Russian President Vladimir Putin applauded US-led strikes on terror bases in Afghanistan yesterday, but Russian experts warn that the situation could fly out of control if the Taliban decide to widen the war into Central Asia.
"The Taliban have made it clear that they intend to invade Uzbekistan, and this has Uzbek leaders very worried," says Andrei Grozin, head of the Central Asia section of the Russian government's official Institute for Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Studies. "Uzbekistan is rushing troops to the border and urgently beefing up its defenses." On Saturday, the US Army dispatched 1,000 soldiers to the Central Asian nation.
A Taliban incursion across the Afghan border into Uzbekistan "would change the whole map of the fighting" says Mr. Grozin, perhaps forcing Russia to intervene.
"The Uzbek army is not capable of resisting any major Taliban attack, and Russia would almost certainly have to come to its assistance," says Sergei Kazyonnov, an expert with the independent Institute of National Security and Strategic Studies.
The Taliban claim to have 10,000 troops massing on the Uzbek border. Russian experts say that even if that is a gross exaggeration, the threat is dire. The most likely type of incursion would be groups of a few dozen Taliban guerrillas who slip through Uzbek lines, says Grozin - a threat the Uzbek Army is ill-prepared to combat.
Last year, a group of about 100 armed militants of the Taliban-connected Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan killed scores of Uzbek soldiers, and penetrated to within 62 miles of the capital, Tashkent.
Neighboring Tajikistan is less vulnerable, Grozin says, but also very unstable. About 30,000 Russian troops are in the country, including the 210st Motorized Rifle Division, which guards the Tajik-Afghan border. "Without the Russians, Tajikistan would fall apart," Grozin says. "There are a lot of unofficial armed groups in the mountains, who remain a serious threat. Tajikistan is quite vulnerable to penetration and subversion," by Islamic extremists.
Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are also concerned that they will be unable to cope with a potential wave of refugees from Afghanistan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has pledged to share intelligence, make available three Russian air corridors for "humanitarian assistance" to the war zone, drop his former objections to US use of military bases in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, provide arms to Afghans fighting against the Taliban, and perhaps participate in non-combat "search and rescue missions" inside Afghanistan.
On Monday Russia openly began supplying some $45 million in old Soviet-made guns, artillery, and tanks to the Afghan resistance fighters, known as the Northern Alliance.
But Russia may be doing much more in secret. Two experts say that the 201st Motorized Rifle Division in Tajikistan began throwing pontoon bridges across the Pyandzh River and establishing positions inside Afghanistan last week. The bridges are to transport military and humanitarian supplies to the Northern Alliance.
"Russian troops are already fighting in Afghanistan, to protect their bridgeheads against Taliban attacks," says Pavel Felgenhauer, a leading Russian military expert. "Unmarked Russian fighter bombers have been seen hitting Taliban positions in recent days. The reality is that Russia is already in this war".
Grozin agrees: "It is not officially admitted, of course, but Russian military advisers are already fighting with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. Russia is already seriously involved in the conflict, and will fulfill all its commitments to the limit of its resources. Though Russia is already fighting in Chechnya, and can ill afford a second front, the Taliban represent the worst threat and have to be opposed. If the Taliban are not stopped before CIS borders, the dangers will multiply out of control."