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U.S. says Russian support for Taliban hurts peace process in Afghanistan

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis lands in Kabul, March 13, 2018, on an unannounced trip to Afghanistan.

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As the Trump administration continues advocating for a peace process in Afghanistan, U.S. officials are accusing the Russian government of hindering their efforts. Moscow has increased its support for the Taliban over the last year and a half amid decaying U.S.-Russia relations, according to administration officials.

Russian support for the Taliban, which has been at war with U.S.-led coalition forces since 2001, includes the sharing of sensitive intelligence data.

"It's not an area of cooperation for them yet," explained a senior State Department official of Russia's failure to work with the U.S. in Afghanistan. The country is an area where Russia "can make points" about their displeasure with general state of bilateral relations. 

As a result, the official indicated that Moscow is holding peace in Afghanistan hostage as their bilateral relations with the U.S. grow more toxic. Just last week, the U.S. slapped sanctions on Russian individuals and entities for meddling in the 2016 presidential election. The U.S. also said that Russian operatives assaulted the U.S. electrical grid. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is still a target of investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections.

The U.S. hopes to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table in Afghanistan. When Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis traveled to Afghanistan last week, he indicated that "small groups" of the Taliban have shown a willingness to partake in talks with the Afghan government.

"You don't want to miss an opportunity, because you weren't alert to the opportunity. So you need to have that door open even if you increase the military pressure," said Mattis when asked if discussion of talks with the Taliban were premature. "We know there is interest on the Taliban side. We know that. So when you put all these together then that's why I think we are on the right track."

An invitation for peace negotiations, which the U.S. says must be Afghan-led, was issued by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in February. Ghani says that a peace process, with the involvement of the Taliban, would help "those who want to separate themselves from international terrorist organizations and terrorist activities."

The Taliban has not formally responded to the Afghan government's request for talks, and has instead asked the U.S. to negotiate with them directly. However, the U.S. is not willing to sit down with the Taliban without Afghan government leaders.

"It's now up to the Taliban leaders to respond to this serious offer. This is a peace offer that the United States supports and is prepared to facilitate, but we cannot substitute for the direct negotiations that are required between the Afghan government and the Taliban leadership," said State Department official Alice Wells earlier this month about Ghani's offer. 

The U.S. currently has 15,000 troops in Afghanistan. Many of them are part of a counter-terrorism force supporting the Afghan government in its fight with ISIS, which has seized small patches of territory in the country in recent years.

Russia has criticized the Trump administration for sending more troops to Afghanistan and the Russian Foreign Ministry has admitted that Moscow shares intelligence with the Taliban. The U.S. sees the Taliban as a terrorist group, and thinks that Russia's relationship with them "effectively is legitimizing the Taliban as a military force," said a senior State Department official.

The State Department argues that Russia's support for the Taliban perpetuates instability across the region. Russia, meanwhile, insists that they are only trying to help destroy ISIS – a Taliban rival -- in the country, and that the U.S. is supporting ISIS. Russian support for the Taliban has led to public disagreements among American and Russian government officials and continues to enrage the U.S.

"We've lost more soldiers in Afghanistan fighting ISIS last year than fighting the Taliban and so to allege that somehow we're complicit or that we brought Daesh to Afghanistan is not only ludicrous, but it's insulting, infuriating," said a senior State Department official. Daesh is an Arabic name for ISIS.

The U.S. has also rejected Russian claims that there are many thousands of ISIS fighters in Afghanistan. "The numbers that are spread about the number of Daesh fighters by Russia is grossly exaggerated. It is around 1,500," said General John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, earlier this year.

The Trump administration did not roll out its Afghanistan policy until August 2017. In the meantime, Russia continued to ramp up its Taliban support, unsure if the administration would completely pull out of the country and leave a vacuum in the process. Assurances from the Afghan government to the Russians, saying that peace would prevail, were not enough.

"It started with a lack of coherent U.S. policy towards Afghanistan," said an Afghan government official. "The Russians were worried about what happens to the region next. If the Taliban were to take over Afghanistan they wanted to be on their good side, at the very least, to stop extremism from spreading into Central Asia."

The Afghan official indicated that there is a developing relationship between U.S., Afghanistan and Russia to share intelligence on ISIS. This effort gives the Russians better assurance on ISIS activity in Afghanistan, with the hope that they will stop backing the Taliban. U.S. officials would not confirm any intelligence sharing with the Russians, instead discussing ongoing American efforts against ISIS in Afghanistan.

"In 2017, we actually tripled the number of strikes against ISIS. We had about 1,400 ground tactical strikes. We took out 1,600 ISIS fighters. We killed three of their leaders. We shrunk their presence in Nangarhar from nine districts to between three and five districts," said a senior State Department official. "And you're going to see those efforts intensify because for us, you know, ISIS has to be defeated."

Despite the challenge presented by Russia, U.S. officials say they will continue their efforts to eliminate ISIS and bring the Taliban into peace negotiations. They also hope to assist the Afghan government in making it harder for the Taliban, which currently controls roughly 40 percent of the country, to conduct operations. 

CBS News' Jack Turman contributed to this story.