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Three countries undermining Afghanistan progress that President Trump didn’t call out

President Trump unveiled a new strategy for the U.S. war in Afghanistan on Aug. 21. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)
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President Trump delivered a sharp warning to Pakistan on Monday, saying he intends to hold its leaders to account for harboring militant groups responsible for perpetuating instability across the border in Afghanistan.

During a prime-time address to the nation, Trump said the United States would once more accelerate its longest military mission and bring renewed focus to achieving victory in Afghanistan.

“It is time for Pakistan,” the president declared, “to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order and to peace.”

He declined, however, to similarly admonish three other regional powers which the United States views as complicit in undermining progress there: Russia, Iran and to a lesser extent China, which has a stake in Afghanistan's stability but shows little motivation to take a more active role in providing for its security.

Here's a look at each country's involvement in Afghanistan:


Since April, not long after he declared America's longest war a stalemate, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, has voiced concern about Moscow's apparent effort to arm the Taliban. Those weapons include medium and heavy machine guns, officials have said, used to cut down Afghan troops in multiple southern provinces, including areas where U.S. military advisers and Special Operations forces are deployed.

U.S. officials have said that any country shipping weapons into Afghanistan would be in violation of international law. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis vowed to engage the Russians through diplomatic channels, hopeful that doing so would encourage them to halt their alleged meddling.

Russia has denied working with the Taliban, saying its interactions with the fundamentalist group that once ruled Afghanistan have been focused on encouraging it to make peace. Video published by CNN in July appears to contradict that.


Like Russia, Iran views Afghanistan as within its “sphere of influence,” as The Washington Post's Erin Cunningham characterized it earlier this year. Iranian operatives have been active in the west, where the two countries share a 500-mile border, as well as in the south.

Afghan government officials have indicated Iran and Russia appear to be coordinating, supplying weapons and training to the Taliban in an effort to create loyalty and promote unrest.

In a piece published this month, the New York Times' Carlotta Gall explored this burgeoning dynamic in considerable detail. Here's an excerpt:

Iran has conducted an intensifying covert intervention, much of which is only now coming to light. It is providing local Taliban insurgents with weapons, money and training. It has offered Taliban commanders sanctuary and fuel for their trucks. It has padded Taliban ranks by recruiting among Afghan Sunni refugees in Iran, according to Afghan and Western officials. …
Iran has come to see the Taliban not only as the lesser of its enemies but also as a useful proxy force. The more recent introduction of the Islamic State, which carried out a terrorist attack on Iran’s parliament this year, into Afghanistan has only added to the Taliban’s appeal.


Trump has been candid in his criticism of China for not doing more to help counter the provocative actions being taken by North Korea, whose leaders have threatened a nuclear attack against the United States. But his administration has said little about Beijing's comparatively minor contributions in Afghanistan.

China, as one observer notes, has “chosen to assume a minimalistic role in the security sector, refusing to get involved in direct military operations” but benefiting nonetheless from the U.S. and NATO presence there.

And as Military Times' Shawn Snow reported in March, Beijing is seen as something of a “freeloader” in Afghanistan, but there is growing evidence small numbers of Chinese security forces — there's disagreement as to whether they are military personnel or police units — have been deployed across the border to conduct counterterrorism patrols. China is concerned about Uighur militants who remain active in the region and have professed support for the Islamic State.

Since 2015 China has contributed some funding and combat equipment for the Afghan security forces. Still, its interests are primarily economic, focused on Afghanistan's natural resources and its potential to help connect China with other trade partners.

China was one of four countries, including Russia, Iran and Pakistan, that sent envoys to an Afghan summit in the spring — talks the United States refused to attend. And China was quick to show solidarity with ally Pakistan after Trump's remarks Monday.

A spokeswoman for China's foreign minister, speaking with the Reuters news agency Tuesday, conveyed Beijing's contentment with the U.S. continuing to do the heavy lifting.

“We hope,” the spokeswoman added, “the relevant U.S. policies can help promote the security, stability and development of Afghanistan and the region.”

Read more:

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