Russia, Iran, and Pakistan continue to undermine U.S. interests in Afghanistan by engaging with the Taliban, the most prominent terrorists fighting against American troops in the war-ravaged country, the Pentagon claimed in a new assessment.
In its recently unveiled assessment of security conditions in Afghanistan, which covers the period from June 1 through November 30, the Pentagon notes:
Russia continued to seek ways to undermine U.S. influence in the region by disseminating false information about U.S. objectives, engaging with the Taliban, and putting pressure on Central Asian neighbors to deny support to U.S. and NATO efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.
Iran provides some support to the Taliban and publicly justifies its relationship with the Taliban as a means to combat the spread of ISIS-K [Islamic State -Khorasan] in Afghanistan. Iran’s support to the Taliban undermines the Afghan Government’s credibility, adds to instability in the region, and complicates strategic partnership agreements.
Meanwhile, Pakistan reportedly continues to serve as a sanctuary for Taliban terrorists and other jihadists in the region, which is home to the “highest concentration” of extremists in the world.
“Although Pakistani military operations have disrupted some militant sanctuaries, certain extremist groups—such as the [Afghan] Taliban and the Haqqani Network—retains freedom of movement in Pakistan,” notes the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) in the report. “The United States continues to convey to all levels of Pakistani leadership the importance of taking action against all terrorist and extremist groups.”
The al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked Haqqani Network “remains the greatest threat” against U.S. troops and their allies in Afghanistan, reveals the assessment.
Pentagon officials also describe Pakistan’s support for terrorist groups as a top threat in neighboring Afghanistan.
Alluding to Pakistan, the Pentagon states, “The exploitation of ungoverned sanctuaries outside of Afghanistan by terrorists and Afghan insurgents remains the single greatest external threat to the coalition campaign,” adding:
External sanctuary continues to hamper efforts to bring Afghan Taliban senior leadership to the negotiating table and allows space for terrorist groups like the Haqqani Network to plan coordinated operations against U.S. and coalition forces, the [Afghan forces], and civilians, and enables the Afghan Taliban to rest, refit, and regenerate.
Despite the strained relationship between Iran and the United States, the DOD acknowledges that there is room for cooperation between the two countries on operations to combat the lucrative smuggling of opium and its heroin derivative.
The Pentagon points out:
Iran and the United States share certain interests in Afghanistan such as counternarcotics. However, Iran seeks to expand its influence and limit U.S. influence and military presence, particularly in western Afghanistan.
Although U.S. and Iranian political dynamics are not conducive to direct coordination on areas of mutual interest in Afghanistan, the United States and its Afghan partners could explore ways to leverage Iran’s interests in support of U.S. and Afghan objectives in the areas of counternarcotics, economic development, and counterterrorism.
Nearly one-third of the opium and heroin that moves out of Afghanistan, the world’s top producer of the two deadly drugs, transits through Iran, acknowledged the U.S. military recently.
“About 40 percent of [the Afghan opium and heroin] does go out through Pakistan, about 30 percent through Iran, about 30 percent through the north,” U.S. Gen. John Nicholson, the top commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told reporters late last month.
Both the United States and Shiite Iran are concerned about the presence of Sunni Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) jihadists in Afghanistan.
ISIS targeted Iran for the first time earlier this year.
Iran and Russia are allegedly concerned about instability in Afghanistan.
“Russia has security concerns regarding Afghanistan, citing terrorism and narco-trafficking concerns most vocally,” notes the DOD report. “Russian-Afghan relations suffered due to Russia’s public acknowledgment of communications with the Taliban and support of the Taliban’s call for coalition withdrawal from Afghanistan.”
Gen. Nicholson has conceded that Iran, Pakistan, and Russia lend support to the Afghan Taliban and has urged them to stop.
The number of effective terrorist attacks in Afghanistan has “slightly” dropped in the last few months, according to the Pentagon.
Citing data from the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), the Pentagon notes, “From June 1 to November 20, 2017, the number of effective enemy-initiated attacks were slightly lower than the previous reporting period (December 2016-May 2017); averaging between 780 per month.”
The attacks are down from “4,806 effective enemy-initiated attacks, with a monthly average of 801” during December 1, 2016, to May 31, 2017.
However, the Pentagon points out that recent gains remain “fragile.”
“The hard-won gains in Afghanistan—by the Afghans, the United States, NATO and the international community—remain fragile, but are worth defending,” reports DOD, later cautioning, “Our commitment is enduring but not unlimited; our support is not a blank check.”
The DOD stressed that the U.S. combat mission remains over, noting that the ANDSF, which includes police and army units, are still leading the fighting.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama ended the combat mission at the end of 2014.
While the Pentagon assessment reveals that the ANDSF’s effectiveness has improved, it concedes that the force is still facing challenges.