Russian Taleban Overtures

Moscow appears to have come to the conclusion that it must work with the Taleban

Russian Taleban Overtures

Moscow appears to have come to the conclusion that it must work with the Taleban

Monday, 21 February, 2005

Russia was taken completely by surprise by the Taleban capture earlier this month of Talukan, the administrative centre of the Takhar province in the northern Afghanistan.

The Russian military initially denied reports that the leader of the Northern Alliance of Afghanistan, Akhmad Shakh Massoud, had ceded Talukan to the Taleban.

The Russian Ambassador to Tajikistan did not believe the reports either, citing a conversation he had had with Massoud just two days before the Teleban assault, which had given no warning of such a turn of events.

Moscow's surprise at the developments can be explained by several factors.

Firstly, the Taleban attack was so powerful and well prepared that it even took Massoud unawares and he, being an experienced leader, thought it best to move his forces back to avoid their complete destruction.

He acted in exactly the same way in September 1996, when he pulled his Mujaheddin back from Kabul in good time, understanding the pointlessness of resisting the Taleban who were attacking the Afghan capital.

His surprise at the attack is demonstrated by the fact that only three days prior to it, Massoud, the only genuine military leader amongst his forces, travelled to Dushanbe to meet Turkmenistan's Afghan peacemaker, Boris Shikhmuradov.

Secondly, the belief that Massoud's operations are coordinated with Moscow should not be exaggerated. Massoud is an entirely independent 'player', and according to reliable sources, is somewhat "surprised" by the lack of military and political support that Russia provides him.

Massoud is also concerned at attempts by some Russian military commanders to bring back into the conflict one of the former commanders of the Northern Alliance, General Abdurashid Dostum, the leader of the ethnic Uzbeks in Afghanistan.

At the end of August, Dostum was promised military assistance to carry out actions against the Taleban. Dostum, once a powerful military leader, was driven out of Afghanistan by the Taleban two years ago. Since then he has found refuge in Turkey and then in Iran and has lost all his influence.

He frequently came into conflict with Massoud, before allying himself with him. The long history of relations between the two men has made Massoud highly suspicious of any attempts to broker an alliance between himself and Dostum.

Moscow diplomatic sources say many envoys experienced in Afghan affairs are unhappy at the Russian military's attempts to "inflate" Dostum's importance.

The official reaction in Moscow to the fall of Talukan underlined the difference between the Russian military and its diplomats. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs described the attack by the Taleban as "cynical", particularly in view of its claims to be seeking a peaceful solution to the conflict.

By comparison, the response of the Russian Defence Minister, Marshal Igor Sergeev, seemed indifferent: "Massoud will work out his own problems himself and find a way of turning the situation to his advantage," he said.

The official reaction in Moscow to the latest events in Afghanistan seems far from panic. But the same cannot be said of the Russian press. A front-page headline of the newspaper Izvestia was typical: 'Taleban Can Enter Every Russian Home'.

The article called for immediate military aid to the Northern Alliance, "before it's too late" to prevent a Taleban onslaught over the Tajik-Afghani border, into Central Asia and possibly Russia.

At the same time, the Taleban has been in control of the lengthy Afghan-Turkmenistan border for two years without a single complaint from Ashgabat or even Tashkent.

In the 250-year history of the existence of the Afghan state, the native population has not once attempted any form of territorial expansion. The opposite is in fact the case, and history is replete with examples of attempts to subdue the Afghans, including the wars with the British Empire and the Soviet Union.

Apart from the dubious attempt to employ Dostum in recent weeks, there have been some encouraging signs of Russia's pragmatism towards Afghanistan - most notably the first steps towards direct contacts with the leadership of the Taleban movement.

Closed meetings were held on July 17 in Ashgabat between the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kabul administration, Mullah Mutavakil, and "a group of Russian comrades" including the deputy director of the 3rd Asian Department of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Alexander Maryasov and several highly-placed officers of the Russian security services.

Such confidential meetings between the Tajik opposition and highly placed Russian diplomats and security agents in the mid-1990s began a peacemaking process within Tajikistan.

It seems to indicate that Moscow has come to the conclusion that it must work with the Taleban, because it is the real force within Afghanistan and can no longer be ignored.

Another encouraging sign came in the last few days. With a minimum of publicity, the chief of the Pakistani secret service visited Moscow and met the director of the KGB's successor organization, Nikolai Patrushev and Defence Minister Igor Sergeev.

When asked on September 13 about the meeting, the Pakistani ambassador in Moscow said the talks had concentrated on a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Afghanistan. The Russian authorities have continually accused the Pakistanis of supporting the Taleban. The talks set the agenda for a meeting at New York's UN Millenium Summit between the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, and Pakistan's military chief, General Pervez Musharraf.

Several months after Moscow's threat to carry out preventative strikes against the bases of Chechen fighters given sanctuary by the Taleban, the situation has changed significantly. There is a realisation among the Russian leadership for the need to move from the unproductive tactics of military confrontation with difficult opponents to a difficult but much more productive dialogue with them. It seems that, at least as far as Afghanistan is concerned, Moscow is returning to a policy of "realpolitik".

Arkady Dubnov is a journalist with Vremya MN newspaper in Moscow.

Support our journalists