Late one night in February, villagers in the Dast-e-Archi district of northern Afghanistan heard strange sounds from the nearby Panj river, which marks the border with Tajikistan.
One farmer said he saw the bright lights of planes landing close to the riverbank, just inside Afghan territory in an area controlled by Taliban militants.
Word of American airstrikes or raids against insurgents travels fast in Kunduz province, but the next morning no one had any information about such an operation. The villagers concluded that the planes belonged to another powerful country seeking to press its influence in Afghanistan.
“It would have had to be the Russians,” said the farmer, who asked to be identified as Gul Agha. “These areas are outside government control so the question is raised, why were the planes landing there?”
Reports have swirled for months across northern Afghanistan that Russia is increasing its support for the Taliban, providing weapons and financing to the militant group that has battled U.S. and international forces since 2001.
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