Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 210

Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be reversing his predecessor Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision to renounce military intervention in Afghanistan. Defense Minister Marshal Igor Sergeev met for the first time openly with the commander of the “northern Afghan alliance,” Ahmad-Shah Masood, in late October in Dushanbe. Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Kamal Kharrazi and Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov also met with Masood on that occasion. Russian military involvement has been growing since then.

Moscow and Tehran had, using Russian-dominated Tajikistan as a supply channel, financed and armed the Afghan anti-Taliban alliance all along. But the Russian role is now assuming more intrusive and more overt forms. According to prominent Russian military analyst Pavel Felgengauer, the northern Afghan alliance has in recent weeks been using multiple-rocket launchers of recent vintage, freshly supplied from Russian Army stocks, which probably require the presence of Russian instructors on the ground with Masood’s forces. Russian military helicopters, almost certainly flown by Russian crews, were recently shown in action with Masood’s troops on Russian Public Television (ORT) (Pavel Felgengauer, “Afghan Conflict Revisited,” The Moscow Times, November 2).

The television publicity–just like the official meetings in Dushanbe and the open discussion of a “humanitarian” airlift by the Russian military to northern Afghanistan–seemed designed to signal, first, that Russian involvement need no longer be covert, and, second, that it can be expanded, if necessary, to enable the defeated anti-Taliban forces to go on the counteroffensive.

Moscow’s return in force to Afghanistan seems to carry the approval of the Clinton-Gore administration. Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering, who is in charge of the administration’s policy on Afghanistan, in effect confirmed and condoned the Russian and Iranian role in a Voice of America interview. Asked to comment on reports that Russia has recently supplied “a number of forces and large amounts of weapons” to anti-Taliban forces through Tajikistan, Pickering replied:

“I suspect that there is some truth in the [reports]… There was a great deal of concern in the forces of Ahmad-Shah Masood, [Abdurrashid] Dostum and Ismail Khan… I think they went to friendly countries like Iran and Russia in search of… assistance. I can’t confirm that forces from those countries have actually crossed from Tajikistan into Afghanistan, but I do believe that those who support Masood have tried to come to be particularly helpful.” In the same context, Pickering cited the Taliban authorities’ failure to curb narcotics production, their protection of Osama bin Laden and unwillingness to form a coalition government with the opposition as issues which require the United States to “work with Russia” on Afghanistan.

The U.S. official also endorsed Russia’s strong military presence in Tajikistan, “on the basis of what has been happening inside Tajikistan and along the borders of Tajikistan,” and inasmuch as “Tajikistan wished to have that presence… to provide for the security of the situation in Tajikistan.” He also cited Afghanistan as a haven of the Islamist rebels which recently attacked Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan (VOA interview dated October 30; transcript released through Washington File, November 7).

Four Central Asian countries would disagree with much of that analysis. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, targets of the terrorist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), have repeatedly shown evidence that the IMU rebels attacked from Tajikistan and that they have camps there. Russian forces in Tajikistan could easily have wiped out those camps from the air, and Russian border troops on the Tajik-Afghan border could have interdicted their access. Instead, Russian troops and the Dushanbe government have tolerated the sanctuaries on Tajik territory and allowed IMU forces repeatedly to cross the Tajik-Afghan, Tajik-Kyrgyz and Tajik-Uzbek borders (see the Monitor, October 20, November 9, 1999, May 4, 10, August 1, September 8, 2000; Fortnight in Review, May 26, August 8, September 8). Russia’s ally Tajikistan has since 1999 become a prime source of regional instability. Uzbekistan, though, is the IMU’s primary target–because it forms the main counterweight to Russian influence in the region. The IMU is not strong enough to overthrow the Uzbek or any government, but it provides the kind of controlled instability which weakens the region’s governments and maximizes Moscow’s leverage over them. A similar paradigm is being used with different actors in several post-Soviet areas.

Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan underscore the fact that their borders with Afghanistan have been peaceful since the Taliban took control of the areas opposite the border two to three years ago. Ashgabat and Dushanbe have concluded that Taliban rule is preferable to war and chaos in northern Afghanistan. The war and the chaos make it possible for the IMU to spend winters in Masood-controlled or no-man’s-land areas and for the narcotics business to develop unchecked. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, the Taliban authorities and the latter’s protector Pakistan share a keen interest in opening trade routes–including oil and gas pipelines–from Central to Southern Asia across Afghanistan. For their part, Moscow and Tehran share an interest in thwarting those plans. As major oil and gas producers and aspiring regional hegemons, Russia and Tehran seek to control themselves the export of Caspian oil and gas and to perpetuate the Central Asian countries’ economic dependence which results from the landlocked situation and absence of trade routes.

While firmly secular in their outlook and policies, the Uzbek and Turkmen governments favor a deal with the fundamentalist Taliban to most quickly end the hostilities in northern Afghanistan. Uzbek President Islam Karimov long ago abandoned his former Afghan client Dostum (see above). More recently, he has shown exasperation with the anti-Taliban alliance because its continuation of the war lost it 95 percent of Afghanistan territory.

Kazakhstan is now signaling that it has come to share the Turkmen and Uzbek view. On November 6-7, Pakistan’s Head of Executive Power General Pervez Musharraf conferred with President Nursultan Nazarbaev and other top Kazakh officials in Astana. The Kazakh leaders stated publicly that they have been in contact with the Taliban for more than a year. They and Musharraf described the Taliban as a major legitimate political force, called for an urgent end to the fighting and for an end to outside interference in the conflict. Like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the Kazakh government now also calls for pacification in northern Afghanistan, accommodation with the Taliban authorities and internationally sponsored economic reconstruction in Afghanistan as a whole (Kabar, November 7-8; Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Mashhad), November 5, 7; see the Monitor, October 13, 30-31; Fortnight in Review, September 8).

The Monitor is a publication of the Jamestown Foundation. It is researched and written under the direction of Senior Analysts Vladimir Socor, Stephen Foye, and Jonas Bernstein, and Analysts Igor Rotar, Douglas Clarke, Ilya Malyakin, Peter Rutland, and Oleg Varfolomeyev. It is edited and compiled by Helen Glenn Court. If you have any questions regarding the content of the Monitor, please contact the editor at .

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The Monitor is a publication of the Jamestown Foundation. It is researched and written under the direction of senior analysts Jonas Bernstein, Vladimir Socor, Stephen Foye, and analysts Ilya Malyakin, Oleg Varfolomeyev and Ilias Bogatyrev. If you have any questions regarding the content of the Monitor, please contact the foundation. If you would like information on subscribing to the Monitor, or have any comments, suggestions or questions, please contact us by e-mail at, by fax at 301-562-8021, or by postal mail at The Jamestown Foundation, 4516 43rd Street NW, Washington DC 20016. Unauthorized reproduction or redistribution of the Monitor is strictly prohibited by law. Copyright (c) 1983-2002 The Jamestown Foundation Site Maintenance by Johnny Flash Productions