The US-British bombing campaign has been deemed successful in crippling the Taliban movement's capacity for conducting offensive military operations. This is allowing the US-led anti-terrorism coalition to focus more on the post-Taliban order in Afghanistan. The coalition still lacks a clear set of war aims and an exit strategy. A lack of coordination poses one of the main threats to the success of anti-terrorism operations.
Given the absence of a well-defined strategic plan, some key anti-terrorism coalition members, especially Russia, are starting to reevaluate tactics. Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov announced October 10 that a group of Russian generals had been deployed in Tashkent and Dushanbe. Their aim is to improve Central Asian states' "coordination of activities with Russian forces and with Russia's partners, first of all Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as well as other members of the anti-terror coalition," the Russian government's RIA-Novosti news agency reported. Ivanov said that the generals are analyzing the political-military situation not just in Afghanistan, but in the region at large.
According to Pavel Felgengauer, an independent Moscow-based military analyst, Russian crews are operating tanks that have reinforced the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance over the last week. This is the first indication that Moscow may be reconsidering its earlier decision not to deploy Russian ground troops in Afghanistan.
Another indication that Russia may be willing to deploy ground forces is the announcement by Colonel Anatoly Perminov, commander of the Tajikistan-based 201st Russian Division, that his division is being reinforced by 2,000 volunteers from the Volga-Ural Military District inside the Russian Federation. Volunteers are often deployed in the battle zones outside of Russia proper, leaving conscripts to staff less sensitive military bases.
The 201st Division is an expeditionary corps, believed to be capable of stopping a much-feared Taliban attack in Central Asia. It contains up to 20,000 soldiers, 180 T-72 tanks, 340 armored personnel carriers, and 180 artillery pieces. A squadron of SU-25 ground attack jets and an attack helicopter unit provide air cover for the division. While Col. Perminov denies that his troops have already crossed the Afghan-Tajik border, it is possible that other Russian troops, such as special forces, are on their way to the front.
The main motivation for tactical shifts is a Russian desire not to be left on the sidelines while the American troops deploy in Central Asia in force. Sources say that elements of the US 10th Mountain Division have already landed in Tajikistan, while 1,000 US special forces soldiers have established a base in the region, and are preparing air bases to deploy helicopters and more special forces.
According to Russian military sources, the United States is deploying Chinook and Black Hawk attack helicopters for operations from the air base in Hanabad, Uzbekistan. Over 60 US transport landings have already taken place in Hanabad, and over 100 more are planned over the next several days. US helicopters and special forces would then be in position to support the Northern Alliance in capturing the Bagram air base near Kabul, and, possibly, the air base in Herat, in Western Afghanistan. If those strategic points are taken, US units might begin to hunt terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and his confederates.
Russian military sources reached in Moscow are concerned that war plans in Central Asia are complicated by the lack of a US political decision on support for the Northern Alliance's intended offensive to take Kabul. The United States is hesitating for three reasons: First, American military planners are concerned about the alliance's military weakness. Secondly, there are concerns about past abuses committed by the alliance, including drug trafficking, corruption and human rights violations. Finally - and importantly -U.S. political planners recognize that the need for a credible Pashtun component in any future coalition to control Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance is dominated by ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks.
Attempts are underway to cobble together a broad governing coalition, including Pashtun representatives, under Afghanistan's former monarch, Zahir Shah, who now lives in exile in Rome. Such coalition building, however, will take time. Moscow, which has no contacts with the king, is casting a wary eye upon this initiative, which is going forward largely without Russian participation. Gaining Russian approval for the Zahir Shah initiative could prove a major challenge for the Bush administration.
Meanwhile, Tajik and Uzbek officials continue to worry that the Taliban, which has threatened retaliation against Karimov's government for its cooperation with the United States, may be preparing a surprise. "They may mix and mingle with the refugees, and then engage in massive terror attacks, or facilitate an Islamic uprising in Uzbekistan," an Uzbek senior government source said.
Russia is also taking the radical Islamic threat seriously. Gleb Pavlovsky, an advisor to President Vladimir Putin, said Tuesday that Russia decided to side with the United States "because it would rather have the U.S. in Uzbekistan than the Taliban in Tatarstan." Tatarstan, an autonomous Russian republic along the Volga River, is only an hour by plane from Moscow.
Pavlovsky also stressed the necessity for Russia and the United States to coordinate positions on post-war settlement, otherwise "the vanquished terrorists and their Taliban master will have no other way, but to retreat to Central Asia."
"There [in Central Asia], a 'gray zone' could be created where their vanquished will revive their extremism," Pavlovsky warned in an October 10 interview with the web site Strana.ru.
For the United States, the war against terrorism turns out to be politically more complicated than any conflict that preceded it. As Washington continues to prosecute the war, US planners should pay particular attention to the complicated network of regional interests - and to the vast insecurities of the countries in the region. Central Asian countries lack basic resources, and cannot provide services the Westerners take for granted, such as medical care, housing and food. They also cannot be expected to provide for the tens of thousands of refugees who may be displaced by fighting in Afghanistan.
In late September, Russian intelligence sources were telling US planners that there existed a credible threat of a Taliban attack against Uzbekistan or Tajikistan.
Today, in contrast, most of the concerns in the region are connected with the possibility of US or Russian troops bogging down inside Afghanistan. Another concern is that the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, desperately lacking training and adequate command, will prove incapable of defeating the Taliban's battered but highly motivated militia, which is supported by bin Laden's fierce fighters.
America's inexperience in Central Asia, especially its lack of ethnic sensibilities in this complex theater of operations, constitutes a significant pitfall that threatens the success of the anti-terrorism campaign. A lack of political and military coordination also poses a threat to success.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and author, Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis (Greenwood/Praeger, 1998).