AFGHANISTAN ON THE THRESHOLD OF PEACE

Viktor KORGUN


Viktor Korgun, D.Sc. (Hist.), head, Afghanistan Sector, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow, Russian Federation)


The anti-terrorist campaign in Afghanistan is drawing to its end. The outcome is obvious: the Taliban as a military-political, ideological, and power structure has been defeated. The well-oiled machine that generated terrorism, drug trafficking, and violation of human rights has been destroyed. Some of the Taliban fighters will escape probably to continue their senseless opposition to the international coalition. There are grounds to believe that this scattered movement deprived of a single leadership and grass-root support will be finally quenched. The latest events have demonstrated that, contrary to earlier predictions, neither the difficult mountain terrain, nor the traditionally bellicose nature of the Pashtoons, nor the Talibans xenophobia and fanaticism, the fighting skills of the mercenaries from abroad, nor international support for the terrorists proved effective in Afghanistan. Therefore, in all likelihood there will be no large-scale guerrilla war.

This is merely a military component. The Northern Alliance, the United States and the coalition partners that supported the former have successfully completed the armed stage. Very soon they will be facing much more complicated political problems of post-war arrangements. Today we are confronted with a question: Whether the United States and other foreign participants in the anti-terrorist operation want these problems to be resolved and do they want and can resolve them?

In the first place, there is a question of whether the U.S. continued presence in Afghanistan is possible and necessary. None of the parties to the conflict, Washington and the world community included, wishes to antagonize the Afghans. Continued stationing of the American troops there will cost dearly from the material and psychological points of view. This should not be taken to mean that having completed their military mission the U.S. will withdraw from Afghanistan. Back in September, Barnet Rubin, prominent U.S. specialist in Afghanistan, warned: Ben and Taliban believe they are about to draw the U.S. into the trap that devoured the Soviet Union, and if we lash out without a political and strategic plan for the region, they could be right.1 It looks as if Washington has no such planstill it sees itself among the key figures of the post-war peace process in the country. Being aware that accusations of setting up a puppet government may follow, the U.S. prefers to remain behind the wings. This was especially obvious during the Afghan Bonn conference conducted under the U.N. aegis. The United States plays the first fiddle in the United Nations while Secretary General Kofi Annan is fairly manageable. If the Americans really concern over the future of Afghanistan then the U.S. cannot excuse itself from forming the countrys new power structure.

It seems that Washingtons stake on former King Zakhir Shah proved unreliable and unsubstantiated enough. Obviously, the United States would prefer the pro-Western and liberal- minded king. Every time the coalition government issue arose Zakhir Shah with his idea of Loya Jirga (an all-Afghan assembly of tribal leaders and the clergy) was pushed to the foreground. More than once the king confirmed his readiness to come back to supervise the peace process. It was at the time when the political landscape in his country was absolutely flat with the Taliban and the Northern Alliance locked in fighting.

Today, when the Taliban has been defeated the landscape changed beyond recognition: there is a wide range of newly arrivals. Groups, parties, political and military leaders emerged from political nonexistence from which they had been closely watching the developments. Some of them who had joined before 11 September managed to position themselves as real players. They even managed to get some share of power. One of them is Abdurashid Dustum who timed well his appearance in the north. Today, he claims the glory of a liberator of Mazar-e Sharif and controls the northern provinces (except Tahar and Badakhshan). In the west General Ismail-Khan reappeared: he has become governor of Herat, his old possession. The Shiite Hazaras led by the Hezb-e Wahdat party and Karim Khalili, its head, returned their possessions.

Gulbeddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Islamic Party of Afghanistan, has pushed himself into the process of division of power. He had earned his fame during the war against the Soviet troops and later when Rabbani was in power in Kabul. In 1993-1996 as a premier he stood opposed to the president and shelled the capital. During the years of Soviet military presence he had access to the greater share of the U.S. military aid intended for all mujahiddin groups and shipped through the Pakistani government structures (mainly ISI.) Today he poses as an active anti-Americanist. In October 2001 he called on the Northern Alliance to close ranks against the United States as an enemy of Islam. Having been rebuffed he announced that he would side with the Taliban and ordered his detachments to capture Char Asia, his former residence to the southeast of Kabul. Today, he is facing a dilemma. He spent the last years as an exile in Teheran where he had acquired Iranian patrons from among the government circles. His representatives were included into the Cyprus group of delegates at the Bonn conference. The announced support for the Taliban and his flat rejection of Zakhir Shah deprived him of a post in the new structure of power.

Other prominent participants in anti-Soviet resistance were luckier. Sayed Ahmad Gilani, a pro-Western liberal figure who leads the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan and is the pir of the Qadiria religious order, has been in exile in Peshawar for the last several years. He has tapped his closeness to the king to the full. Recently, he himself and his relatives showed inordinate activity and actually headed the delegation of the Peshawar Group at the Bonn conference. Their chances for posts on top are very good. On the eve of the conference the West looked at Gilani as a possible prime minister.

Sibghatullah Mojaddidi, head of the National Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, who is looking at the conservative Arabic circles for prompting, also enjoys Iranian patronage. He represents an influential religious family with a numerous following among the Pashtoons in the southeast of Afghanistan. In 1919 his ancestors put the crown on the head of Amir Amanullah, later they did the same for Nadir Khan, father of Zakhir Shah. In 1992 he became the first president of Afghanistan after the President Najibullahs regime had fallen and was replaced by Rabbani. From time to time he supported the Taliban but never fought either with or against them. He is 76, that is too old to influence the peace process in Afghanistan, though his name was mentioned in Bonn as one of the candidates for a prime minister.

Finally, there is another political figure that claims a certain place in the future structure of power. He is Abdur Rauf Sayyaf, leader of the Islamic Union for the Liberation of Afghanistan, professor of theology. A protégé of the Saudi Wahhabis, in 1989 he was elected, on the money and under the pressure of ISI, the president of the provisional mujahiddin government in Peshawar. In 1992-1996 when the mujahiddin were in power he regularly changed his political affections moving from one coalition to another. Recently, he supported the Northern Alliance and was said to control the Parwan province, to the north of Kabul. It is hardly possible that he will find common language with the king and other leaders of the anti-Taliban coalition.

All of them have resurfaced from the past: for different reasons they can hardly represent the Pashtoon people, an obvious leader in the process of building up new power structures. Without a leader or an organization, the Pashtoon tribes that spent six years under the Taliban have found themselves in a political vacuum which is now swiftly filled in. The recent events have amply demonstrated that the old guard of the Pashtoon leaders that spent time in emigration exhausted itself and cannot meet the current demands. The country needs new people from the tribes untarnished with internecine strife and not directly connected with the West.

Such people appeared. At first, there was Abdul Khak from an influential Pashtoon family living at Jalalabad. He fought against the Soviet troops as a commander of an armed detachment. Unwilling to be sucked into a strife among the mujahiddin leaders he abandoned his military career in 1989. He explained: There were 10 or 15 mujahiddin groups, each with its own political and military structures. It was like having 10 defense ministries and 10 foreign ministries each with their own outside supporters and each wanted to be number one.2 Having retired, Abdul Khak went into business. In 1999, when he was on a usual business trip to Dubai a group of unidentified people burst into his home in Peshawar and murdered his wife and son. The killers were never found but the Taliban were suspected.3 Abdul Khak decided to join fighting again. In Rome he met Zakhir Shah and put his plan of settlement in front of him. He also contacted the U.S. State Department. In October 2001, he gathered a large armed detachment and marched on Jalalabad, was ambushed by the Taliban and killed.

Haji Abdul Kadir, former governor of the Nangarhar province and the master of the city, reappeared in Jalalabad. He joined the Northern Alliance and was re-appointed governor. Finally, in November 2001 another political heavy-weight came to the forefront: he was Hamid Karzai, leader of the influential Pashtoon tribe of Popolzai living near Kandahar. In 1968-1973 when Zakhir Shah was still the king Karzais grandfather was chairman of the upper chamber of the Afghan parliament. In 1992-1995, under Rabbani Hamid Karzai was deputy foreign minister. Supported by the former king, in October 2001 he returned from emigration and gathered an armed detachment to fight the Taliban in the south of Afghanistan. He was appointed head of the provisional government at the Bonn conference.

This is a far from complete list of political figures and forces involved in the general process of the countrys resurrection. The Bonn conference has demonstrated that an uncompromising struggle over the positions and interests of all involved in the process would follow. There are contradictions among the Afghan groups and there are interests of the foreign participants in the anti-terrorist coalition: the United States, Russia, Pakistan, Iran, India, China, and the Central Asian states.

Russia was the first to clearly indicate its preference for the Northern Alliance. As the search for a new formula for the power structure proceeded, it finally agreed with the commonly accepted yet barely substantiated coalition government with a participation of all ethnic groups concept. One gets an impression that while agreeing with this vague idea Moscow was equally vague about what sort of government would fit its interests best. The Northern Alliance will hardly become a pro-Russian structure while its control zone, the north of Afghanistan, will hardly become a zone of Russias influence. No matter how large Kremlin material and military aid the Northern Alliance will not lobby its interests in the future power structure. At the same time, Russia has no contacts with the Pashtoon leaders in the south who, with the U.S. and Pakistani help, have good chances to become the country-wide leaders.

Russias march on Kabul in late November 2001 (a repetition of the Pristina quick march) caused concern in the U.S. and Pakistan. The West was apprehensive that while pursuing its interests Moscow may upset stability in the region. The Russian diplomatic landing operation in the Afghan capital forced the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to call on his Russian colleague to avoid any steps that might undermine trust between the two countries.4 Islamabad was more outspoken. According to Pakistans former foreign minister Najmuddin Sheikh instability in Afghanistan is Russias strategic interest. It prevents the Central Asian gas and oil companies from building alternative pipelines across this country.5 The Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan E. Shevchenko resolutely refuted this opinion.

The latest developments in Afghanistan and around it have changed the situation in Central Asia. The common border with Afghanistan made Uzbekistan and Tajikistan front-line states. These stretches (80 and 1,260 km long, respectively) together with the Afghan-Turkmenian stretch of over 1,000 km long are part of the CIS southern border. Turkmenistan remained unaffected by the hostilities: as a neutral state since 1992 Turkmenistan had been balancing between the two warring sides in Afghanistan, its pro-Taliban feelings sometimes being too obvious. Still, Ashghabad did not risk an official recognition of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. At a meeting in Almata in October 1996 the other Central Asian leaders and Russia represented by Viktor Chernomyrdin unanimously condemned the newly formed Taliban regime and confirmed their official recognition of the Rabbani government. This position remained more or less consistent throughout later years. Moscow was behind military and all other support that Uzbekistan extended to General Dustum, an ethnic Uzbek.

When the Taliban captured Mazar-e Sharif in August 1998, the northern capital of Afghanistan, and reached the Amudaria, that is, the Uzbek border, the Central Asian states realized that they were in danger. General Dustum fled to Turkey and the border remained unprotected. Moscow became seriously concerned. As a result, in October 1998 Russia, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan signed in Tashkent an agreement on military cooperation within the CIS Collective Security Treaty (CST).

Very soon, however, the situation along the border stabilized. In May 1999, Tashkent, willing to demonstrate its independence of Moscow and fearing an appearance of Russian troops on its territory withdrew from the CST. In summer 1999 fighters of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) invaded the Surkhandaria region having crossed Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Regional security was threatened once more, yet President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov rejected an offer of military supplies from Moscow. He bought light small arms in China and stated with a great share of confidence: Uzbekistan intends to defend itself single-handedly. We are negotiating with various countries about supplies of necessary weapons and military hardware to strengthen the Uzbek armys defense capability.6

In summer 2000 IMU detachments invaded Uzbekistan once more; early in September the Taliban captured Talukan, the Northern Alliances main base, and came to the border with Tajikistan. Central Asia was worried but did not act promptly. Russia responded much faster with a condemnation of the Afghan Islamists and began war preparations. Russian generals commuted between Moscow and Dushanbe, the number of border guards along the Tajik-Afghan border was increased dramatically while the 201st Russian division was transformed into a Russian military base.

Central Asia soon recovered: the military successes of the Taliban caused a response across the region and sudden changes in the leaders political biases. Each of the Central Asian countries proceeded from its own interests and tried to distance itself from the Kremlins Afghan policies. They declared in chorus that the Taliban should be recognized as a real military and political force the contacts with which were needed.

Uzbekistan was the first to move in that direction: it was the first Central Asian victim of Islamic radicals and the first to have established secret contacts with the Taliban. The newly found Uzbek position was obviously pragmatic: We may disapprove of the Taliban, their aims and ideology, yet we should recognize them as a force that can no longer be ignored.7 During his visit to Ashghabad President Karimov supported the pro-Taliban position of President Niyazov who stated: Russia overestimates the danger coming from the Taliban to be able to deploy its military bases in Central Asia.8 On 1 October ambassadors of Uzbekistan (Sh. Kabilov) and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Abdul Salam Zaif) met in Islamabad where they reached an agreement on a future meeting of their countries foreign ministers.

The U-turn in Uzbek policies was pursuing a dual aim: to ease Moscows pressure designed to return Uzbekistan to the CST and to increase its influence in the region, and to force the Taliban to stop supporting the Uzbek Islamists. Nothing practical was done to achieve the second aim.

Kazakhstan followed in Uzbekistans footsteps. Early in November 2000 General Musharraf, military administrator of Pakistan, visited Kazakhstan to lobby the Talibans interests. On 22 November the Foreign Ministry of Kazakhstan made a statement about regular contacts with the Taliban. The ministry reminded that it was back in 1999 that Foreign Minister of Kazakhstan E. Idrissov had met representatives of the Taliban in Islamabad. The shift was economically motivated: Kazakhstan wanted a share in the projected gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Kazakhstan also saw itself as a possible intermediary in the Afghan conflict to score points in Nazarbaevs rivalry with Karimov for regional leadership. Astana followed Tashkents example and did not force the process of drawing closer to the Taliban. Dushanbe and Bishkek made public their intentions to contact the Taliban yet no steps in that direction were made.

Russia made similar attempts. In September 2000 the presidents aid Sergei Iastrzhembskiy visited Islamabad with no positive results: Kabul was inflexible with its unacceptable demands. Moscow staked on the use of force: in October Marshal Sergeev, the then Defense Minister, met Ahmad Shah Masoud, leader of the Northern Alliance, to confirm Moscows unchanged intention to provide all-round support to the Talibans opponents.

Moscow was forced to build up its military efforts in Central Asia: the Taliban were demonstrative about their support of the Chechen separatists who had opened their embassy in Kabul, and terrorists trained in Afghanistan became more active. In May 2000 an agreement on a coalition armed group of the CIS was signed in Erevan. It was expected to include units of the Russian, Kazakhstani, Kyrgyz, and Tajik armies. The 201st division of the Russian border guards deployed in Tajikistan was alerted. In May 2001 Islam Karimov came to Moscow. The visit demonstrated that his country wanted closer cooperation with Russia especially in the sphere of military technology.

The terrorist acts of 11 September radically changed the situation in Central Asia. The region responded in an ambiguous way to Americas preparations to the anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan and its appeal to the world community (those who are not with us are against us). The Central Asian governments expressed their condolences to Washington, yet when it came to the use of their territories by the U.S. armed forces and their participation in the anti-terrorist opposition stumbling-blocks appeared.

Tajikistan was the first to allow the United States to use its airspaceit changed its mind under Moscows pressure. Tashkent was obviously in two minds as well: it was alternated between giving an air corridor for the U.S. aviation and refuting this information. Moscow was obviously putting pressure on it too.9 The question of letting the United States use the territories of Central Asian states remained unsettled with talks going on. Much depended on whether America would successfully deploy its land forces in Pakistan. Having realized that the Central Asian states would inevitably be drawn into the events around Afghanistan, late in September, Moscow made an attempt to coordinate their positions. The mission was entrusted to Vladimir Rushailo, Secretary of Russias Security Council.

The consultations helped the regional leaders to decide on the course of action: late in September Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced that the Americans could make the use of an airfield in Dushanbe. Early in October, even before air raids on Afghanistan started, units of the 10th mountain U.S. division had landed in Uzbekistan, on the airfield in Khanabad. Islam Karimov stated that it had been agreed with U.S. Defense Secretary Ramsfeld who came to Tashkent on 5 October that the airfield would be used for rescue operations and delivery of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Later Americans were allowed to use the airfield in Termez, at the Afghan border. Early in October, Uzbekistan signed an agreement with the United States on their cooperation within the anti-terrorist campaign.

In this situation Russia acquired a chance to increase its influence in two respects. Its swift drawing closer to Washington supported by President Putins official visit to the U.S. allowed Moscow to correct its Afghan policy. Besides, it could have brought considerable military (the ABM problem), economic (debt restructuring), and political (integration into the Western structures) dividends. Cooperation with the Central Asian states would have resulted in its greater military and political presence in the region. In this way Russia would be able to clearly demonstrate to the regional leaders, and the partner across the ocean, that Central Asia had been, and remained the sphere of Moscows national interests and military responsibility and that Russia had no intention to abandon its domination. This made the war in Afghanistan a factor that strengthened the relations between Russia and Central Asia.

At the same time, these relations, on the one hand, and the relations between Central Asia and the United States, on the other, are not as simple as they might seem at the first glance. There are three, so far, vague outlines of three regional coalitions. This, and other factors of the U.S.-Russia relationships may invite unwelcome results. One of the coalitions will probably include Russia and Tajikistan (protected by Russias military-political umbrella), as well as Iran and India, two countries that are extending military and other aid to the Northern Alliance together with Moscow. The other may include the U.S. and Uzbekistan and possibly Pakistan. The third, so far even more vague than the others will comprise China that is gaining weight at a fast pace, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. It is still a hypothesis. The former two are still nothing more than an outline of possible temporal and tactical alliances.

On the whole, the Central Asian countries treat the anti-terrorist campaign and the U.S. military presence in a straightforward way though different social groups have different opinions. All regional governments resolutely condemned the terrorist acts of 11 September and supported the U.S. plans of anti-terrorist campaign in Afghanistan. The Westernized political elite accepts this approach. The politically active youth is more nationalist-minded and approves of the support given to the Northern Alliance made of ethnically close Tajiks and Uzbeks. The tradionalist-minded groups and the Muslim opposition do not express their approval of the Taliban and bin Laden, yet they condemned the American actions in Afghanistan. They are not prepared to approve in principle of the use of Western force against the Muslim states.

This was put to paper by the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan that is part of the state structures. The statement appeared in the partys newspaper Nadjot (Liberation). While expressing their solidarity and supporting the efforts of the international community and the U.S. government designed to find and punish the true criminals that perpetrated the acts of terrorism, the party leaders voiced their fear about the acts that may invite wide-scale violence and increase the number of innocent victims. The document emphasized that Islam had nothing to do with terrorism. Further the newspaper said: Probably, there were Muslims involved in terrorist activities. The party issued a warning that any hostilities under a pretext of fighting international terrorism might, in the final analysis, provoke a civilization clash.

President Askar Akaev of Kyrgyzstan skillfully employed the anti-terrorist operation to improve his image in the West somewhat tarnished by his persecution of certain opposition leaders. After a short delay, he warmly supported the United States and offered Washington the maximum he couldthe air space and the territory. He went even farther than that: late in September 2001 all flights from Bishkek to the Asian destinations were grounded to give airspace to the U.S. aviation and that of the other members of the anti-terrorist coalition. At that stage Washington was not prepared to use the Kyrgyz airspace and territory for geographical reasons, yet the president has somewhat improved his image. His desire to be associated with the international anti-terrorist coalition forced him to use conciliatory tones when talking with the Islamic opposition (composed mainly of the Hizb ut-Tahrir party). He declared that persuasion could produce better results than repressionsan obvious compliment to the West. The results were instantaneous: in October four opposition parties joined their forces though many preferred to remain outside. Those who refused believed that this would have been unethical in relation to the authorities at the dramatic moment. The president in his turn having despaired to get any dividends from the West increased his former pro-Moscow orientation thus moving away from his previous multi-vector course.

On the whole, the Central Asian leaders quite unexpectedly demonstrated a totally pragmatic approach to the U.S. presence in the region. As distinct from the Russian generals who nervously responded to the American presence in Central Asia the regional leaders remained surprisingly calm. It should be said that part of the public were annoyed by the fact that the U.S. and its partners were using their countries and dummies. The regional elite, however, has obviously profited from this cooperation.

First, there is an issue of economic aid and investments. The regional politicians are quite open about their opinion that the West should pay for the use of the territory, air space, military bases, and the airfields. What is more the Americans are modernizing and re-equipping airfields in Uzbekistan. Second, this will strengthen the international positions of this country within Partnership for Peace program. Third, the American presence will bring military aid in training, weapons, and modernization of the army. Fourth, the regional regimes will become more authoritarian: the West will be less inclined to monitor the state of the human rights. Finally, the United States will shoulder part of responsibility for regional security and stability of which Putin spoke during his U.S. visit. He had in mind an opposition to the local militant Islamism (IMU, Hizb ut-Tahrir) and drug trafficking. It goes without saying that it would be very naive to expect Washington to shower all these boons on the region yet there will definitely be certain gains. This depends, to a great extent, on how long the operation in Afghanistan will go on and how successful it will be. So far, the prospects are still optimistic.

The Taliban were absolutely demoralized by the loss of Mazar-e Sharif, Kabul, and Kandahar. There are scattered seats of resistance that can be suppressed in no time. The wave of Islamist protests in other Muslim states subsided. The Bonn conference achieved its aim: there is a provisional government headed by Karzai. Rabbani was left out in the cold yet his Northern Alliance got three key posts: that of a foreign minister (A. Abdullo), the minister of the interior (Iunus Kanuni), and defense minister (Muhammad Fakhim). The former king seems to have agreed to the role of a chairman of a commission that would prepare and convene Loya Jirga in May 2002.

This is what anybody can see on the surface. The successful agreement was pushed through under strong pressure from the U.N. (read: the U.S.). Further on we shall witness a bitter rivalry not merely for ministerial posts but for the way power will be divided. It will be not easy to resolve the problems of regionalism. General Dustum was the first to act: dissatisfied with the way the ministerial posts were divided he categorically announced that he wanted the post of foreign minister for himself and the defense minister for one of his comrades. On 6 December, the general announced that he refused to recognize the provisional government and insisted on a new administration.

The problem of personal ambitions of the Afghan leaders of the anti-Taliban coalition may become aggravated with worsened ethnic relations. The key participants in the settlement (the United States, Russia, Pakistan, Iran, China, and Uzbekistan) may also become involved in a tug-of-war. Finally, the war against international terrorism may not end with a victory over the Taliban: it might spread to other countries and regions. If this happens Russia will acquire a chance to become an important containment factor and to try to put the war into international legal norms.


1 Far Eastern Economic Review, 27 September, 2001.

2 Reuters, 5 October, 2001.

3 See: Ibidem.

4 See: The Financial Times, 30 November, 2001.

5 See: Ibidem.

6 Nezavisimaia gazeta, 28 September, 2001.

7 Afghan Free Press, 26 September, 2000.

8 Ibidem.

9 See: Izvestia, 18 September, 2001.


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