Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 54

Afghanistan’s interim leader, Hamid Karzai, traveled to Moscow last week for talks with Russian leaders that included meetings with President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. The visit drew little notice from the international press, in part because of pressing events elsewhere around the world and in part because the visit produced neither surprises nor any agreements of obvious significance. Instead, the Afghan-Russian talks appeared to mark more the start of a feeling-out process. Karzai expressed his thanks for Russia’s role in aiding the U.S.-led antiterrorist operation that ousted the Taliban from power, while Putin was careful to speak of Moscow’s support for the current Afghan leadership and of its hope that Karzai would find success in “the creation of a normal political sphere” in Afghanistan, as well as in the “development of armed forces to provide for the country’s security.”

But echoes of Moscow’s war in Afghanistan and of the Soviets’ long and destructive occupation of the country were never too far from the surface. Reports said that Karzai twice reminded Putin of the Soviet Union’s responsibility for more than twenty years of violence and bloodshed in Afghanistan. He apparently referred also to the Russian authorities’ unwillingness over the past decade to contribute to international efforts aimed at clearing the thousands of landmines remaining in Afghanistan from the years of warfare. Finally, Karzai met in Moscow with several hundred members of the huge Afghan diaspora in Russia. He listened to their complaints about being ill-treated in Russia and appeared to commit himself to publicizing their plight before the international community.

But despite these reminders of tensions from the past, Karzai’s talks in Moscow appear to have been generally constructive. The two sides signed seventeen agreements covering everything from deliveries of Russian industrial equipment to assistance from Moscow in renovating some of the many Soviet-built facilities in Afghanistan. These agreements–together with the continued dispensing of humanitarian aid to Kabul–reflected Moscow’s determination to maintain some influence in Afghanistan. Karzai and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov also signed a joint statement in which the two sides committed themselves to “developing long-term and mutually beneficial ties for the development of priority projects in various areas on a bilateral and multilateral basis.” The statement also spoke of a mutual effort to strengthen friendly relations and broad-ranging cooperation, and of a bilateral and multilateral effort to root out international terrorism, extremism and illegal drug operations.

Putin, meanwhile, offered assurances during a brief news conference with Karzai that “Russia sees no other goals in Afghanistan other than wanting to see Afghanistan independent, prosperous, neutral and friendly toward Russia.” More important, perhaps, he spoke of Moscow’s readiness to channel aid and military supplies directly through the central authorities in Kabul. That is an important consideration for Karzai, who has been buffeted during his still brief period as leader of Afghanistan by the warlords and other centrifugal forces that threaten to once again tear Afghanistan apart. Moscow, in particular, has strong ties to the Northern Alliance leaders who dominate Karzai’s interim government–and especially to Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim–and Russia’s cooperation will be vital if Afghanistan is ultimately to emerge with a strong central government capable of restoring order to the country.

Few details were published about the specific deals discussed during Karzai’s visit to the Russian capital, but Russian sources appeared to focus on the Kremlin’s determination to remain the main–if not the sole–supplier of military equipment to Afghanistan. Indeed, these same sources suggested that the Kremlin views its defense ties to the Afghan government as the primary means by which Russia will be able to exert influence over Kabul in the months and years to come. In that context, Putin appeared also to be playing for a Russian role not just in supplying the Afghan armed forces with military hardware, but in the efforts by Kabul to create a new national army as well.

The Kremlin-backed Strana.ru website, for example, said that Afghan and Russian officials had held intensive negotiations last December on a role for Russia in creating the new Afghan army. The same commentary appeared also to suggest that the United States, despite having a military presence in Afghanistan (and commitment from the Bush administration to help Karzai with the creation of an Afghan army) would be hard pressed to make its influence felt in this area. That is because, the commentary argued, the Afghan armed forces have been organized and manned for some twenty years along Soviet lines. Moscow would be especially sensitive to any effort by Washington to begin supplying the Afghan army with weaponry, the commentary said, because with this would come the danger that the Afghan government would be pulled into Washington’s orbit (Strana.ru, March 11, 12; Interfax, March 11, 13; AP, Reuters, DPA, March 12; Vremya Novostei, March 13-14).