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Defense Secretary Expresses Concern Over Russian Support For Taliban

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The war in Afghanistan of course is still going, and it's getting more complicated. The Pentagon is deciding now about how many more troops to send in cooperation with European allies, and that's after a request from the Pentagon's top general for thousands more troops. And now Defense Secretary Jim Mattis says he's getting concerned about the role Russia is playing in Afghanistan.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here to talk about this. Hello, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Kelly.

MCEVERS: So what are the Russians doing back in Afghanistan?

BOWMAN: Well, Kelly, at this point, it's pretty murky. We just don't know. Secretary Mattis talked about this just today while on a visit to London. He's saying we've seen Russian activity with the Taliban. And officials say that the Russians are providing some support, including maybe weapons to the Taliban. They're saying it's a possibility. But the Pentagon won't provide details on this - where they're seeing this and what exactly is happening, so we don't have any clear evidence yet.

Now of course the Taliban already have plenty of weapons - small arms, rocket-propelled grenades, but the Russians could potentially provide even more sophisticated arms and equipment, maybe missiles or night vision goggles, the types of things that could make the Taliban even more lethal.

MCEVERS: OK, so details are murky, but what are officials saying about what the Russian's objective might be in Afghanistan?

BOWMAN: Well, the commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, thinks this is a way for the Russians just to undermine the U.S. and NATO. And of course Russia (laughter) has tried to undermine the U.S., getting involved in the election, also threatening NATO partners in Europe.

Also there's a sense that the Russians want to be a mediator here in Afghanistan just kind of like they are in Syria. They want to be seen as a global operator. So they recently had a meeting in Russia with China and Pakistan to try to come up with some sort of accord in Afghanistan.

Another thing is, the Russians are very concerned about the rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. They don't want them on their southern border, so the Taliban apparently are reaching out to the Russians, saying, we would like help from you, arms and support in fighting the Islamic State. So that's a couple of things we're seeing.

MCEVERS: You know, it's hard to hear you talk about all this and not think about the United States and what it was doing in Afghanistan back in the 1980s and arming fighters who they thought were on their side to fight as Soviet-occupied fighters in Afghanistan. Could this be part of that too?

BOWMAN: Yeah, I think this could be something of a payback to the United States. Back in the 1980s, the U.S. supplied mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan with shoulder-fired missiles to fight the Russian presence there. Now, these fighters started bringing down Russian helicopters, ending up bleeding the Russian force there, and that helped push the Russians out of Afghanistan by the end of the decade. And some of these Taliban fighters you're seeing today were also fighting the Russians back then. So (laughter) it potentially - the Russians could be aiding people that were fighting them 30 or 40 years ago.

MCEVERS: Wow. And what about the bigger picture in Afghanistan? If the U.S. does end up sending thousands more troops, what will they do, and would they help bring an end to this war?

BOWMAN: Well, this war's been going on, as you know, for 15 years. There's no sense it's going to end anytime soon. General Nicholson says he would like a few thousand more troops. Some could come from the U.S., some from NATO. It looks like more training and assistance for the Afghan forces. He's putting together his detailed proposal right now, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will decide if that makes sense. But you're looking at a Taliban that's growing in strength and an Afghan force that still needs a lot of help.

MCEVERS: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, thank you very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.