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International Herald Tribune
November 29, 2001
Russia Is Back in Kabul and in the 'Great Game'
By Robyn Lim
The writer, professor of international politics at Nanzan University in Nagoya, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

NAGOYA, Japan Despite the camaraderie on display when Vladimir Putin met George W. Bush recently in Texas, America has been outflanked in Afghanistan by Russian realpolitik.

U.S. Marines are beginning operations in southern Afghanistan to complete the rout of the Taliban regime. With the United States thus preoccupied, Russia, at no cost or risk, has reinstalled itself in Kabul, in the latest round of the Great Game of big power maneuvering for advantage that was first played out in Afghanistan in the 19th century.

As part of a supposedly humanitarian mission, a large-scale Russian airlift has installed an ambassador in Kabul - with U.S. logistical support, and at the request of the so-called government of Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Mr. Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik, is the nominal head of the Northern Alliance, a fractious coalition made up mostly of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras that now claims control of most of Afghanistan. He was the country's president before his forces were driven out by the Taliban in 1996, and is still recognized as president by the United Nations.

Still, Russia is jumping the gun. It did not bother to notify the United Nations of its move into Kabul. Thus President Putin thumbed his nose at the world body.

The rush to Kabul is reminiscent of Russia's rush to Pristina airport to gain political leverage in the closing days of the Kosovo conflict in 1999. While the Northern Alliance is Russia's instrument on the ground, the United States has provided the alliance's air force. It was not part of the American game plan for the alliance to take Kabul. Indeed, the Bush administration promised Pakistan that it would keep the alliance out of Kabul. No doubt the alliance was egged on by Moscow.

In its current military operations in the southern heartland of the Taliban, the United States needs the support of Pakistan, which shares a long border with Afghanistan. In the longer term, Washington seeks to wean Pakistan away from its alliance with China.

Pakistan is adamantly opposed to the Northern Alliance, not least because it is backed by India as well as Russia and Iran. In the Cold War, Russia and India were de facto allies, and India is still a major purchaser of Russian arms.

Pakistan does not want to be sandwiched again between Russia and India. It wants a predominantly Pashtun government in Kabul.

But war is always unpredictable, and Washington's Pashtun strategy did not work as intended. Hopes were soon dashed that Pashtun tribal leaders might convince the Taliban to disgorge Osama bin Laden. With winter approaching, Washington had little choice but to step up its aerial support for the Northern Alliance.

Russia holds useful cards in Afghanistan if the United States now wishes to target the regime in Iraq, a prominent sponsor of terrorism. To do so, Washington will have to seek Russia's acquiescence, not least on the UN Security Council.

Iraq has kept UN weapons inspectors at bay for three years. Who knows what kind of weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein has been able to build? It would be dangerous to leave him in place. Moreover, Israel won't sit on its hands forever while Saddam builds up his arsenal. But so far there is no firm evidence linking Iraq with the terrorist attacks in America, which, without such evidence, can expect little help. Nor are there any easy military options. Thus the Bush administration faces some tough choices in relation to Iraq, and that gives Mr. Putin considerable leverage.

Russia is much weaker than it was in heyday of the Great Game, when the czars pursued a forward policy in Afghanistan to seek an outlet to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, and to outflank the British in India. Russia is also a shadow of what it was in 1979, when, emboldened by U.S. strategic paralysis under President Jimmy Carter, it invaded Afghanistan. Mr. Putin may have decided that Russia is so weak that he now must get a deal with the West on the best terms available. He is clever at playing from a weak hand. His rush to Kabul shows that he hasn't given up realpolitik. Those in the West who advocate letting Russia into NATO should think again.

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