The disparate interests of key players in the anti-terrorism coalition are complicating the campaign against the Taliban and the al Qaeda network. These same differing priorities will make it difficult for the international community to promote lasting stability in Afghanistan and the Central Asian states. Already, officials in Washington are struggling to balance competing tactical and strategic requirements.
One major dilemma is connected with US support for the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban force that is comprised of mainly Tajik and Uzbek militias. On one hand, US officials deem the Northern Alliance crucial to the success of ground operations in Afghanistan. To this end, the US military is providing close air support for Northern Alliance units fighting to take the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and those preparing for an assault on Kabul.
On the other hand, Northern Alliance battlefield success could alienate Pakistan, thus hampering the effectiveness of the anti-terrorism coalition. The chief danger is that Northern Alliance forces would seize Kabul before a broad political coalition led by former King Mohammed Zahir Shah could be installed to govern post-Taliban Afghanistan. Pakistani officials say they will not tolerate sole Northern Alliance control of the Afghan capital.
Another dilemma that could complicate the conduct of military operations concerns the building humanitarian crisis in the region. The scale of population displacement can potentially far outstrip the capacity of countries in the region to accommodate Afghan refugees.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has predicted that the fighting in Afghanistan could displace up to 1.5 million people. Most are expected to flee to Pakistan and Iran. Smaller numbers are expected to seek refuge in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Some experts warn that even a moderate refugee influx in Tajikistan could destabilize the country. Tajikistan, which is currently struggling to overcome the effects of severe drought, is among the poorest nations in the world.
Mirzo Ziyoev, Tajikistan's Minister for Emergencies, told Russian television that the government plans to open three humanitarian aid centers, located in Gorno-Badakhshan, Kulyab and along the Tajik-Afghan border. At the same time, Ziyoev stressed that Tajikistan has no funds to pay for humanitarian assistance.
Representatives from Russia and the five Central Asian countries met October 20 in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, to discuss humanitarian challenges. Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Minister for Emergency Situations, told Russian television that Moscow had sent seven cargo planes with humanitarian assistance for distribution to Afghan refugees. About 170 tons of emergency relief supplies and medicine have already been distributed. Supply corridors, including those in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, will remain active until some of the roads are closed by snowfall, Shoigu said.
Even if the US-led coalition manages to stay together and overcome already evident dilemmas, there are several longer-term obstacles to the establishment of lasting peace in Afghanistan and Central Asia. So far, little public debate has taken place on the formulation of a state-building strategy for Afghanistan.
All participants in the anti-terrorism coalition appear to back the Zahir Shah initiative as the best option for Afghanistan's next government. Nevertheless, it is unclear how well Northern Alliance loyalists will work with Pashtun representatives in a coalition government. Pashtuns, who form the core support for the Taliban, are the predominant ethnic group in southern Afghanistan. Two decades of conflict has sown distrust among Pashtuns, Tajiks and Uzbeks. Also unclear is what can be done by the international community to promote cooperation among Afghanistan's main ethnic groups.
In addition, it remains uncertain who would guarantee the peace in post-Taliban Afghanistan. While most players in the anti-terrorism coalition agree on the need for a peacekeepers in Afghanistan, there is currently no clear picture of the composition of such a force. The United Nations special envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, is cautious about a UN peacekeeping role in Afghanistan. Brahimi announced on October 23 that he would soon go on an information-gathering mission to the region.
Longer-term stability prospects will depend greatly on Afghanistan's economic development. Given that the economic development infrastructure in Afghanistan is virtually non-existent, international organizations stand to play a major role in Afghan state-building efforts.
Central Asia may be also affected. Central Asian leaders, especially Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov, evidently hope that the sudden increase in the region's strategic importance will result in a massive influx of economic assistance. But they may find that aid comes with strings attached. Foreign aid providers are likely to encourage greater political and religious freedom in Central Asia. Ultimately, governments in Central Asia may end up facing pressure to be more accountable to their respective electorates.
During a recent UN briefing in New York, human rights activists from Central Asia called on the international community to demand that Karimov's government in Uzbekistan create a more favorable climate for the activities of non-government organizations and political parties. Speakers also urged that foreign governments prod Karimov and other Central Asian leaders to ease up on persecution of non-violent Islamic believers. Otherwise, they added, the authoritarian government will ultimately breed its own Taliban. It is not certain whether the United States and other Western nations will follow such advice on including a human rights component in development efforts, or whether Central Asian leaders are apt to heed the warnings about the consequences of repressive practices.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.