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Russian Expert Urges Thought Be Given To Future Afghan Government

October 16, 2001
[translation for personal use only]
Article by Aleksandr Umnov, chief expert of the Institute for the Study of Israel and the Middle East:
"The Denouement Will Ensue in the Winter? The Consequences of 'Operation Retaliation" in Afghanistan Are Extraordinarily Important for Russia"

There is no doubt that it is essential to eliminate the bases of international terrorists, wherever they are. But the fate of Afghanistan also, which "props up" Central Asia, which borders Russia, from the south, as it were, is of no less significance for us. Formally, the legitimate authority in this country is the Northern Alliance led by President Rabbani. While having directed all of Afghanistan following the collapse of the communist regime, on the eve of the retaliation operation it held just 10 percent of the territory. One of the main reasons for so low an "approval rating" is the ethnic base. For the Taliban, who until recently controlled up to 90 percent of the country, this is composed primarily of Pashtuns, who, constituting approximately 50 percent of the population, have traditionally united (and not always voluntarily, what is more) all the country's ethnic groups. For the Northern Alliance this role is performed by local Tajiks, more precisely, those of them that, residing in well-nigh inaccessible areas, have always aspired to maximum autonomy from any central power. Another reason is the Taliban's distinctive interpretation of Islam. For the outside, particularly the non-Muslim, world their regime would appear to be a return to the Middle Ages. For many Afghans shocked by the events of recent decades this interpretation of the Muslim religion frequently appears to be an almost miraculous means of the establishment of peace and tranquillity.

The reconstitution in Afghanistan of centralized statehood is in and of itself an essential prerequisite, if not of a resolution, then, of the start of a resolution, of the country's problems. The trouble is that the Taliban, having appeared in the latter half of the 1990s as the sole force capable of uniting the country, proved to be closely tied to international terrorists. The terrorists, who felt very comfortable in Afghanistan under Rabbani also, had taken up residence here back at the time of the Soviet-American confrontation. And the Taliban inherited them from the past era.

Outcasts in the world arena, the Taliban have an objective interest in ties to extremists in the Muslim world. And for this reason they--the only ones on the planet--have recognized the independence of Chechnya. Even having become the most powerful force in the country, the Taliban could only contain the extremists, who had taken root in Afghanistan and who lay claim to an independent role. No more than contain. All this made the Taliban not only an ally but also a hostage of international terrorism.

In the course of "operation retaliation" the United States is today in planned fashion destroying the military facilities of the Taliban, primarily air defenses and the air force. The latter, in response, are saying that they will no longer "tie the hands" of the terrorists in the fight against Washington and are threatening to mount attacks on Pakistan and Uzbekistan, which are supporting the United States, and, if necessary, to begin a guerrilla war against the Americans. The latter statement is evidently informed by recollections of the confrontation with Great Britain and the USSR. But both powers attempted to control the country with large contingents of ground forces. This made them a convenient and highly vulnerable target for guerrilla attacks. The United States, on the other hand, concerned mainly to eliminate the terrorists, will probably not operate this way. And the expected enemy might for the Taliban-turned-guerrillas simply not appear.

Their threat to mount attacks on neighboring states appears to be the same sort of "paper tiger" also. Active use of their territories in the interests of the retaliation operation is a thing of the future. In addition, winter is coming on. The snow in the mountains would make any ground movement extremely difficult. It is then, possibly, that the Americans will embark on the decisive stage of the operation, mounting powerful missile and bomb attacks on terrorists deprived of both mobility and Taliban support. Supplemented by the participation of air assault units, these combat operations would not resemble previous wars that the Afghans have fought. But, although it is not the objective of the United States, as distinct from Great Britain and the USSR in the past, to establish long-term control over Afghanistan, the question of its form of government will inevitably be on the agenda.

The Northern Alliance, which is actively supported by Russia, is undoubtedly laying claim to the role of "first fiddle". But in the past it was manifestly unable to unite not only the Pashtun south but the non-Pashtun north also. There is no reason to believe that the alliance will prove capable of such a role in the future either. Yes, covering Tajikistan's border from "waves" of Afghan instability, this force is important both for Russia and for Central Asia. But can the alliance, going beyond the confines of the areas that it controls today, perform its previous role?

The Taliban have certainly been compromised by ties to the terrorists and by their "medieval" sociopolitical practice. But no force capable of assuming the unification role is discernible in Afghanistan as yet. The idea of the formation of a government based on ethnic groups is good as a propaganda slogan, but not as an instrument of real policy. All state formations in Afghanistan have traditionally been interethnic with the lead role of the Pashtuns. The main unifying factor has been not community of language but clan connections and interest in preservation of the traditional way of life. Attempts to consolidate different relationships here will, I believe, result not in centralization, of which the country is vitally in need, but disintegration. And even if the attempts at centralization are underpinned by the name of the former king, the chances of success are very few. All who are party to its fate must, in any event, give serious thought to the country's future....

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