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Sunday, 14 September 2008

Moscow eyes Afghanistan in fear

With Russia once again in the global arena, observers are focusing on its "conflict" with the West, namely its offensive in Georgia and its recognition of the breakaway Georgian states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Certainly, Moscow sees Georgia as an American proxy and resents the intrusion into its backyard, as well as the encroachment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Russia has other regional concerns, though. Its decision to conduct military maneuvers with Kazakhstan went largely unreported, yet this demonstrates Moscow's increasing worries over a possible threat from the east - Afghanistan. And while Russia is convinced it can withstand considerable pressure from the West, this is not the case with the danger posed by Afghanistan.

When the Taliban took power in 1996, they evoked much apprehension among Russian leaders, including General Alexander Lebed, the strongman who many had regarded as the most likely successor to president Boris Yeltsin.

As it turned out, it was the newly elected Vladimir Putin who in 2001 acquiesced to the US's invasion of Afghanistan and ouster of the Taliban, as well as to the placement of US bases in Central Asia

This was not just to please the George W Bush administration, but because of the belief that the US could play a large role in erecting a protective shield around the Taliban and other Islamic extremists.

Russia's relationship with the West, particularly the US, has since deteriorated, reaching, as some pundits claim, the levels of a new cold war. But Moscow's fear of Islamists has not diminished and corresponds with the ongoing general tension between Moscow and Russia's growing number of Muslims.

Putin was able to "Chechenize" the conflict in Chechnya by providing the Muslim-dominated region virtual independence from Russia, including lavish subsidies, which look almost like tributes. As president, separatist religious leader Akhmad Kadyrov was able to attract a considerable number of nationalists - including former members of the resistance - to his side; and the major Russian military operations in Chechnya were over.

Still, the end of the marginalization of the nationalists led to the spread of jihadis, who in a way reinterpreted the Marxist slogan "workers of the world unite" into a call for Muslims of all countries and ethnicities to form a collective front against the perceived enemies of Islam.

They spread their operations from Chechnya into the northern Caucasus and beyond. While Russia was busy in the war with Georgia, the authorities proclaimed they had discovered a jihadi group, "Bulgarian Jamaat" in Bashkiria, in the heartland. Muslim-dominated Bashkiria had previously not been known to have harbored extremists.

Troubles were also recorded in nearby Tatarastan, where locals demanded the creation of a monument to commemorate the Tatars who defended Kazan, the Tatarastan capital, from Russian troops in 1552.

Russian authorities believe al-Qaeda wanted to take advantage of the conflict between Georgia and Russia and engage in acts of terror and sabotage. Taliban successes - and especially victory - would definitely aggravate the situation.

It is not just the fear of terrorist attacks that concerns Russian authorities. The economic implications of a Taliban victory are clearly on their minds. A Taliban success could easily destabilize Central Asia, from which Russian receives a considerable volume of gas for resale to Europe.

As a result, while Russia's relationship with NATO declined steadily through most of Putin's tenure, recently it has cooperated with NATO with regard to Afghanistan - Russia has agreed to provide a corridor for goods that the alliance sends to Afghanistan.
This arrangement still stands, but Moscow recently sent a message to NATO that it could close the corridor whenever it wants. Officially, the explanation is that NATO has continued to press for the admission of Georgia and the US has engaged in the re-armament of the Georgian army.

There might be another reason: the Russians might have come to the conclusion that the corridor will make no difference to the ultimate fate of the Afghan regime of President Hamid Karzai.

The Russians bitterly remember their losing fight in the country in the 1980s, which came despite their vast troop numbers. The Kremlin is preparing for the worst, including strengthening military cooperation with Central Asia states.

It is in this context that Russia plans military maneuvers with Kazakhstan.

After the Georgian-Russian war, Russia became increasingly alienated from Central Asian states, many of which are concerned that Russia will engage in the same policy in their domains.

Now, with the possibility of a collapsing Karzai government and the marginalization of the American Middle Eastern empire, the Central Asian elite could once again look to Russia as the only viable protector against the possible "Talibanization" of their region.

Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is author of East Against West: The First Encounter - The Life of Themistocles, 2005.

By: Dmitry Shlapentokh