Russia Is Winning the Information War in Afghanistan

The country’s former occupier is using Kremlin-backed media to fuel anger toward the United States.

Soviet Red Army soldiers march in downtown Kabul during a military parade in October 1986.
Soviet Red Army soldiers march in downtown Kabul during a military parade in October 1986. DANIEL JANIN/AFP via Getty Images

Since 2015, when Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev suspended Moscow’s participation in the Northern Distribution Network supply route, which facilitated the transit of food, fuel, and hardware for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Russia has transformed from an inconsistent partner to a multipronged adversary of the United States in Afghanistan.

To expedite a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and once again establish a geopolitical foothold in the war-torn country, Russia allegedly supplied light weaponry to the Taliban and hosted alternative peace negotiations, which undermined Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s sovereign authority.

The controversy surrounding U.S. President Donald Trump’s nonchalant response to Russia’s alleged payment of bounties to Afghan militants targeting U.S. forces has inspired a flurry of news stories about Moscow’s relationship with the Taliban, but media outlets have paid little attention to a similarly insidious threat to U.S. national security: Russia’s information war against U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Although Russian news channels have highlighted speculative accounts of U.S. criminality in Afghanistan for over a decade, Russia’s information war against U.S. forces in Afghanistan intensified after Moscow strengthened its security ties with the Taliban in 2015. Russia’s disinformation, which is transmitted through radio broadcasts and Kremlin-backed online media outlets, seeks to influence Afghan public opinion of the United States.

In particular, Russia’s disinformation seeks to increase Afghan support for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces and fuel suspicions about the intentions of the residual U.S. security force presence in postwar Afghanistan.

By promoting anti-American conspiracies on Russian-owned state media outlets that reach an Afghan audience in their native language, such as Sputnik Dari, and lending support to these stories in official statements, the Kremlin has retooled its well-documented array of political interference strategies against Western democracies into a weapon of war in Afghanistan.

Although memories of the Soviet-Afghanistan War of 1979-1989 continue to fuel anti-Russian feelings in Afghanistan, Russia’s infrastructure investments and construction of educational institutions have improved its image among young Afghans, who view the United States as an occupying power. The improvement of Russia’s image and growth of anti-American sentiment has bolstered the traction of Russian disinformation in Afghanistan. Sputnik Dari boasts over 275,000 followers on Facebook, who receive multiple daily updates with stories condemning U.S. conduct in Afghanistan.

Much like Russia’s efforts to sow distrust of liberal democracy in Western societies, Moscow’s disinformation tactics in Afghanistan have been characterized by their ideological fluidity and diverse—and sometimes contradictory—array of messages. Russia has largely promoted two narratives about U.S. conduct in Afghanistan. The first is that the United States is the primary contributor to instability and extremism in Afghanistan, and the second is that the U.S. government has neocolonial ambitions in Afghanistan, which have prolonged its military presence and will be completely unmasked as soon as the war ends.

The narrative that the United States has destabilized Afghanistan through passivity toward terrorism or active support of extremist networks, such as the Islamic State, is a central theme of Russian state media coverage of Afghanistan. In an October 2017 interview with RT, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has been Kremlin-friendly since he endorsed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, described the Islamic State in Afghanistan as a “tool” that the United States uses to advance its broader regional goals.

In a February 2018 interview with Sputnik Dari, Ahmad Wahid Mozhda, a former mujahideen commander and Afghan political analyst, stated that many Afghans believed a “mysterious foreign hand” was supporting the Islamic State. As clarified later in the interview, this foreign hand was a direct reference to the United States. To reinforce the credibility of these assertions, Russian media outlets have highlighted the alleged U.S.-Islamic State alliance as an international phenomenon, which also seeks to undermine Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s legitimate authority and Iran’s geopolitical influence in Iraq.

Russian officials have repeatedly endorsed these allegations in public statements and interviews with Russian state media outlets. In August 2018, the Russian foreign ministry claimed that “unidentified helicopters” were delivering weapons to the Islamic State in Afghanistan. This assertion built on Sputnik’s prior interview with former Afghan Gen. Atiqullah Amarkhel, which alluded to the possibility of U.S. planes helping Islamic State fighters smuggle precious stones and narcotics from Afghanistan.

This disinformation narrative continued unabated, even as Russia offered to serve as a guarantor for a U.S.-Taliban peace agreement. In September 2019, Sergey Beseda, a senior Russian intelligence official, accused the United States of transferring Islamic State militants to northern Afghanistan.

On July 4, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, claimed that U.S. collusion with Afghanistan’s narcotics trade is an “open secret” and that in Kabul “everyone is sick and tired of it and dismisses it as a given.” The regular participation of Afghan politicians who propagate anti-U.S. conspiracies, such as Karzai, in the Moscow-approved talks provides further evidence that Russia is seeking to burnish the credibility of these opinions among the Afghan population.

In addition to portraying the U.S. government as a supporter of extremism and instability on Russia’s southern flank, Russian media outlets have propagated unsubstantiated rumors about a secret U.S. neocolonial agenda in Afghanistan. In June 2017, Sputnik Dari quoted a member of the Afghan parliament from Helmand province, who said that U.S. forces were smuggling uranium from the region, instead of partaking in counterterrorism operations, and cited anonymous local residents, who accused the United States of carrying out “robbery and theft.”

In February 2018, Karzai told Sputnik that the U.S. saw “Afghanistan only as a tool for implementing their geopolitical plans in the region.” Citing Akhtar Shakh Hamdard, an Afghan political scientist, the Russian state broadcaster RIA Novosti claimed that the United States has long-term strategic plans in Afghanistan, as it allows the United States to exploit Central Asia’s mineral resources and access Iran’s untapped reserves of oil and natural gas. Although conspiracies about U.S. hegemonic ambitions in Afghanistan abound, Russian state media outlets frequently downplay China’s extractive ambitions in the region, as they highlight Beijing’s satisfaction with Russia’s security policy in Central Asia and the constructive elements of the Belt and Road Initiative.

As the U.S. military has taken steps toward a withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russian media outlets have pivoted toward stories on residual intelligence or private security personnel in the country, portraying them as a permanent occupation force. Allegations of U.S. hegemonic ambitions in Afghanistan have also surfaced along with the revelations of Russia allegedly paying bounties to the Taliban. In a Sputnik article that described the bounty scandal as RussiaGate 3.0, Mohammed Daud Miraki, an Afghan activist, was quoted as saying, “The war in Afghanistan is a milk cow for the U.S. establishment and NATO that they refused to lose.”

Russian officials have endorsed these narratives about U.S. conduct. In March 2018, Kabulov argued that U.S. military operations in Afghanistan were part of its broader geopolitical struggle against Russia and China, and he cited U.S. efforts to encourage Afghan forces to divest from Russian weaponry as proof of a hegemonic agenda.

These allegations swiftly followed Sputnik Dari’s interview with Afghan army spokesman Gen. Dawlat Waziri, which described the replacement of Russian weapons with U.S. arms as a “crime against the Afghan army” and proof that the Afghan army was a “human shield” of the United States. The Russian foreign ministry has also accused the United States of postponing the 2019 Afghan elections in order to advance its own interests, which built on Russian state media efforts to depict the Afghan government as a U.S. puppet.

Beyond their potential threat to U.S. forces, Russian state media outlets could also bolster Moscow’s influence over postwar Afghanistan. Sputnik regularly emphasizes Russia’s willingness to invest in Afghanistan’s postwar reconstruction and highlights comments from anti-American politicians, such as Afghan Ambassador to Moscow Abdul Qayyum Kochai, who praise Moscow’s prospective peacekeeping role.

These news stories support Russia’s soft power campaign in Afghanistan, which began with the pledged construction of a $20 million Russian cultural center in 2014 and, more recently, has extended to Kremlin-sponsored educational initiatives. Moreover, the depiction of Ghani’s government as U.S.-dependent and ineffectual in Russian state media outlets strengthens his Kremlin-friendly opponents, which include anti-systemic figures, such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is the leader of the Islamist Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin party, and “trustworthy elements” of the Taliban.

A boost in Afghan public support for these figures and the co-option of the Taliban into a coalition with Afghanistan’s internationally recognized government would amplify Russia’s long-term leverage in Afghanistan and provide Moscow with local partners to look out for its security interests.

Moscow’s ongoing information war against U.S. forces is a threat that deserves much more attention. The United States should recognize that Russia’s disinformation is not just a threat to liberal democracy but also a prospective danger to the security of U.S. forces in war zones, such as Afghanistan.

The Trump administration’s efforts to undermine the cohesion and independence of U.S. counterweights to Russia’s disinformation campaigns, such as Voice of America, only compound the damage and should cease immediately. If U.S. officials do not address the threat posed by Russia’s information war in Afghanistan, Moscow could escalate its use of disinformation against the U.S. military in other settings, which would threaten U.S. soldiers and undermine vital local support for counterterrorism campaigns.

Samuel Ramani is a nonresident fellow at the Gulf International Forum and a doctoral candidate in Politics and International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy. Twitter: @samramani2

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