The latest round of negotiations between the Taliban and supporters of Burhanuddin Rabbani ended in deadlock on May 9 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The two sides agreed to continue talks in June, but many observers are skeptical about the potential for a negotiated peace in Afghanistan.
Instead, most observers are anticipating a resumption of civil war. According to various sources, the Taliban is preparing to launch an offensive against Rabbani's forces in Central and Northern Afghanistan.
History shows that Rabbani's forces, led by Ahmad Shah Masood, will be difficult to dislodge from their northern bases. Nevertheless, the Taliban, who already control 80 percent of Afghanistan's territory, possess the resources that could inflict a decisive military defeat on their northern rivals.
Officials in both Russia and Central Asia are genuinely concerned about a possible Taliban breakthrough. A successful offensive would bring Taliban forces to the borders of the CIS, including the entire stretch of the boundary separating Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Taliban control of those border regions would pose serious strategic challenges for Central Asian nations. CIS leaders consider the Taliban, with its militant brand of Islam, to be an exporter of instability.
Over the short term, defeat of the anti-Taliban forces could create a humanitarian crisis, as tens of thousands of Rabbani supporters and their families would likely flee to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Both those Central Asian states are already struggling to contain social discontent arising out of disastrous economic conditions. A sizeable influx of refugees could easily exacerbate tension, especially in Uzbekistan, where President Islam Karimov is engaged in a fierce struggle to crush Islamic radicalism.
Over the longer term, a Taliban victory would make it easier for them to supply ideological, logistical and material support for Islamic militants fighting to topple Karimov's regime. It could also facilitate a significant expansion of narcotics trafficking, which has already been identified a major source of instability in Central Asia.
Even now, Tajik and Russian border guards, despite their long contacts with Afghan border commissioners, are unable to prevent small criminal and terrorist groups from crossing the border illegally and penetrating the region. "We cannot say now that the 1,500-kilometer-long (roughly 930-mile) Tajik-Afghan border is sealed," Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov said at an April 21 news conference.
Lacking the resources to manage the threat themselves, Central Asian leaders are undertaking a rhetorical offensive in an attempt to attract the attention of the international community to the potential threats.
"Afghanistan has become the source of fanaticism and extremism, the military bases there provide training for terrorists. The government of Taliban does not respect any international norms," Karimov said. "As long as Afghanistan is the location of fanatics and bandits it is difficult to speak of stability in the region."
As for Moscow, the defeat of the anti-Taliban forces would directly threaten its geopolitical interests by possibly eroding its ability to influence Central Asian governments. The Kremlin would be content with a prolonged Afghan civil war, which would help the Kremlin to keep countries of Central Asia in suspense between "the hammer of Taliban, and the anvil of Rabbani."
Russia, to prevent the ultimate dominance of the Taliban in Afghanistan, has been building up its military presence in the region. Unofficial but reliable sources say that about 1,000 Russian contract officers have been relocated recently to the Tajik-Afghan border. Twenty-seven MIG jets have also been based at the military airfield in Aini, Tajikistan. The build-up of military muscle could be used not only for blocking possible Taliban incursions into Central Asian countries, but also to provide support for anti-Taliban forces fighting in northern Afghanistan.
This possibility is reinforced by the frequent militant statements of Russian and Central Asian officials. Indeed, some high-level Russian security officials, including Russian Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov, have hinted that Russia could initiate preventive air strikes against targets in Afghanistan.
What is the probability of Russian air strikes? To a great degree, it depends on the Taliban's actions. However, it is unlikely that Russian air strikes against the Taliban would generate a substantial outcry from the international community. The United States, which considers Afghanistan to be a center of terrorism, and which itself bombed supposed terrorist training camps operated by Osama Bin Laden, would likely not be overly critical of Russian bombing raids. Indeed, Moscow could easily justify air raids against the Taliban by portraying them as strikes against international terrorism.
Marat Mamadshoyev is a correspondent for Asia-Plus in Tajikistan.