Russia Denies Flying Mystery Air Strike On Afghan Border, Claims Black Choppers Still Aiding ISIS

The Kremlin and others continue to make confusing and conflicting claims about activities along the Afghanistan-Tajikistan boundary.

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Russia has denied conducting an air strike against unknown gunmen along the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border and Afghan officials have now said their Tajik neighbors were responsible for the aerial attack. The border skirmish comes as the Kremlin continues to advance an unfounded conspiracy theory that the United States, or its allies, is using secret helicopters flights to support terrorist groups, including ISIS' regional franchise, in Northern Afghanistan.

The air strike reportedly occurred on Aug. 26, 2018, in part of the “no-man’s land” separating Afghanistan’s Takhar Province from Tajikistan to the north. In addition, Tajikistan's border guards exchanged fire with the armed individuals on the ground, killing as many as eight militants and wounding six more, but losing two of their own in the process.

Mohammad Jawid Hejri, a spokesperson for Takhar’s provincial authorities, initially said that foreign “fighter jets” had carried out the strikes. Unnamed Afghan officials later told the country’s Tolo News that it was only one aircraft and that it belonged to Tajikistan.

Russia has thousands of troops forwarded deployed at a base in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe as part of bilateral agreement, but its not clear if it has any fixed wing aircraft assigned to units in the country. The Russian military has, however, deployed combat jets to the country for training exercises in the past.

Alexey Kudenko/Sputnik  via AP

A row of Russian helicopters at Kulyab Airfield in Tajikistan during a drill in 2017.

Tajikistan’s own air force is extremely small and has limited capabilities, with its only fixed wing combat jets being four Czech-made L-39 Albatros dual-purpose jet trainer and light attack aircraft, not all of which may be airworthy. There were no additional details from Hejri or other sources, at least according to the available English-language reporting, that specified what kind of planes were involved specifically. It is possible that an armed helicopter, such as an Mi-24 Hind gunship or Mi-17 armed transport, which Russia and Tajikistan both operate in the country, actually flew the strike, as well.

Adding to the confusion, both Russian and Tajikistan authorities have both denied conducting an air strike of any kind. The NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan also said it was not involved in any way in the incident.

“Afghanistan has no control over its airspace due to a lack of facilities,” retired Afghan air force general, Atiqullah Amarkhel, told Al Jazeera on Aug. 27, 2018. “U.S. forces should follow up the case.”

Dmitry Terekhov via Wikimedia

A Russian L-39 jet trainer. Tajikistan reportedly has four of these aircraft that can also conduct light attack missions.

There is also a debate about who exactly the militants were to begin with. Khalil Asir, a spokesman for the provincial police force in Takhar, said they were members of the Taliban, though the governor’s spokesperson Hejri identified them simply as drug smugglers.

The Taliban are involved in the narcotics trade, but the group itself denied any involvement, claiming that it had not authorized its fighters to engage security forces from neighboring countries. This assertion is dubious given the organization’s long history of terrorist operations in Pakistan, though it may reflect the group's main focus on ejecting the NATO-led coalition from Afghanistan.

It is hardly unusual to hear confusing and conflicting reports about the fighting in Afghanistan from various parties, including from the country’s central government in Kabul and NATO officials. It is that difficulty in establishing many of the basic facts of any given situation in Afghanistan that has allowed Russian authorities to keep effectively spreading rumors that the United States has been working hand-in-hand with militant groups, such as ISIS, in Northern Afghanistan since at least 2017

The Kremlin couches its claims by saying it is only asking for answers about already unfounded reports about sightings of mystery helicopters dropping off terrorists and supplies for them at sites in Afghanistan near the Tajikistan and Chinese borders.

Resolute Support Mission

A grainy, night-vision shot of a US CH-47 Chinook supporting Afghan commandos during an operation.

“We draw attention again to the flights of unidentified helicopters in the north of Afghanistan, delivering weapons and ammunition to local Daesh [another term for ISIS] militants and Taliban fighters, who are cooperating with the Daesh terrorist group,” Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova said on Aug. 23, 2018, in one of the more recent comments on this “issue.” “According to the statements by the Afghan media and local residents, such flights have recently been recorded in the province of Sar-e Pol.”

Sar-e Pol lies to the southwest of Takhar and does not actually sit along any of Afghanistan’s external borders. As we at The War Zone have examined in depth in the past, the claims about mysterious terrorist-supporting helicopters in that province and neighboring regions are completely unfounded.

The allegations trace back to comments that Zahir Wahdat, governor of Sar-e Pol, made in May 2017, which did not implicate any particular country as being behind responsible for the flights. Afghan officials routinely deny the claims entirely, though there may be some truth to the sightings of helicopters in the region. 

In the dark, almost any helicopter is likely to appear "black" and "unmarked." American forces, especially special operations forces, along with their allies and Afghan partners, routinely conduct operations after the sun goes in order to maximize the element of surprise and their technological superiority to try to catch terrorists and insurgents off guard. In addition, there simple presence of U.S. military personnel operating discreetly in areas with significant ISIS or Taliban presence does not mean they are somehow supporting those groups.

Golbez via Wikimedia

A map of Afghanistan showing both Sar-e Pol and Takhar Provinces in the northern part of the country.

It remains equally unclear if Russia is actively supporting the Taliban, despite U.S. government claims that there are indications that this is the case. The group does appear to be getting Russian-made equipment, including night-vision goggles, but these items could come via the thriving black market in the region.

Regardless, Russia’s claims about ISIS in Afghanistan serve “to legitimize the actions of the Taliban and provide some degree of support to the Taliban,” U.S. Army General John Nicholson, the outgoing commander of American and other NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, told the BBC in April 2018. “We've had weapons brought to this headquarters and given to us by Afghan leaders and [they] said, this was given by the Russians to the Taliban.”

But despite all of these murky details, it is still notable that the border skirmish occurred so soon after the Russians re-iterated their claims about the mystery helicopters. A core component of the Kremlin’s well-established misinformation and disinformation campaigns has been to assert it is actually its military or political opponents who are responsible for the nefarious actions – or worse – that they themselves stand accused of committing.

Mohammad Sharif Shayeq/NurPhoto/Sipa via AP

An Afghan policeman in Badakhshan Province, which also borders Tajikistan, walks past a pile of burning drugs in 2016.

The Russian government, and its intelligence services in particular, uses overt and covert methods to amplify these claims, especially on social media. The accusations can then rapidly take on an organic quality that is difficult to differentiate from the initial state-sponsored propaganda. It then creates a feedback loop, by which the Kremlin often cites ostensibly independent actors to support its claims.

One of the most common uses for this tactic has been in relation to Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad’s employment of chemical weapons against rebels and innocent civilians as part of his brutal, Russian-backed campaign to reassert control over his country. Russia state and quasi-state media often release statements, without any conclusive supporting evidence, claiming that rebels and terrorists are preparing to stage false flag attacks to make it look like the regime in Damascus is responsible. As in Afghanistan, the Kremlin often accuses the United States or other Western countries of actively aiding terrorists in Syria conduct these operations.

On Aug. 26, 2018, RT put out an unprecedented virtual play-by-play on Twitter detailing yet another one these supposed false flag preparations in Syria’s Idlib Governorate. Not surprisingly, this came in advance of an imminent Russian-backed offensive to clear rebels out of the region. Similar offensives in the past year and half have routinely involved reported chemical weapon attacks.

The U.S. government has threatened Assad with retaliatory military action if his forces use weapons of mass destruction during the campaign. In April 2018, the United States, along with the United Kingdom and France, launched a massive cruise missile barrage against various pieces of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons infrastructure.

In Afghanistan, the latest incident along the Tajikistan border may be nothing more than a rare skirmish between Tajik authorities and one of many potential armed actors. The Taliban have been resurgent across the country and have been stepping up their attacks in Takhar Province, among other places, in recent months.

The timing is still curious and also comes as the Russians trying to arrange a peace summit between the Afghan authorities and the Taliban – a group the Kremlin regularly reiterates is “banned” in Russia, as ISIS – along with other regional stakeholders. The Russians seem intent on trying to supplant the United States as a key power broker in the conflict, which continues to be, at best, a grueling stalemate.

The government of Afghanistan had rejected the invitation, which came via normal diplomatic channels, initially, but the Russians claim they are still looking to set up a tentative date for the gathering in September 2018. Earlier in August 2018, the Afghan Ambassador to Russia, Abdul Qayyum Kochai, claimed, also without providing any clear evidence, that the Kremlin had struck a deal with the Taliban to provide them with support of some kind in exchange for their cooperation in fighting ISIS in Afghanistan, something the Russians deny.

“I can’t even hypothetically imagine how Russia could use the Taliban for fighting the IS,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters on Aug. 21, 2018. However, he added that “we fight the IS with all means available, we support Syria in that struggle, we help equip the Iraqi army for the same goal, and we naturally would like to see the people of Afghanistan getting rid of the IS.”

It remains to be seen whether the Russian peace summit will occur at all, if any more clarity will emerge about the Kremlin’s connection to the Taliban, or if the actual facts behind the supposed sightings of mystery helicopters will become apparent. Until any of those things occur, we’ll be keeping our eyes and ears open for any new into what might be truly occurring along the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com