Russia's Growing Presence in Afghanistan Hints at Regional Rivalry With Western Powers
As Russia steadily increases its on-the-ground presence in Afghanistan, analysts and policy makers are debating Moscow's strategic priorities in the region. It is still unclear, commentators say, what Russia's stance is on the formation of a post-Taliban provisional government in Afghanistan. More certain, though, is that Afghanistan's endgame is fueling growing competition between Russia and its Western allies.
Some Russian observers draw comparisons between recent developments in Afghanistan and the political atmosphere that existed before the fall of Nazi Berlin in World War II. The members of the anti-Taliban coalition, like their predecessors that formed the Big Three during the Second World War, publicly assure each other of mutual trust and pledge to coordinate their actions in Afghanistan, analysts in Moscow note. In reality, however, each player is seeking to strengthen its own position on the ground, knowing that the greater a country's physical presence in Afghanistan, the larger the role it will have in determining the war-ravaged country's future.
Russia recently dispatched twelve military transport planes into Bagram air base near Kabul. The Il-76 aircraft carried two groups of Russian specialists, who, Russian media say, immediately began fulfilling their tasks "set directly by the Kremlin." The first group is vaguely termed a "special mission." It has been ordered to set up Russian diplomatic representation in Kabul and "resolve other questions concerning its full-blooded activities." The other group started organizing the humanitarian aid center.
According to the reports in the Russian press, both the Defense Ministry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have declined to provide details on the number of troops accompanying the "special mission." Russian officials cited "security reasons" for their silence. Speaking at Russia's Security Council meeting in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin said he gave his order for the airlift following a request by Afghan president and Northern Alliance leader Burhanuddin Rabbani.
The arrival of Russian troops in Kabul seems to have caught Moscow's Western allies off guard. It also seems to have made them nervous. The Northern Alliance, the Times of London noted bitterly, "did not put up a squeak [about the arrival of Russian forces], never mind the furious howl it let out when 100 British soldiers arrived to make the [Bagram] airfield safe." US officials described Russia's move as a "dissonant note" that created some friction. Secretary of State Colin Powell called his Russian counterpart Igor Ivanov to urge Moscow to refrain from further moves in Afghanistan that could cause tension in US-Russian relations.
However, according to Russia's Defense Ministry spokesman, the military will continue sending transport aircraft to deliver "additional humanitarian aid" to the central provinces of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, even the Russian press raises some questions about the nature of this aid. The influential Moscow daily Kommersant wrote on November 28 that 20 Kabul-bound transport planes landed at an air base near Tashkent for refueling. Quoting an Uzbek military sources in Tashkent, the paper says at least two fully armed Russian airborne regiments have been flown into Afghanistan. The air base was expecting the arrival of 10 more cargo planes from Russia, added Kommersant.
The Defense Ministry's officials denied sending Russian paratroopers to Afghanistan. Only "construction materials and military construction crews" were brought to Kabul, said the Ministry's spokesman Colonel Nikolai Deryabin.
Yet Russian politicians do not deny that a geopolitical rivalry between Moscow and Washington is in full swing in Afghanistan. "It would be unforgivable to let the United States resolve all the issues of the Afghan peace settlement," stated the chairman of the State Duma Foreign Relations Committee, Dmitri Rogozin, at a round-table discussion organized by the Russkii Zhurnal periodical.
Despite Moscow's desire to play an influential role in Afghan state building, Russian analysts and policy makers have yet to reach a consensus on the shape of a post-Taliban provisional government.
A significant number of Russian policy makers say Russia should support a Northern Alliance-dominated government. "Relying on Rabbani and the Northern Alliance, Russia is striving to secure its presence in the region," bluntly writes the Moscow political weekly Profil. In the opinion of the Institute of Oriental Studies Professor Saleh Aliyev, Russia can pin its hopes only on Rabbani. "The recent events demonstrated that there's no sense for him [Rabbani] to harbor unfriendly feelings toward the CIS countries," says Aliyev. "His only support during recent years were the former republics of the Soviet Union, and he is historically destined to make friends with his erstwhile foes."
Other Moscow experts say a Northern Alliance-dominated government would be ethnically divisive, and, thus, ultimately not in Russia's best security interests. Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras dominate the Northern Alliance. Such a government would effectively exclude Pashtuns - Afghanistan's largest ethnic group.
During a recent round-table discussion in Moscow, some political scientists suggested that "creating an Afghan government without the Pashtun people is like trying to form a Russian government based on the Chuvash or Mordvin [ethnic groups]."
According to Ural Sharipov, a senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, the key factor that guarantees the stability of Afghan statehood is the Pashtun sovereignty over the entire territory of Afghanistan. "One has to bear in mind", writes Sharipov in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper, "that any government which is not dominated by Pashtuns - even if it enjoys the mighty backing of the world powers - will not be able to firmly establish itself in Kabul."
Whatever the final shape of the interim government in Afghanistan, the spirit of competition clearly permeates Russian policies in the region. In the words of the deputy chairman of the State Duma Foreign Relations Committee Konstantin Kosachev, "even if Russia
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.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter. Support Eurasianet: Help keep our journalism open to all, and influenced by none.