Moscow has acknowledged it has been in contact with Taliban leaders, but maintained it wants to restart the stalled peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
In April, General John Nicholson, commander of the U.S.-led NATO Resolute Support Mission, seemed to confirm that Taliban are receiving weapons from Russia.
“We continue to get reports of this assistance. We support anyone who wants to help us advance the reconciliation process, but anyone who arms belligerents who perpetuate attacks like the one we saw two days ago in Mazar-e Sharif is not the best way forward to a peaceful reconciliation,” Nicholson said, referring to a deadly and sophisticated Taliban attack on a military base in northern Afghanistan that left many Afghan soldiers dead.
Without naming Russia, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, during his first official visit to Afghanistan, earlier this year, warned that any flow of weapons from a foreign country to Afghanistan through means other than the Afghan government would be a violation of the international law.
However, Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesperson, claims the weapons and military hardware the insurgents have been using have been captured from the Afghan military on the battlefield.
Wahid Muzhda, a Kabul-based Taliban expert, told VOA the militants obtain military equipment from NATO supply convoys that fall into Taliban hands.
The Afghan government, however, has denied the Taliban claim.
Waziri, of the Afghan defense ministry, said that Taliban might have acquired the equipment from arms markets outside of Afghanistan that sell sophisticated weapons and army equipment.
Experts say trafficked arms and military hardware are easily available in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, including the thriving market for knockoff weapons and optics in the towns of Bara and Dara Adamkhail of the Federally Administered Tribal Region (FATA) in Pakistan.
Chinese versions of knockoff brands of U.S. military hardware are also sold in the region.
The “Bush Bazaar” in capital Kabul, which took its name from the former U.S. President George W. Bush, has been famous for pilfered and discarded military gear from the U.S. and NATO military bases in the country.
Besides being crammed with Kraft cheese, Campbell’s soup, Gatorade, toiletries and electronics, the shops in Bush bazaar also sell sensitive military equipment such as sniper sights, night-vision goggles, boots and military uniforms.
“Until recent years, one could buy army goggles for 500 to 600 U.S. dollars in Bagram and Kabul,” Muzhda told VOA. A similar market existed outside the main U.S. military base in Bagram, about 65 kilometers (40 miles) north of Kabul.
Rahim Gul Sarwan contributed to this report from Kabul.