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Some Suspect Political Motives In Russia's Return To Kabul - 2001-11-30


Russian troops have arrived in Afghanistan for the first time since the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. They claim to be on a humanitarian mission, but political motives are suspected. Moscow strongly supported the Northern Alliance and now may want to share in the victory and regain some influence in Afghanistan. Secretary of State Colin Powell says he has discussed the matter with Moscow and for now is not concerned.

It was a scene out of the past, and not exactly welcome. Uniformed Russians carrying assault rifles were on the streets of Kabul. I thought we had defeated them, grumbled some Afghans. Do we have to fight them again?

There are no signs of Russians doing any fighting, and President Putin has prohibited it. Yet they have brought off a coup through their proxies, says Vladimir Socor, senior analyst of the Jamestown Foundation.

The northern forces they supported against the Taleban have taken over much of Afghanistan, including Kabul. "It has been a great success of Russian foreign and military policy to be able to enlist some of its former opponents, along with some of the former local servants of the Soviets' invading troops, and grab predominant control in the Afghan capital," he said.

Mr. Socor says Russians moved swiftly into Kabul ahead of other foreign powers and linked up with their Tajik ally. Moscow television has featured a genial reunion of a Russian envoy and a local Tajik leader. The Tajiks are busily organizing with Russian help, he says, while the Pashtuns in the south are in disarray and the entire country is in upheaval.

"One element in the Northern Alliance, the Tajik element, controls what passes for central government and through its figurehead president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, this group also holds Afghanistan's seat in the United Nations," he said. "These are extremely powerful cards to play in the negotiations now underway to form a legitimate Afghan government."

The United States was caught napping, says Mr. Socor. Its bombing, in effect, let the Russians in.

This may be more show than substance, says Thomas Barfield, chairman of anthropology at Boston University. The Russians have a habit of making surprise moves like their sudden seizure of the Pristina airport in the Balkans during the Kosovo war. It was startling but not consequential. "The Russians can make sure they get a place at the table by dropping in unannounced," he said. "I think they also realize that with a good chunk of the Afghan people, they are still potentially very unpopular. When they were coming into the Balkans, they were coming in as the proclaimed saviors of Slavs, whereas here they are coming back as ex-conquerors of the country."

Professor Barfield says the Northern Alliance has just about reached the edge of its ethnic territory. He doubts it has the appetite to head into the Pashtun heartland, precipitating a north-south encounter.

"Even if they had Russian backing, the Northern Alliances realizes it cannot militarily or even politically dominate the South, and I think their focus right now is taking advantage of their strong position to negotiate a strong position in a post-Taleban government," he said.

Meanwhile, the United States is not without gains of its own in the region, says Mr. Socor. Despite Russian misgivings, it has obtained the use of military bases in two Central Asian nations:

"I think the United States performed extremely effective footwork in Uzbekistan and even Tajikistan. The great achievement of American policy in these two countries was to approach the local governments directly, bypassing Moscow," he said.

Eventually, says Mr. Socor, this could lead to a geopolitical shift with a western presence for the first time in Central Asia.

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