Russia Forging New Afghan Policy

Moscow clearly wants to exert some influence over the new Afghan administration, but it may struggle to do so.

Russia Forging New Afghan Policy

Moscow clearly wants to exert some influence over the new Afghan administration, but it may struggle to do so.

Amid the New Year's unprecedented influx of foreigners to Afghanistan, the Russians have established an unobtrusive but watchful presence in the land that kicked them out 13 years ago. They have every intention of making it a long stay.

Less than 48 hours after Kabul was liberated from the Taleban, a giant Ilyushin aircraft slipped into the city's airport. During the 1980s this would have been a quite unremarkable sight. But now, instead of disgorging armoured vehicles and paratroopers, the plane delivered a massive cargo of humanitarian aid. The only military presence was a detachment of troops from Russia's ministry for emergency situations.

It provoked comparisons with the arrival of Russian aircraft at Pristina airfield during the Kosovo conflict of 1999.

Privately there was some alarm in London and Washington but US secretary of state Colin Powell diplomatically commented that it was "an honour and a pleasure" to allow the Russians to use Kabul airport.

The arrival of the Russians is not entirely surprising given their support for the Northern Alliance in its struggle against the Taleban.

Moscow was always suspicious of the student militia. It accused the movement of training Chechen militants, and believed that it threatened the stability of Russia's southern neighbours - Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

The Kremlin enjoyed good relations with the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani - the dominant partner in the Northern Alliance - which was ousted from Kabul by the Taleban in 1995.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Moscow helped with many development projects, including the construction of the Salang tunnel, the highest road tunnel in the world. More recently, it provided assistance to Afghanistan after its catastrophic earthquakes in 1998. The troops who arrived in mid-November have promised to repair the tunnel and build a field hospital in Kabul.

The West remains puzzled about Moscow's intentions. Nobody thinks the Russian move was spurred by a fit of generosity. Yuri Brazhnikov, deputy minister at the ministry for emergency situations, described the arrival of his troops in Kabul as a long term strategy for Russian security. "We are," he said, "very interested in building peace in the region and security on the southern border of Russia."

Russia was always concerned that the Taleban would export their brand of radical Islam into the CIS countries on its own southern doorstep.

Despite its current acquiescence, Moscow is cautious about any long-term presence of US forces in either Tajikistan or Uzbekistan where the Pentagon stationed troops at former Soviet air bases to assist in the campaign against the Taleban and the al-Qaeda network.

Moscow regards these countries as "its own back yard" and views the presence of US military there with some unease. Having troops on the ground in Afghanistan could be a covert way of offsetting the presence of US forces so close to Russia's borders.

Moscow is also suffering a massive problem from heroin grown in Afghanistan and smuggled through Central Asia into Russia. Russian diplomats based in Afghanistan may seek to try to persuade the new administration to clamp down on the drug trade.

Finally, the troops help to remind the new administration, especially its Northern Alliance members, who their main supporter has been. Russia was

arguably the most important backer of the Northern Alliance and an armed Russian presence - even if ostensibly to assist humanitarian operations -

makes it harder for the new government to ignore Moscow's concerns.

But the Kremlin's policy raises some questions in the West. Both Washington and London are concerned that Russia's support for the Northern Alliance has been a little too enthusiastic. While they want the Afghan opposition to play a part in post-Taleban Afghanistan, they don't want it to become a dominant force.

Reassuringly, Sergei Ivanov, Russia's defence minister, proferred total support for the plans negotiated in Bonn for an Afghan interim government. Even though Moscow played almost no role in the talks, Ivanov declared that, "the decisions made in Bonn are - excuse my modesty - a mirror reflection of our position".

Despite all this, the stationing of troops, the disbursement of humanitarian supplies and building a field hospital are unlikely to gain Russia any significant strategic influence in post-Taleban Afghanistan.

The country has been so badly crippled that reconstruction will be hugely expensive. Those countries which become major donors will exert the most influence. Given the present state of its economy, it seems that Russia will be unable to compete.

Finally, Russia may also be at a disadvantage in the all-important "battle for hearts and minds". The West has been at pains to insist on neutral countries playing a significant part in any peacekeeping operations.

Afghanistan's people have bitter memories of the bloody war waged by the Soviets for a decade. Many Afghans will not have forgotten what happened last time the Illyushin aeroplanes landed.

Thomas Withington is a Research Associate at the Centre for Defence Studies, King's College, London.

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