The Russian government is continuing to demand the United States answer its questions regarding unsubstantiated rumors of unmarked helicopters delivering weapons or other aid to terrorist groups, including ISIS, in Northern Afghanistan. In line with a well established policy of responding to allegations about its own activities with equal or more sinister counter-claims, Russia is advancing this conspiracy theory to distract from questions about its own connections to Afghan militants, including the Taliban.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated that the U.S. government should address the accusations after meeting with his Pakistani counterpart, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, in Moscow on Feb. 20, 2018. The United States has accused both of those countries of either actively or tacitly backing the Taliban and other insurgents opposed to the government in Kabul and its American benefactors.
“We still expecting from our American colleagues an answer to the repeatedly raised questions, questions that arose on the basis of public statements made by the leaders of some Afghan provinces, that unidentified helicopters, most likely helicopters to which NATO in one way or another is related, fly to the areas where the insurgents are based, and no one has been able to explain the reasons for these flights yet,” Lavrov stated. “In general they [the United States] try to avoid answers to these legitimate questions.”
The original source of the story of the mysterious helicopters appears to be comments that Mohammad Zahir Wahdat, governor of Afghanistan’s northern Sar-e Pol province, made in local media in May 2017. He claimed that unmarked military helicopters had touched down briefly in a known militant stronghold, but that this had happened at night and none of the Afghan security forces in the area had been able to take pictures or record video of the alleged incident.
At least according to the English-language reports, Zahir Wahdat did not directly implicate any party in particular or give any indication of where the helicopters came from or headed after they left, besides that they went north. Though there is no evidence that they were American helicopters, it's worth noting up front that the idea that the mere act of any military aircraft landing in an area with a known terrorist presence automatically indicates collusion between those parties is, by itself, patently absurd.
However, a subsequent statement from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs later in May 2017, followed that improbable chain of logic, containing small, but important embellishments, including that the helicopters had flown to the main international airport in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif to the northeast, which also happens to host a major base belonging to the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan. Russian state and quasi-state media continued to run
numerous reports after that, often citing unnamed locals, saying that similar unidentified helicopters had appeared in militant-controlled areas in neighboring Faryab and Jowzjan provinces, both of which border Turkmenistan, and implying that they had actually dropped off ISIS fighters or supplies for the terrorists.
The Russian Foreign Ministry’s release linked the events to another unconfirmed report that Afghan authorities in Sar-e Pol had arrested American military personnel attempting to sell weapons to ISIS-linked militants in the province, as well. The statement also insinuated that the United States had deliberately released a notorious ethnic Uzbek terrorist known as Azizullah.
There does not appear to be any independent, English-language reports about the alleged arms deal or the additional allegation that the United States or someone else pressured local authorities into releasing those individuals and destroying evidence. Russia also claims that the U.S. military released Azizullah from its detention center at Bagram Airfield in 2016, despite both U.S. and Afghan authorities confirming that this infamous facility had ceased operations two years earlier.
“As a governor, I can say about the province of Darzab and Khoshtipe,” Moulavi Abdulhai Hayat, chair of the provincial council in Jowzjan, told Russian state-run outlet Sputnik in August 2017. “There were rumors about flights of unidentified helicopters in those places, but MPs [members of parliament] say that this is just rumors and nothing more.”
Still, like any conspiracy theory, there may be an air of truth in these claims. It very possible that the U.S. special operations forces are operating discreetly in militant occupied areas in Northern Afghanistan and are employing helicopters with no obvious national markings to move around and resupply.
They wouldn't necessarily have had to be unmarked, either. At night especially, the markings on the black-painted helicopters from the U.S. Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, or even the black writing on the service's olive drab and tan-colored conventional helicopters, would have been hard to see, especially from far away. The unique paint schemes on the 160th's aircraft are specifically to aid in hiding the aircraft in the dark.
American special operations could be working with local militias, who often have dubious allegiances, as part of those activities, as well. Zahir Wahdat, himself a warlord turned politician, could have been looking to label his political opponents as anti-government militants with his original comments, accusations that could well be credible to some degree.
As part of new surge of U.S.-led activity in Afghanistan as a whole, earlier in February 2018, American forces have launched a flurry of air strikes against various targets along the country’s northern boundaries with both Tajikistan and China. It is easy to imagine that U.S. military personnel helped monitor insurgent and terrorist movements ahead of those operations, especially with reports last year that small pockets of militants had shifted their allegiances to ISIS.
But much more importantly, the Russian accusations were an almost identical inverse of American-media reports suggesting the Kremlin might be actively involved in supporting militant groups in Northern Afghanistan. Zahir Wahdat made his remarks, but before Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued its statement in May 2017, Fox News reported that unmarked helicopters had been flying to known Taliban hideouts from Tajikistan, potentially implicating authorities in Moscow.
Though it is clear that there is a steady flow of black market arms and other military equipment from Russia and former Soviet republics in Central Asia into Afghanistan, how actively involved Russia is or isn’t in that supply chain remains unclear. Though the Kremlin denies the allegations categorically, given its poor relations with the United States it has an obvious incentive to undermine American policy in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region.
“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. Army General Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, which oversees all American military activities in the Middle East and Central Asia, told members of Congress in March 2017. “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.”
If nothing else, the Russian accusations and their repeated demand for answers regarding events that may not even have occurred have only served to the muddy the waters. Sar-e Pol Governor Zahir Wahdat’s initial claims may have actually been about the sightings of helicopters zipping back and forth from Tajikistan, but now serve as the underlying basis for entirely opposite claims from the Kremlin.
We’ve seen similarly dubious allegations steadily appearing elsewhere, as well, particularly regarding the U.S. government’s activities in Syria. Just in 2018, the Russian government has promoted a conspiracy theory that the United States was behind a mass drone attack on its outposts in Syria, as well as officials reiterating the claim that the U.S. military is shielding ISIS- and Al Qaeda-linked terrorists in the Rukban refugee camp near the Southern Syrian city of At Tanf.
"Visits by jihadists who recover moral and physical strength are regularly observed both inside the al-Tanf zone and in the Rukban camp,” Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov said on Feb. 19, 2018. “Attacks on the rest of the Syrian territory have been carried out from there more than once.”
It seems clear that militants do hold sway there, but American and Jordanian forces also treat it as a dangerous no-go area for fear of getting attacked. These new accusations notably come as it becomes increasingly apparent that Russian mercenaries, who may or may not be under the Kremlin’s direct control, have begun actively targeting American personnel in Syria and their local partners.
Of course, the idea that the United States is actually the driving force behind ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria is a long-standing and completely unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that has been running for years. The Russian government has been happy to play into these beliefs on numerous occasions in the past. They regularly coincide with allegations from the United States or other western powers that the Kremlin is actively committing atrocities or is otherwise complicit in such crimes in countries such as Syria.
What we’re seeing are deliberate information warfare tactics that Russia has made a hallmark of its new style of hybrid warfare more broadly. The claims are typically structured in such a way as to redirect focus on the Kremlin's opponents, painting countries like the United States as the real villains and accusing them of being responsible for even more heinous acts. If Russia is driving Syrians into the arms of terrorists by facilitating the Syrian government's mass slaughter of innocent civilians, then it is really the fault of the United States, who is propping up those groups in the first place – or so the cycle typically progresses.
The Russian government's arguments don't even necessarily have to be convincing, just confusing and plausible enough to cast doubt on well documented events, such as the chemical weapons attack in the Syrian city of Khan Sheikhoun. From there, the Kremlin can readily amplify those viewpoints in various ways, especially through the use of spurious social media accounts. At a certain point, the spread of those ideas becomes more organic and difficult to separate from the original, state-sponsored propaganda.
The use of these questionable allegations offers the Russian government an easy, low-risk, and relatively low-cost way to obfuscate what are often complicated situations to be with and do so in such a way that isn't easy to for foreign governments to quickly counter. The burden of proof often falls on the U.S. government and others to refute the claims rather than for the Kremlin to substantiate them in any way.
Until the United States finds an equally easy, quick, and reliable way to definitely reject these accusations, it seems clear that we’re only going to be seeing more of them as time goes on.
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