The valedictory act of the Clinton State Department caps a failed policy on Central Asia and thrusts that failure into the incoming administration’s lap. The sanctions on Afghanistan as presently structured will aggravate that country’s problems, increase the potential for their spillover into Central Asia, and create opportunities for greater Russian political and military influence in the region as a whole.
In pushing for the sanctions, the State Department and Moscow singled out Taliban-controlled Afghanistan–that is, more than 90 percent of that country’s territory–as the main source of Central Asian instability in terms of terrorism, narcotics trade and expansion of Islamic militancy. That case has, however, been challenged by Western experts on the region and reporters, by international human rights organizations and by Central Asian governments. Much of the evidence points to the opposition-held northeastern Afghanistan and to Russian-dominated Tajikistan as the primary sources of instability.
The sanction advocates ignored the Taliban authorities’ increasingly successful efforts to suppress poppy cultivation and the opium- and heroin-producing laboratories. Officials of the UN antidrug program in Afghanistan and press correspondents’ reports certify a dramatic decline in poppy cultivation and effective measures to close the laboratories, in accordance with decrees issued by Taliban religious authorities this past year.
Those decrees and their successful enforcement are being attributed to certain factors: first, international pressure and persuasion efforts; second, a decision however belated by Taliban religious authorities that the trade and consumption of drugs violate the Taliban interpretation of Islam; third, the growing effectiveness of Taliban control over areas which either the opposition or no one at all had controlled while hostilities raged; and, fourth–according to the UN agencies’ and Western correspondents’ reports–an attitude of deference to Taliban religious edicts on the part of farmers in some areas, as well as fear of draconian enforcement of those decrees in other areas.
The observers consider that the continued success of the Taliban antidrug campaign depends on the overall effectiveness of the authorities’ control of drug-producing areas. Any fresh outbreak of the war could return those areas to their earlier condition of no-man’s-lands where the poppy cultivation and drug manufacturing thrived. And international economic sanctions may have the perverse effect of forcing desperate peasants to revert to poppy cultivation.
International aid workers and journalists report, furthermore, that poppy farming and narcotics-trading armed gangs thrive in opposition-dominated northeastern Afghanistan. There, the drug business takes advantage of tolerance by the authorities and the proximity of Tajikistan. Opposition groups–mostly Tajiks–in northeastern Afghanistan–and the authorities of Tajikistan are notoriously complicit in the drug trade.
As has again been noted at recent international conferences on the narcotics problem, Tajikistan provides the main export route for drugs from Afghanistan and Central Asia. The UN, Central Asian and Russian antidrug enforcement officials concur on that finding, and Russian media provide daily evidence of it. Trains, commercial trucks and airliners take from Tajikistan massive amounts of heroin and opium, only a fraction of which is intercepted by inept and corrupt Russian authorities. The Russian government claims that its troops are in Tajikistan in order to stop the drug trade. Russian border troops frequently report clashes with drug carriers on the Tajik-Afghan border–to wit, mainly the sectors facing the part of Afghanistan not under Taliban control. Ultimately, however, those Russian troops–with their many Tajik conscripts–are but a sieve to the drug trade. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which are free of Russian troops, have a far better record than Tajikistan in coping with the drug trade.
Tajikistan, furthermore, has in 1999 and again this year provided sanctuaries and transit corridors to the terrorist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The Tajik government and the coopted Tajik Islamic opposition are in consensus on that policy. Also backing it are both Iran and the Tajik opposition leaders in northeastern Afghanistan, which are armed by Moscow and Tehran. The Russian troops in Tajikistan are, however, the decisive factor behind the policy. Russian border troops and the Russian-backed Tajik troops have repeatedly allowed IMU detachments to cross the Afghan-Tajik, Tajik-Kyrgyz and Tajik-Uzbek borders on the way to and from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Those two countries have time and again complained and cited the evidence, but Tajikistan–thanks to Russian military protection–remained immune.
There is no evidence of Taliban religious-missionary expansion into Central Asia or other neighboring countries. The threat of Islamic fundamentalism comes from the IMU, Hezb-e Tahrir and other movements–the ethnic basis of which is fundamentally different from the Taliban’s–and which propound their own interpretations of Islam.
Specialists on the problem of small arms and light weapons have pointed out that Afghanistan’s northeast and Tajikistan form a single market for that trade. The proliferation of small arms and light weapons originated in the Soviet campaigns in Afghanistan and intensified during the civil war in Tajikistan, which officially ended in 1997. During both periods, massive quantities of those arms and weapons leaked from the Soviet and Russian military. They were handed over to Russia’s local clients and were sold by corrupt military personnel to Islamic guerrillas and to criminal groups. The problem of weapons leakage from the Russian military is a familiar problem also in Russia’s North Caucasus, in Transdniester, Abkhazia, Karabakh and other ex-Soviet areas with a Russian military presence.
The UN sanctions, as structured by the Clinton State Department with Moscow, would ban arms deliveries to the Taliban but authorize such deliveries by Moscow to its Afghan clients. That is a matter of grave concern to Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Those governments, while rigidly secular in their outlook and policies, are well along in exploring a political accommodation with the Taliban on carefully negotiated terms. Those governments are prepared to accept the fact of Taliban domination of Afghanistan in return for guarantees of responsible behavior, which the Taliban authorities seem prepared to both offer and observe. The four Central Asian countries fear turmoil in Afghanistan, not the Taliban authorities as such. Those four countries are alarmed at the prospect that the Russian arms supplies to the Afghan opposition will produce interminable war, anarchy in border areas, and the Russian demands to use Central Asian countries as staging areas for intervention in Afghanistan. And that could open the way for the return of Russian troops and political influence to the region.
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