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The Race of Ambitions Gets Off the Ground (Vremya Novostei)
An interview with Alexei Malashenko about Afghanistan's political prospects

By Pavel Aptekar
November 27, 2001

Vremya Novostei correspondent Pavel Aptekar interviews the well-known orientalist and member of the Scientific Council of the Moscow Carnegie Center, Alexei Malashenko, about Afghanistan's political prospects.

Q: Does the peace conference on Afghanistan opening in Germany have any chances for success?

A: This is only the first step along the road to consolidating Afghan society. This is just the start of the race of ambitions and claims. If the craving for power among Afghan politicians gets the upper hand, then the future coalition is in store for a great number of difficulties. And besides that, today more than ever before, it is important to coordinate the efforts of the external forces interested in stability in Afghanistan. And here, the "main players" must be especially cautious not to give their preferences to their "favorites."

Q: What is your forecast for the development of events?

A: It is extremely difficult to predict how the events will pan out. Here, we are dealing not with a long brewing crisis, the further development of which could be predicted with a considerable degree of probability. What we are dealing with now is a major political incident. We are, if you wish, dealing with a cup that has suddenly fallen and broken. Whether it will be possible to glue the pieces together or whether it will have to be thrown out is something we do not know. A lot depends on the wisdom of the Afghan politicians, on whether the superpowers will be able to display tactfulness as they stringently control Kabul's actions.

Q: Why have the Taliban so rapidly given up such a large part of their territory? Is that because of their military weakness or could it be part of a premeditated plan?

A: There are quite a few sensible-minded commanders among the Taliban military leaders. And they realize full well that in an open battle they would sustain very severe losses. That is why a large part of the Taliban has gone into the mountains where they will wait until the Northern Alliance leaders start making mistakes and begin quarreling among themselves. Hunger and the absence of elementary law and order are bound to generate public dissatisfaction. And that is when the Taliban will immediately step into action. A guerrilla war is inevitable.

The main problem facing the future Afghanistan is that its economy is in ruins and irrespective of what the ruling regime undertakes, it will still depend on narcotics trafficking for a long time to come. Tremendous financial injections in the economy will be required in order to put a gradual stop to the raising of crops for the narcotics trade. The spending of such funds must be placed under stringent control.

But the question is: who is going to take the risk of putting up such huge sums of money? Today there is a lot of talk that the building of a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan and then further to the east could help Afghanistan get back on its feet. However, this is a very debatable point.

Q: Is there a chance that the former king could return and consolidate the country on the basis of a restored monarchy?

A: That idea should have been implemented some ten years ago. However, judging by Rabbani's behavior, who it seems is very ambitious, and that of the other leaders of the anti-Taliban coalition, I see no place for the royal family so far. However, it should not be ruled out that persistent, and the same time, flexible pressure from the Western states - political, diplomatic and financial pressure - could result in the return of the monarch.

Q: What are the chances that the internal situation in Pakistan could become destabilized?

A: This is sooner a topic for political speculation rather than for making serious forecasts. The chances of large Taliban forces getting into Pakistan and being joined by the local Pashtuns are extremely small. None of the big powers are interested in the disintegration of a country that already possesses a nuclear weapon and has a population of 154 million.

Q: How do you visualize Russia's role in the Afghan conflict?

A: I have on numerous occasions criticized President Putin's foreign and domestic policies, but in the given case, he has most brilliantly capitalized on the situation, thereby displaying real statesmanship.

It turns out that our foreign policy can be both flexible and pragmatic at the same time. Russia has supported the U.S. in the fight against terrorism, while underscoring its special ties with the Islamic countries at the same time. Russia also succeeded in altering the West's attitude towards our actions in Chechnya.

Russia can influence (and already is influencing) the situation by supplying the Northern Alliance with weapons and military equipment via Tajikistan. So far, Russia has no other levers. Rabbani no longer has a very strong desire to be on friendly terms with us.

The possibilities of the Afghan diaspora in Russia are exaggerated: in their time, these people ousted Rabbani and his associates. These people are in no rush to return to their homeland because they fully realize no one there is eagerly waiting for them to come back.

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