The attempt to stabilize Afghanistan is sure to spawn new geopolitical challenges for countries in the region. With Russian diplomats and military "advisors" now returning to Kabul for the first time since 1992, strategic planners in Moscow are looking to the past for guidance on current policy making. Many are coming to the conclusion that, based on historical patterns, a large Russian presence in Afghanistan is needed to defend Moscow's national security interests.
One influential Russian strategist being rediscovered is General Andrei Evgenievich Snesarev. Snesarev, whose life spanned the reigns of Alexander II to Joseph Stalin, was an outstanding Russian military geographer and traveler in Central Asia. Endowed with fantastic linguistic skills, Snesarev served at the headquarters of the Turkestan military district, where he became a leading figure in the Great Game in Afghanistan and Northern India, played out between the Russian and British Empires during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Snesarev in the early 1900s, in the words of his contemporary biographer, "was not only a specialist in geopolitics, but had himself become a geopolitical factor. His reconnoitering and visits to Khans and Rajas were a serious headache of the Anglo-Indian government." He summed up his vast experience in the region in two geopolitical treatises: "India as the Key Factor in the Central Asian Question" and "Afghanistan."
Recently, Russkii Geopoliticheskii Sbornik, a publication close to the Russian military, reprinted a portion of Snesarev's book on Afghanistan, which was first published in Moscow in 1921. The book was developed out of a lecture course he delivered in 1919 to Russian troops on high alert and waiting orders to invade British India via Afghanistan. The invasion didn't happen, but Snesarev nevertheless was instrumental in organizing the rebellions of the Pashtun tribes in the rear of the British army, and in helping to defeat the British near Merv, now in Turkmenistan.
As the anti-terrorism campaign continues and efforts to forge a broad-based provisional government in Afghanistan commence, Russian analysts are finding some of Snesarev's ideas very pertinent.
First, the recent events in Afghanistan demonstrate the high level of interdependence of the larger region surrounding this country. This wouldn't be a novelty for Snesarev. Focusing on the southern part of what Halford Mackinder termed the "Heartland," Snesarev introduced the notion of the "Greater Central Asia." It comprises, he wrote, "our [Russian] Turkestan, Khiva, Bukhara, Tibet, Kashgaria, Pamir, Afghanistan, Eastern Persia, Baluchistan, [northern] India." This "heart of Asia," he believed, is a "key to world politics."
Snesarev may well prove to be right. "Even the Great Oil Game of the 21st century is far less significant than the global geopolitical role of the 'Greater Central Asia,'" Oleg Zotov, a scholar at the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies, wrote in the most recent issue of the journal Vostok.
Snesarev's vision of Afghanistan's significance seems to be quite topical as well. He never regarded this poor land as a valuable asset per se. Yet in his opinion, Afghanistan was a very important transit territory, an ideal bridgehead for an attack against British India.
Present-day Moscow regional analysts have somewhat transformed Snesarev's idea. For example, an analytical article in the Moskovskie Novosti weekly recently explored possible reasons for all the geopolitical jockeying in Afghanistan during the past decade. "There can be only one answer," the newspaper said. "Afghanistan is not important in itself but as a transit country for shipping the landlocked energy resources of Central Asia."
The Russian general can also be considered a precursor of Zbigniew Brzezinski, who once labeled the region of Central Asia "Eurasian Balkans." In the early 1900s, Snesarev argued that, historically, Central Asia is an extremely unstable and volatile region. Politically, he noted, the region was often located on the periphery of great empires, including those established by Alexander the Great and the Mongols. The lone major exception to this rule came in the 14th century, when Timur established is his empire with Central Asia at its center.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, Snesarev contended, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union acted as the de facto legitimate successors of Gengiz Khan and Timur. As one contemporary Russian scholar notes, Russian imperial and Soviet dominance together amount to 120 years - a "world record of control over such a turbulent region."
Drawing on Snesarev's geopolitical teaching, Russian analysts assert that outside control over the Greater Central Asia is needed to fight the "historic forces of anarchy." Otherwise, argues the historian A.I. Fursov, a lack of foreign involvement enables the type of turmoil that has recently plagued Afghanistan. Under such circumstances, Fursov contends in Russkii Istoricheskii Zhurnal, "the developments and changes within the region may negatively affect the neighboring countries, for example Russia or China."
If left to its own devices, Greater Central Asia will turn into a "self-perpetuating fluctuation," a "gray area" that "will destabilize its neighbors and the world as a whole," Fursov contends. In its present state, points out the Oriental Studies scholar Zotov, "the region of [Greater] Central Asia is under a constant risk of turning into a semblance of the Wild Steppe of the past." This scenario, says Zotov, is fraught with grave danger for Russia's security interests.
The total length of Russia's borders with the Central Asian region is about 6,500 kilometers, or over 4,000 miles. As the Colonel S.V. Vostrikov lamented in his recent book, The Crises in the Post-Soviet Asia, "the newly formed borders of the Russian Federation are so 'transparent,' if not to say 'chimerical,' that they simply cannot play their basic defensive role."
Seeking to bolster Russia's sense of security, Moscow analysts are embracing Snesarev's idea of two types of frontier -- namely a state border and a so-called strategic border. "It is already a hundred years ago that General Snesarev pointed out that Russia's security frontier - whether some one likes it or not - runs not along the Aral or Amu-Darya, but along the Hindu-Kush [mountain range]," wrote the influential web publication Russkii Zhurnal.
Igor Torbakov is a freelance journalist who specializes in CIS political affairs. He holds an MA in History from Moscow State University and a PhD from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He was a Regional Exchange Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington DC, 1995; Research Scholar at the Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 1988-1997; and Kiev correspondent for the Paris-based weekly Russkaya mysl, 1998-2000.