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Wall Street Journal
December 11, 2001
Russia’s Ominous Afghan Gambit
By S. Frederick Starr
Chairman, Central Asia Institute, Johns Hopkins University

Russia’s positive new attitude towards the US and NATO may end a rivalry that dominated world affairs for much of the last century. But under the new dispensation how will Putin’s Russia conduct itself in other parts of the world? Judging by recent events in Afghanistan, there is good reason for concern.

The turn of events that culminated in the mutual inspection of souls in Crawford, Texas, began on September 11 with Putin’s warmly received words of sympathy and his expression of support for a war on terrorism. Less well known is the fact that he then spent the next three days on the phone, cajoling the presidents of the five newly independent states of Central Asia not to cooperate with American requests to use their territory for strikes against Afghanistan. His foreign minister backed him publicly by declaring that even hypothetical talk of American forces in Central Asia was out of the question.

All five of the Central Asian presidents thought otherwise, however, and boldly told Putin so. President Karimov of Uzbekistan held a press conference to say that when its national security was at stake, Uzbekistan did not have to consult with anyone. Putin then deftly executed a 180 degrees and announced to the world that, through his tireless efforts, he had succeeded in persuading the Central Asian states to cooperate with America.

This went down well in Washington but not with Putin’s own ministries of foreign affairs and defense, nor the FSB. All had worked tirelessly since the Red Army’s humiliating defeat in 1989 to reassert Russia into Afghan affairs. For nearly a decade they had provided support to their Afghan clients, Mullah Burhanuddin Rabbani’s Northern Alliance. Notwithstanding Russian and Iranian support, the Alliance was all but dead by September 10. Now they saw an opportunity, which Putin’s high-wire act had nearly destroyed. They were doubly outraged, first by Putin’s failure to impose his will on the Central Asian presidents and, second, with the resulting expansion of US military ties with Central Asia.

At a session held in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe during the American bombing of Afghanistan’s North, Putin’s top ministers and the head of the FSB laid out an aggressive plan to preempt America’s growing role in Afghanistan. The head of the General Staff, General Anatoli Khvashnin, had engineered the Russian army’s foolish and dangerous 1999 rush on the airport at Pristina in Kosovo. In Dushanbe he proposed a similar tactic for Kabul, using the Northern Alliance troops as a Trojan horse. Brushing aside warnings by both the US President and Secretary of State, the conferees authorized the Alliance to charge headlong and seize Kabul and other northern centers. Following the meeting Putin told the press that Russia’s loyal client, Mullah Rabbani, should become president of all Afghanistan. So much for the Afghans’ themselves deciding such things.

What failed in Pristina succeeded in Kabul. Not wanting to upset the spirit of Crawford, Secretary Rumsfeld meekly announced that the Northern Alliance’s sweep was really a good thing after all. Caught off balance, Secretary Powell declared that Kabul would be open to all Afghans and pleaded with the Northern Alliance not to send in its 2000 police force since an international force would be arriving soon. The Alliance ignored America’s request, sent in its forces, told the British troops to go home, and then received twelve transport planes full of Russian troops from the Ministry of Emergency Situations, masquerading as a medical unit.

Over the next weeks the Northern Alliance, with Putin’s support, began staffing their own “power ministries” (internal affairs, foreign affairs, and security), naming governors, and even offering jobs in their new government to Taliban defectors. To none of this did the US administration raise the slightest public objection. If there were private objections they were simply dismissed.

At Bonn the ambitious Alliance ministers, eager to keep their posts, joined Pashtun negotiators in scuttling the presidential ambitions of their boss, Rabbani. Had he stayed it would have meant that they would have had to turn over their own portfolios to the Pashtuns, which they were not about to do. Initially demanding 20 ministries, the Northern Alliance ended up with fifteen, including they key ones they already held. They beat back King Zahir Shah’s candidate for president, a highly regarded Uzbek with a national reputation, Dr. Sirat, and welcomed instead Hamid Karzai, a genial but so far ineffectual warlord with neither an all-Pashtun nor a national leadership profile. Finally, they neutralized the UN’s demands for an international security force, which ended up in the role of “assisting” the Northern Alliance’s security troops that were already in place.

Now, all this may still turn out well, since the interim administration’s writ is supposed to last only six months. A Loya Jirga, if it is held, is bound to produce a more balanced government than what was created by the Northern Alliance’s virtual coup. But what exists now is dangerously unbalanced in favor of the same men whose misrule between 1992 and 1996 destroyed Kabul and created the conditions in which even the Taliban looked like a good alternative.

Thankfully, the Pashtun population for the time being is preoccupied with sorting out the post-Taliban situation in the South. Perhaps it will be temporarily mollified by assurances that the Loya Jirga will produce a more balanced outcome, and by promises of development assistance flowing their way. Sheer exhaustion may also help prevent a blowup. This, at least, is what American officials are hoping for.

But this may be wishful thinking. If western leaders seem unconcerned, many Russian observers see Putin’s moves with the Northern Alliance as a dangerous manifestation of neo-Soviet chauvinism. The influential Moscow daily Kommersant warned that the Kremlin has already sent armed troops to Afghanistan. Some Russian critics have drawn comparisons with Stalin’s activities in Berlin in the closing days of World War II. Another [Ural Sharipov of the Institute of Oriental Studies, Moscow], writing in Nezavisimaia gazeta, has cautioned that any government without strong Pashtun representation will never succeed in Kabul.

What does all this mean for US-Russian friendship, and for hopes of a breakthrough in NATO’s relations with Russia? First, it indicates that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, FSB, and the Russian army, still largely unreconstructed from Soviet times, share none of the current euphoria over Russian-western comity. They are still prepared to engage in the kind of irresponsible scheming that gave them a black eye at Pristina and nearly led to open conflict. Second, it reveals that when push comes to shove, Putin is not yet inclined to stand up to his own subordinates. Instead, he seems to have struck a deal, in which his views prevail with respect to Europe and their views hold sway in Afghanistan and perhaps elsewhere. Finally, in light of Putin’s own actions between September 12 and 14 and in light of the fact that he has publicly endorsed every subsequent step in this drama, one must question where Putin himself really stands.

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