Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent visit to Tajikistan is indicative of Moscow's concern about a possible loss of influence in Central Asia and Afghanistan. Amid signs of growing US-Russian competition for sway over the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, Putin is taking steps to solidify Russian ties with long-time allies in the region.
During an October 22 stopover on his return from the APEC Shanghai summit, Putin met with Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov and Burhanuddin Rabbani, who heads the Northern Alliance's political wing. Putin expressed unequivocal support for the Northern Alliance and its government structure, known as the Islamic State of Afghanistan.
A statement following the meeting expressed support for the establishment of a multi-ethnic coalition to govern Afghanistan. At the same time, the statement voiced adamant opposition to the participation of any Taliban elements in the coalition. "The Taliban movement has compromised itself by cooperation with international terrorist organizations," Putin said in Dushanbe.
Interethnic rivalries have hampered coalition-building efforts under the auspices of former King Mohammed Zahir Shah. The Northern Alliance is comprised mainly of Tajik and Uzbek militias, while the Taliban draws its support from Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group in southern Afghanistan.
Pakistan, which views itself as a defender of Pashtun interests, has sought to promote the defection of Taliban moderates in the hope that they could participate in the new government. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Zahir Shah has left open the possibility of a few Taliban moderates joining his Supreme Council for the Unity of Afghanistan.
The tripartite statement, especially comments on the Taliban, underscored the different approaches being taken by Russia and the United States in the anti-terrorism campaign. In stressing those differences, Putin was trying to demonstrate to the Northern Alliance that Russia is a more reliable partner, some observers say.
Although Russian and US strategic interests coincide in the anti-terrorism campaign, the two states appear to have different notions on how best to achieve the shared goal. Russia has long been a supplier of arms and technical support to the Northern Alliance, which Moscow views as a bulwark against the spread of Islamic radicalism into Central Asia. Conversely, from Russia's point of view a continued Taliban presence in an Afghan government would keep alive the prospect of unrest in Central Asia, inspired by Islamic radicalism.
Meanwhile, the United States' strategic interests in the region are primarily connected with the threat of terrorism. Washington has sought to accommodate the divergent security concerns of all major anti-terrorism coalition partners. Thus, US policy makers have not ruled out completely that Taliban moderates could participate in the Zahir Shah initiative. At the same time, the United States is undertaking combined military operations with Northern Alliance units. US military experts are advising General Rashid Dostum's Uzbek militia units near Mazar-i-Sharif. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
A cycle of US-Russia competition for influence over the Northern Alliance is apparent. The US move to bolster support for the Northern Alliance followed an increase in deliveries by Russia of arms and munitions to the anti-Taliban fighters. In turn the US decision to provide close air support for the Northern Alliance on the Kabul front appears to have been a factor in Putin's sudden decision to make a stopover in Dushanbe.
The United States and Russia are currying the Northern Alliance's favor because it stands to play an influential role in the Zahir Shah initiative. Also, given its military capabilities, the Northern Alliance has the potential to seize power by making a sudden strike at Kabul, thereby potentially eclipsing the Zahir Shah coalition.
Judging by the Rabbani's comments following the tripartite meeting, Putin was successful in shoring up Northern Alliance-Russian ties. "The army of the Islamic State of Afghanistan [the Northern Alliance] has already been fighting terrorism [the Taliban] for seven years, while Americans just joined the fight."
Russia, however, is not taking Northern Alliance allegiance for granted. Russian military officials, including the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Defense Ministry Anatoly Kvashnin, have held talks with Northern Alliance representatives in Tajikistan, and are acting to sharply increase weapons supplies. According to the Interfax news agency, Russia intends to supply the Northern Alliance by the end of 2001 with T-55 tanks, armored personnel carriers, Grad missile launchers, and Shilka self-propelled anti-aircraft batteries.
Vladimir Rodin is a reporter based in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. He works for the Asia-Plus news agency.