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Will the Taliban Reap the Whirlwind?

It was no coincidence that the Kremlin's threats to bomb terrorist bases in Afghanistan came on the eve of the Minsk security summit
By Mikhail Ivanov

Sergei Yastrzhembsky is not a man to let his tongue run away with him. When the Kremlin's spokesman on Chechnya lashed out at Taliban support for the Chechen rebels last week, he was effectively laying down what the army calls "suppressing fire" in preparation for Wednesday's security summit in Minsk.


The Council of Mutual Security session brought together delegates from Russia, Belarus, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Armenia. Its political significance cannot be underestimated.


Not only was the Taliban theme on the agenda for a secret session of the summit members, but Russian ministers stood firmly behind Yastrzhembsky's threat to carry out preventive strikes against Afghan training camps.


The foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, was perhaps less forthright: "In the event of a threat being posed by one side or the other," he said, "Russian will keep all her options open - including those mentioned by Yastrzhembsky."


But senior sources in the Russian defence ministry made no secret of the fact that the military ordnance necessary for airstrikes against Afghanistan was already in place. "If the relevant political decision is made, the strikes could follow immediately," an official told the Interfax news agency.


The calls for retaliation were timed to create the right ideological backdrop for the newly created military block. Any bombing campaign against Afghanistan could well be launched from Uzbek or Tajik soil. Both republics have expressed growing concerns over the Islamic threat from the south.


But first we should take a closer look at the military alliance which has been forged between Russia and the six former Soviet republics.


Even prior to the summit, Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, had declared, "We're talking about a new qualitative stage in our relations, a new subject for international law." In other words, Moscow has finally found its own response to continuing NATO expansion at a time when, to quote its Secretary General, Lord Robertson, the process of rapprochement with Russia will be a "gradual" one. We can deduce that Lord Robertson, at least, sees no place for Russia in the NATO camp.


In this context, the replacement of the defunct Warsaw Pact by a new Minsk Pact can be seen as a defensive measure prompted by developments across the former Soviet Union -- the recent NATO trip to Estonia aimed at assessing the republic's readiness to join the bloc, visits by NATO ships to Ukrainian ports and the overtures made by Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze to the NATO brotherhood.


The political orientation of the new bloc was defined by President Vladimir Putin who commented that the new agreement presented "the main means for maintaining peace today and in the future". Adding that any such pact should be "capable of reacting to a changing world", he stressed that it was "open for others to join".


This policy of "reacting to the changing world" seems to have been directly transcribed from Russia's new military manifesto which was approved last January with Putin's active participation. In fact, the statement is as much directed against the Taliban as it is against NATO's military interventions, especially in the former Yugoslavia.


The new Russia-dominated bloc also throws down a clear warning to former Soviet republics who seem too anxious to throw in their hand with the West - not just Ukraine but also Azerbaijan and Georgia which Russia has accused of backing the Chechen rebels.


Georgia, apparently, has taken the hint. Last week, presidential advisor Shalva Pichkhadze told the Sevodnya newspaper that he interprets Moscow's threats of preventive measures as "a hint at further consequences for other states". Pichkhadze is well aware that Russia suspects the Georgian government of allowing Chechen warlords to operate military bases in the Pankisskoe Gorge and run arms across the mountains into Chechnya.


But if the new pact is a direct reflection of Russia's political and military stance, the threat of attacks on the Taliban terrorist bases raises more questions than it answers.


On a diplomatic level, a pre-emptive strike against the terrorists would be easier to sell to the international community than, say, the bombing of Grozny. In any case, Washington would think twice before pointing accusatory fingers at Russia - after all, the US military launched long-range cruise missiles against Afghan bases in 1998. Logically, the USA should be only too pleased to find another ally in the fight against international terrorism and its notorious figurehead, Osama bin Laden. Some observers speculate this angle could be discussed at June's US-Russian summit in Moscow.


But is the prospect of finding common ground with the USA a compelling enough reason to send missiles or bombers into Afghanistan? While the creation of a new military alliance between the former Soviet republics may serve Russia's geopolitical interests, it also stands as a powerful deterrent. Whether this alliance needs to prove itself with a baptism of fire is extremely questionable.


There are still strategic and tactical issues to be ironed out: how will Belarus, Armenia and Tajikistan contribute to the new bloc in the event of a joint military action? Or will Russia be left shouldering the full financial and military burden? Would member states allow their territory to be used as a springboard for military campaigns, or would their contribution be purely logistical?


Then there is the question of Russian public opinion. Can Russia afford a war on two fronts? There is no doubt that the Taliban poses an Islamic threat to Russia's southern borders. There is no doubt that Chechen rebel units are being trained in Afghanistan. Russian military observer Pavel Felgenhauer wrote in the Moscow Times last week that the Kremlin had actually been assisting the Taliban's arch-rival Ahmad Shahd Massood to conduct covert operations across Tajikistan and other Central Asian states.


But a covert operation and a full-blown war are very different issues. The Russian army may not be able to keep its promises that any retaliatory campaign will not develop into a ground war against the Afghans. If you say "a", you have to say "b", as the Russian proverb has it.


And the Taliban's threat to "hold Tajikistan and Uzbekistan" responsible for any pre-emptive strikes may well not be empty. Under the new Minsk agreement, Russia would be obliged to intervene in the event of Afghan retaliation. The same applies to Uzbekistan, which, though not a member of the pact, signed a bilateral agreement with Russia on the eve of the Minsk summit.


If the majority of Russians support Putin's "anti-terrorist" campaign in Chechnya, an Afghan conflict would hardly be condoned. It may be that the Kremlin's sabre-rattling was aimed at creating the right environment for the Minsk Pact. It may be that President Putin is once again underlining his determination to restore order in Chechnya. But, if airstrikes will eventually trigger a second Afghan war, then the socio-political consequences at home would be impossible to predict.


Targeting terrorist bases might be tolerated but a ground war on two fronts could prove to be the straw that breaks the Russian camel's back if it is lured into the deserts of Central Asia.


Mikhail Ivanov is executive editor of Russian Life, a bimonthly magazine published by Russian Information Services, Inc.


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