Moscow again eyes Afghanistan 20 years after retreat

Fearful that US failure there could unleash the Taliban and other Islamist insurgencies, Russia may help NATO open a supply line through former Soviet territory.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

When the USSR ended its disastrous near decade-long occupation of Afghanistan – the last Soviet troops were extracted 20 years ago Sunday – war hero Gen. Makhmut Gareyev was left behind to advise the Kremlin's client regime on means of survival. He too fled three years later as waves of Islamist rebels, formerly armed by the US, hammered at the gates of Kabul.

General Gareyev, now president of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences, believes the perceived threats that originally induced the USSR to invade Afghanistan are still very much alive. The Kremlin leadership feared the spread of Iranian-style Islamist revolution to Soviet central Asia, a challenge that has only grown worse in the interim, and Gareyev says he doubts that the current NATO mission in that region has much chance to deliver long-term stability.

"Nothing can be done in Afghanistan using military means," he says. "If the Americans go on with the policy they have now, it will be useless."

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Talks in recent days between US and Russian officials have brought a ray of hope that the two countries may finally begin cooperating on a much-needed transport corridor through former Soviet territory to resupply struggling NATO forces in Afghanistan. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov even hinted that an accord on the supply line could signal a wider thaw in relations between Moscow and the Western alliance, which have been frozen since Russia's war with Georgia last summer. But most leading Russian experts, especially those burned by past experiences, like Gareyev, remain dubious about the prospects for eventual US success in Afghanistan and deeply fearful that the consequences of their ultimate failure may fall heavily upon Russia and former Soviet central Asia.

"The consensus of Russian experts is that there is no winning strategy for the US and NATO in Afghanistan," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a top Moscow-based foreign policy journal. "Most believe that, sooner or later, Afghanistan's neighboring countries will face serious challenges from a possible revived Taliban. It means we need to work with the Americans, and find common approaches, but we need to make our own preparations, too."

Crime and militants threaten region

What Russia fears is a revival of the multiple Islamist insurgencies, which it saw as emanating from Taliban-dominated Afghanistan, that nearly overwhelmed former Soviet Tajikistan and Uzbekistan during the 1990s. Militants trained in Afghanistan are also blamed by the Kremlin for turning the rebellious Russian province of Chechnya into an extremist outpost whose terrorists struck repeatedly in the center of Moscow.

"Looking back, I don't think the decision (in 1979) to introduce Soviet troops into Afghanistan was just a whim of the Soviet leadership," says Rudolf Pikhoya, a historian with the Academy of State Service, which trains Kremlin officials. "Events in Afghanistan, along with the Iranian revolution, signaled the beginning of the global Islamist revolution. Now, we clearly see the danger."

Even with NATO troops in Afghanistan, Russian experts allege that drug trafficking has exploded. All along the criminal pipeline, which extends through ex-Soviet central Asia and Russia to European markets, organized crime and corruption are flourishing. Worse, they warn, is the potential for an alliance between cash-rich traffickers and power-hungry Islamist radicals. "These drugs are flowing into Russia," Gareyev says, "And the Americans do not seem to be doing anything to stop it. This is a very serious threat to us."

Russia has been moving to reassert its own influence in central Asia with increasing vigor as NATO appears to grow ever more bogged down in Afghanistan.

Last week, after receiving a $2.3 billion package of loans and aid from Moscow, Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev ordered the US to vacate Manas, the last of the military bases on former Soviet territory that Russia had acquiesced to following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Also last week, Russia pushed its regional alliance, the six-member Collective Security Treaty Organization, to beef up its joint rapid reaction force to 10,000 men aimed at combating terrorism and drug trafficking. And next month, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional alliance led by Russia and China, will convene a special conference on Afghanistan to explore ways to strengthen the group's relations with Kabul, which could include Russian arms sales and military advice for the first time since the Soviet withdrawal, experts say.

US bases as 'potential troublemakers'

The closure of Manas could strike a heavy blow against the US, just as President Obama seeks to double US forces in Afghanistan and the existing NATO supply routes through Pakistan are threatened by growing pro-Taliban sabotage. But Moscow does not view its pressure to reduce US activity on former Soviet territory as contradicting its willingness to be helpful to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, says Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the State Duma's committee on international relations.

"All these US bases, like Manas, are potential troublemakers for my country," Mr. Klimov says. "We believe that when we have direct, open cooperation with the US, it can be very useful. But when the Americans want to do things without our participation, of course we have suspicions."

Cooperating with the US may, in the future, take a back seat to Moscow's own regional offensive, some say. "Russia urgently needs to create friendly regimes in central Asia and a strong, unified border defense," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. "We're very willing to work together with NATO against our common enemy, the Taliban, but we've seen from past experience that this does not produce positive or lasting results for us. The Kremlin is certain that Russia needs to act decisively on its own" to ensure Russia's security if Afghanistan collapses again, he says.

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