Wednesday, 13 March 2002

U.S. AND RUSSIAN INTERESTS IN AFGHANISTAN: WILL PARTNERSHIP CRACK?

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By Yuri V. Bossin (3/13/2002 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: At least three potential issues may sow seeds of discord between the U.S. and Russia in the short term.

BACKGROUND: At least three potential issues may sow seeds of discord between the U.S. and Russia in the short term. The first is how the parties view the state formation process in Afghanistan. It is no secret that Russia has tended to support the Northern Alliance. The Soviets and Russians have had a positive record of dealing with Burhanuddin Rabbani and  A.hmad Shah Massoud since they agreed to a cease-fire and  to allow Soviet troops to withdraw safely from Afghanistan in 1989. Later Rabbani was the  most constructive of all Islamic leaders in releasing Russian prisoners of  war. After the Najibullah regime collapsed in 1992, Rabbani seemed the most moderate and convenient figure in the Afghan political spectrum to answer to Russian interests in the region. However, the U.S. was deeply disappointed by Rabbani's short presidency as his authoritarian traits and lack of flexibility cost Afghanistan another 4 years of vicious warfare. The U.S. was hence reluctant to facilitate the military advancement  of the Northern Alliance and to let it monopolize an interim government. Rabbani had  too odious an image to head it or even to participate in it. Zahir Shah's bloc was promoted by the U.S. to be a counterbalance to the Northern Alliance, and to strengthen the Pashtun element in the Afghan ruling structure. Restraining the Northern Alliance also served to calm Pakistan's concerns that the new government would prosecute former Taliban members and resort to ethnic cleansing.  The second batch of problems focuses on developments in Central Asia. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia has taken its dominating role in this region for granted. Breaking a sensitive and highly charged geopolitical stereotype, Moscow eventually sanctioned American military presence in post-Soviet Central Asia to help the U.S. fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. At present, Russia claims that since the anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan is over, the U.S. should leave, while Washington assumes that the fight is going to be long, and that American presence in the region will be vital to complete it.  The third point is economic. The several billion dollars promised by the international community to rebuild Afghanistan are an attractive resource. The spending of this money constitutes a lucrative business opportunity. Russia has a long tradition of trade and economic cooperation with Afghanistan. Dozens of projects were erected in Kabul and in the provinces using Soviet financial and technical support. Russian government agencies and private companies have already articulated hopes to participate in reconstruction programs and to have a share in contracts. However, as long as the mechanism of assistance is undefined, Russia feels uneasy that the major donors - the U.S., Western countries and Japan - may sideline Russia and that the Afghan market will be lost to Russia forever. 

IMPLICATIONS: The U.S.-Russian partnership in Afghanistan is at risk. The first indications thereof are too evident to ignore. The logic of the political configuratiosn in Afghanistan makes the Northern Alliance and Hamid Karzai's group the two major forces that compete for central power. Russia obviously prefers the Northern Alliance wing, while Washington underscores good relations with Karzai and his faction. Moscow assumes that the governments of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan may serve as an extra effective liaison with the Northern Alliance. Washington, by contrast, believes that Pakistani influence and Pushtun solidarity will be more important to keep the situation in Afghanistan under control.  Following this ambivalence, the diplomatic priorities of the  new Afghan government has clearly split. General Fahim visited Moscow, while Hamid Karzai went to the U.S. and Japan. Is this a product  of deliberate coordination, or is each of them trying to appeal to a strategic partner to bolster their position inside the country?  The regional dimension also seems to provide fertile ground for latent conflicts. The Russian military, its policy-making elite, and public opinion express increasing doubts that allowing America to root in Central Asia was the right thing to do. Russian hard-liners criticize the U.S. for ungratefulness. These voices multiplied after the U.S. shattered Russian expectations and decided to abandon the ABM treaty - something that was considered as treachery in Russia.   In addition, the economic aspect  may rapidly produce frictions between the U.S. and Russia. Russia is anxious that the West will use assistance to Afghanistan as a leverage for political gains. Besides, Moscow  is instinctively irritated by pipeline initiatives to connect post-Soviet Central Asia and Pakistan. Since the mid-1990's, Moscow has suspected these projects as specially designed to keep Russia out of Central Asian energy  flows. These three conflict elements seem to challenge the U.S.-Russian partnership over Afghanistan. The question is whether they will override the positive experience and the charge of good will that both countries have accumulated so far. The next few months are likely to show if mutual endeavors to eradicate terrorism, to stop drug trafficking, and to jump-start the peace process in Afghanistan are overshadowed by abstract geopolitical interests which have survived as a Cold War inertia. 

CONCLUSION: Hamid Karzai's eclectic outfit  displays Afghanistan's  crucial diversity.  It combines the Pushtun "Piron-o-Tanbon" (a set of a long shirt and loose trousers), "Chapan-e Mazari"  (an outerwear robe which is popular among Tajiks and Uzbeks of the Mazar-e Sharif region) and a "Koloh-e Shamoli" (a karakul hat of Panjsher highlanders). By his clothing, Hamid Karzai demonstrates the wish to unify a country suffering from numerous ethnic, tribal, religious and political tensions. But his clothing also shows that the peace process in Afghanistan is highly fragile. Whether it keeps its dynamism or is dashed will to a great extent depend on whether the U.S. and Russia will be able to find common interests in Afghanistan and in the region. If  the two leaderships are not wise and constructive enough, their partnership may crack, conflict-prone trends may develop, and Afghanistan could explode once again into hostile parts and begin a new round of obdurate and devastating  war.

AUTHOR BIO: Dr. Yuri V. Bossin is Dotsent (Associate Professor) of  Middle Eastern/Central Asian Studies at Moscow State University, Russia. He has  been a Fulbright Research Scholar and has conducted long-term research at Columbia and Harvard Universities, USA.  Dr. Bossin authored over 15 academic articles and chapters focusing on Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and post-Soviet Central Asia, as well as a forthcoming book on on Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict in Afghanistan.

Copyright 2001 The Analyst. All rights reserved

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