Cindy Saine and Ayaz Gul
Voice of America
As the United States and Russia clash on Syria, another war-torn nation could play out as a renewed theater for the U.S.-Russia rivalry: Afghanistan.
Thursday, U.S. forces dropped what was being called the largest non-nuclear bomb on a reported Islamic State militant complex in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar.
The U.S. strike came a day before Russia is to host multi-nation talks on prospects for Afghan security and national reconciliation, the third such round since December.
Eleven countries are set to take part in Friday's discussions in Moscow, including Afghanistan, China, Iran, Pakistan and India. Former Soviet Central Asian states have been invited to attend for the first time.
The Afghan Taliban said Thursday that they would not take part.
"We cannot call these negotiations [in Moscow] as a dialogue for the restoration of peace in Afghanistan," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told VOA. "This meeting stems from political agendas of the countries who are organizing it. This has really nothing to do with us, nor do we support it."
The spokesman reiterated insurgents' traditional stance that U.S.-led foreign troops would have to leave Afghanistan before any conflict resolution talks could be initiated.
The United States was also invited to the Moscow talks, but Washington declined, saying it had not been informed of the agenda beforehand and was unclear about the meeting's motives.
American military officials suspect Russia's so-called Afghan peace diplomacy is aimed at undermining NATO and have accused Moscow of arming the Taliban.
"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," U.S. Central Command Chief General Joseph Votel told members of the House Armed Services Committee in March. He said he thought Russia was "attempting to be an influential party in this part of the world."
For its part, Moscow has denied that it is supporting the Afghan Taliban.
"These fabrications are designed, as we have repeatedly underlined, to justify the failure of the U.S. military and politicians in the Afghan campaign.There is no other explanation," said Zamir Kabulov, the Kremlin's special envoy to Afghanistan.
In a separate statement Thursday, the Taliban also denied receiving military aid from Russia, though the group defended "political understanding" with Afghanistan's neighbors and regional countries.
Anna Borshchevskaya of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said reports of Moscow supporting the Taliban were not new.
"The official Russian position on the Taliban is that they see it as a group that could help fight ISIS, but this is something that even some Taliban spokesmen have denied, since ISIS and the Taliban reached an understanding about a year ago," Borshchevskaya said.
She said that if the allegations of Russian support for the Taliban were true, Russian President Vladimir Putin was most likely motivated by his desire to undermine the West.
"Certainly one motivation could be taking advantage of regional chaos, and to assert Russia's influence at the expense of the U.S., taking advantage of a U.S. retreat from the Middle East and elsewhere and [to] undermine NATO and the U.S." Borshchevskaya said, "This has been Putin's pattern."
U.S. President Donald Trump has made few public statements on Afghanistan, and his administration is still weighing whether to deploy more American troops to try to reverse the course of the war.
Thursday's strike in Nangarhar marked a major step by the Trump administration in Afghanistan, in which there has been a U.S. military presence since 2001.
During a March 31 NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reaffirmed U.S. support for the alliance's mission in Afghanistan.
"NATO's work in Afghanistan remains critical. The United States is committed to the Resolute Support Mission and to our support for Afghan forces," Tillerson said.
Some 13,000 NATO troops, including 8,400 Americans, are part of the support mission, tasked with training Afghanistan's 300,000-member national security and defense forces.
Michael Kugelman, South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, said he expected continuity in U.S. policy toward Afghanistan between the Obama and Trump administrations.
"The statement made by Tillerson at a recent NATO meeting could well have been uttered by an Obama official," Kugelman said. "The focus on training, advising and assisting and the call for reconciliation mirror exactly the Obama administration's priorities."
But the South Asia analyst noted one important policy difference: U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan.
"Obama was an anti-war president who was never comfortable keeping large numbers of troops in Afghanistan. Trump is unlikely to be as constrained," Kugelman said.
"Look for Trump to send in several thousand more troops," he said. "This is a request that the generals in Afghanistan have made for years, and Trump is more likely to defer to the U.S. military's wishes on this than Obama was."
As for Russian involvement in Afghanistan following the former Soviet Union's occupation of the South Asian country from 1979 to 1989, Kugelman said that even if Russia were engaging the Taliban to undercut U.S. influence, the two nations ultimately hope for the same outcome in Afghanistan.
"The ironic thing is that Washington and Moscow both want the same endgame in Afghanistan — an end to the war, preferably through a reconciliation process — but they simply can't get on the same page about how to proceed," Kugelman said.