Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 203

Moscow, it would seem from the signals given during Defense Minister Igor Sergeev’s visit to Tajikistan, considers itself justified to intervene more actively and openly in Afghanistan (see the Monitor, October 30). Russia and Iran are acting jointly to rescue their Afghan military clients from a final rout by the Taliban, which now control at least 95 percent of Afghanistan’s territory. The Russians and Iranians found three ways to signal their immediate intentions to the outside world.

First, Sergeev met in Dushanbe with Ahmad-Shah Masood, commander in chief of the “northern Afghan alliance” of anti-Taliban forces–the first time any Russian senior official is known to have met with him. Russia and Iran have long supplied Masood’s forces covertly. The Sergeev-Masood meeting seemed designed to advertise and consecrate this alliance.

Second, Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry–a military agency–sent two planeloads of what it described as humanitarian supplies to the Masood-controlled corner of Afghanistan via Tajikistan. The two publicized flights seem designed to inaugurate and legitimize a supply line to the Afghan proxies of Moscow and Tehran. Even if the first two planeloads are in fact humanitarian, military supplies are likely to follow that route.

Third, Iran’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Kamal Kharrazi, conferred in Dushanbe with Sergeev and Tajik leaders on the situation in Afghanistan. Kharrazi called for “regional integration to counter aggression from Afghanistan”–a theme which is also Moscow’s message to the Central Asians. He pledged, moreover, that “Iran would be with Tajikistan in the event of an external threat to this country.” That reassurance almost certainly covers the possibility of Taliban retaliation on Tajikistan, should the latter be turned into a staging area for Russian and Iranian operations in Afghanistan.

The risk of retaliation does make the Central Asian leaderships nervous. That became evident earlier this year when the Kremlin and the Russian Defense Ministry threatened long-range strikes on alleged “terrorist” bases in Afghanistan from Central Asia. That scenario–as Uzbek President Islam Karimov observed afterward–could have dragged Uzbekistan or Tajikistan into hostilities with neighboring Afghanistan while Russia itself risked little or nothing.

The Talibs’ recent military successes reduced the opposition’s domain from 10 to 5 percent or less of the territory of Afghanistan. Taliban forces reached the Afghan-Tajik border in several sectors. Russian military and civilian officials, in a sudden and realistic reassessment, declared almost in unison in recent weeks that the Talibs do not pose a threat of military aggression and that Russia need not react militarily. But Moscow’s latest steps seem to reflect a decision to use Afghans, not Russian troops or Central Asians, for fighting the Taliban–to increase the flow of arms into Afghanistan and to team up more closely with Tehran in that effort.

While in Dushanbe, Kharrazi declared that the war in Afghanistan would continue as long as the “northern alliance” holds even one-half of 1 percent of the country’s territory. That statement echoed those recently made in Dushanbe and Moscow by envoys of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the runaway Afghan president and political leader of the “northern alliance.” Rabbani, like Masood, is an Afghan Tajik. The emerging alignment pits Russia, Iran, Tajikistan’s pro-Moscow government, part of Tajikistan’s Islamic Revival Party, the Afghan Tajik leaders and Iran’s Shiite proteges in Afghanistan in a common front against the Taliban and its sponsor Pakistan.

Prolonging the Afghan civil war can only exacerbate, not solve, the problems which Moscow says it wants to address in Afghanistan–namely, the drug business and “international terrorism.” Russia’s main goal seems to be to share political influence in Afghanistan by exploiting a local conflict, as it has in several former Soviet countries. The risks in this case include dragging parts of Central Asia into an artificially prolonged conflict.

Uzbekistan faces a special problem. Within the anti-Taliban front, Iran and the Tajik Islamic Revival Party are openly sympathetic to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). That movement of expatriate Uzbek militants attacked Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan both in 1999 and again this year. The IMU staged both operations from sanctuaries in Tajikistan, whose government condoned the actions while the Russian troops looked on. Last October, Tajik and Russian troops openly escorted IMU guerrillas from Tajikistan to winter quarters in the Masood-controlled area of Afghanistan. And, last summer, IMU somehow crossed the Russian-guarded border back into Tajikistan, whence it attacked the two neighboring countries (see the Monitor, October 20, November 9, 1999; May 4, 10, 2000; Fortnight in Review, May 26).

Having defeated the IMU militarily, President Islam Karimov recently moved to distance himself from Moscow and make his peace with the Taliban. Uzbek envoys are now discussing the terms of accommodation with a post-civil war Afghanistan, on the premise that the Taliban will govern and stabilize that country. While stopping short of diplomatic recognition, those terms include resumption of trade and cross-border contacts in return for Taliban commitments to respect Uzbekistan’s security and withhold support from Uzbek Islamists.

Karimov’s recent statements hold that Moscow deliberately misrepresents the Taliban as a threat to Central Asia in order to reconstitute a regional bloc under Russia’s leadership and move Russian troops back to these countries. As Karimov has repeatedly observed, the Taliban have for the last two years controlled the entire length of the Afghan-Uzbek border without threatening Uzbekistan in any way. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niazov had been making the same point for even longer. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are vitally interested in an end to the Afghan war so that they might gain export outlets in South Asia through Afghanistan (Itar-Tass, RIA, Dushanbe Radio, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Mashhad), October 26-28; Uzbek Television, October 29; (see the Monitor, September 26, October 13; Fortnight in Review, September 8).

1″The deal is indeed a big one. At present, the Turks are said to be prepared to spend US$4 billion on the purchase of 145 military attack helicopters.”

2″What most alarmed Melnikov was the fact that the oblast election commission had turned a blind eye to the campaign’s biggest scandal.”

3″The national media, as is their wont, interpreted this as yet another capitulation by the governors to the federal center. In reality, the situation is more complex.”

4″Russia’s main goal seems to be to share political influence in Afghanistan by exploiting a local conflict, as it has in several former Soviet countries.”

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