Wednesday, 21 November 2001

MOSCOW’S BID FOR INFLUENCE IN AFGHANISTAN: THE KISS OF DEATH OF A BROAD-BASED GOVERNMENT?

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By Glen E. Howard (11/21/2001 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: Besides appointing Kvashnin, Russian President Vladimir Putin assigned his close friend and confidant, Sergei Shoigu, to oversee Russia’s $500 million humanitarian assistance program to northern Afghanistan. Shoigu’s appointment to this position is highly symbolic because it reflects the strategic importance of Afghanistan for Putin. Although Putin made an important choice by acquiescing to U.

BACKGROUND: Besides appointing Kvashnin, Russian President Vladimir Putin assigned his close friend and confidant, Sergei Shoigu, to oversee Russia’s $500 million humanitarian assistance program to northern Afghanistan. Shoigu’s appointment to this position is highly symbolic because it reflects the strategic importance of Afghanistan for Putin. Although Putin made an important choice by acquiescing to U.S. strategic access to military bases in Central Asia, he did so when no other alternative was left, and his government’s support for the Northern Alliance as the legitimate heir to power in Kabul has undermined US efforts to create a broad-based coalition in Afghanistan since the demise of Taliban resistance. Referring to the unexpected seizure of Kabul by the Northern Alliance, President Putin told an audience at Rice University that ‘the current developments in Afghanistan are not a surprise to us. It is a goal we set ourselves at the first stage – the liberation of Northern Afghanistan – and then of Kabul.’ Moscow has maintained close military ties to the Northern Alliance since the late 1990s, and significantly expanded its military assistance after the U.S. launched its attacks on the Taliban. Shortly after General Kvashnin took charge of the Russian military assistance to the NA, he together with deputy Federal Security Service (FSK) head Viktor Komogorov organized a high-level meeting with military representatives of the NA in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan.. By October, Russian military assistance began to flow as approximately forty tanks and twelve military helicopters were delivered to NA forces as part of a $70 million arms package. The arms deal also involved an agreement to provide the Northern Alliance with old Soviet T-55 tanks, military helicopters, submachine guns, as well as anti-aircraft missiles. These arms deliveries appear to have played a key role in the series of military setbacks experienced by the Taliban at the hands of the Northern Alliance. Although Kvashnin is one of the few senior Russian military officers never to have served in Afghanistan, the General plays an indispensable role in plotting NA military strategy. His experience in directing Russian troops in Kosovo in 1999 provided Kvashnin with valuable experience in working with US-backed coalitions – but also in undermining them. The Russian commander achieved widespread recognition in Russia for his decision to ignore NATO military planning by leading Russian troops in their dash to seize Prishtina airport in Kosovo towards the end of the 1999 Balkan war. Two years later, Kvashnin is participating in yet another U.S.-backed coalition by advising the NA in its military strategy. Nowhere was his influence more visible than in the NA’s recent decision to seize Kabul in spite of its assurances to the United States that it would refrain from capturing the Afghan capital. An important asset of Russian military cooperation with the Northern Alliance is its new military commander, General Muhammad Fahim. The Soviet-trained former intelligence officer was once a member of KHAD (the Soviet-trained secret police) who tarnished his reputation among many Afghans by serving as Communist-backed leader Najibullah’s deputy prior to the 1979 Soviet invasion, but abandoned the Communist government after the fall of Najibullah in 1992. Fahim later joined the insurgent forces led by Ahmed Shah Masoud. Fahim has special appeal to Moscow because of his ties to the Russian Intelligence services and because of his deep hatred of Pakistan. Officials in the Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) believe that Fahim organized the 1996 attack on the Pakistani embassy in Kabul when he served as the chief of security for the Northern Alliance when it ruled the Afghan capital from 1992-1996.

IMPLICATIONS: Russian leverage over the Northern Alliance has increased significantly since Fahim became the new military commander of the Northern Alliance. His promotion has enabled Moscow to expand its leverage over the Northern Alliance, enabling Russia to assert its role in the great power dynamics of post-Taliban Afghanistan. This also could explain why the Northern Alliance has been resisting US efforts to participate in a broad-based coalition and has prevented British troops from using the former Soviet air base at Bagram. In fact, the Putin government reacted swiftly to fill the political vacuum created by the demise of the Taliban. A Russian support team, including defense ministry personnel, departed for Kabul on November 19 that will reopen the Russian embassy in Kabul. Another team of Russian diplomats was dispatched to Mazar-i-Sharif to reopen the Russian consulate there as well. These initiatives are designed to bolster Russian support for the Northern Alliance as the legitimate government running Afghanistan. After announcing that Moscow was dispatching a high-level military delegation to Afghanistan, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, referred to the Northern Alliance as the ‘lawful government of Afghanistan’, indicating that Moscow has no intention of backing a broad-based coalition. These statements reflect a growing willingness by Russia to become the Northern Alliance’s regional patron as Moscow seeks to solidify its position in Afghanistan following the military defeat of the Taliban. Increasingly, it is becoming evident to western analysts that Moscow is eager to use the Northern Alliance as the cornerstone for a new India-Iran-Russia strategic axis aimed at encircling Pakistan.

CONCLUSIONS: The reluctance of the Northern Alliance to participate in a UN-sponsored meeting on the future of Afghanistan is a reflection of Moscow’s wider geopolitical aspirations in Eurasia, that seek to prevent Pakistan from reviving its role as a power broker in Afghanistan. The slowness of American officials to realize this strategy has undermined Afghanistan’s post-Taliban transition to a broader-based government that involves the Pushtun majority population. Russian efforts to bestow international legitimacy on the Northern Alliance promises to alter the strategic dynamics of South Asia in an effort to deny Pakistan strategic depth. In the event that Pakistan and the United States are unable to pry the Northern Alliance from power, the entire spectrum of regional politics will tilt in favor of the Moscow-engineered strategic axis comprising India, Iran, and Russia. The reemergence of the Northern Alliance as a dominant power in Afghanistan’s internal politics also turns back the clock to the early 1990s. Strategically, this creates the conditions for the continued isolation of Central Asia, and prevents the states bordering Afghanistan from gaining access to the Indian Ocean. The demise of the Taliban also risk to alter the energy dynamics of Central Asia by preventing Pakistan from fulfilling its goal of gaining access to Caspian oil and gas supplies - something that Islamabad obviously hoped would be one of the rewards for its cooperation with the United States. It is becoming increasingly evident that if matters continue to develop in the current direction, the real winner in Afghanistan will not only be the Northern Alliance, but also Russia.

AUTHOR BIO: Glen E. Howard is an Analyst at the Strategic Assessment Center for Science Applications International Corporation. He specializes in Caspian defense and security issues and has traveled widely throughout the region.

Copyright 2001 The Analyst. All rights reserved

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