The Central Asian chess game

If the United States goes to war in Afghanistan, it will need the cooperation of former Soviet republics.

Published September 25, 2001 8:00AM (EDT)

Osama bin Laden remains the prime suspect in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but any hopes of actually capturing him may be more fantasy than reality -- at least for the time being. Instead, United States military planners appear to be focusing on more achievable goals, meaning a long campaign against countries that harbor or sponsor terrorists.

That probably will begin with military action in Afghanistan to oust the Taliban. One likely scenario will be for a renewed campaign by Afghanistan's umbrella rebel group, the Northern Alliance, reinforced with American and Russian weapons. In such a move, the Northern Alliance, which controls a stretch of Afghanistan's northern border region, would grind its way south, backed by American air power, and take the Afghan capital of Kabul, throwing the Taliban into disarray.

Monday, Russia announced it would step up its efforts to arm the group, which Russia has supported since the 1990s. One likely benefactor would be Mohammad Zahir Shah, the 86-year-old former king of Afghanistan, who lives in Italy and who has been in touch with the Northern Alliance about forming an anti-Taliban coalition.

"This business of going after bin Laden is Mickey Mouse," said Maj. Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies. "It's really something that is dreamt up in the media. Afghanistan is bigger than France, roughly the size of Texas, and 70 percent of it is mountains. Imagine looking for someone in Texas."

But to anyone familiar with recent Afghan history, the strategy poses inherent risks. The Taliban itself came to power with at least tacit support from the United States before it became America's new public enemy. Heyman says there are other concerns, most notably that the group is unpopular with the Afghan people and has been accused of stooping to gangsterism. But, he says, arming the Northern Alliance may be the best short-term solution in the global war against terrorism.

"The long-term result of destroying the Taliban's military capability is that almost certainly it lets the Northern Alliance in," Heyman said. "Allied forces can then withdraw quite easily. Having withdrawn, and destroyed the Taliban's capability, it would then be possible to say to Sudan or Somalia: 'You have terrorist training camps on your territory, either get rid of them or suffer the same fate that the Taliban did.' Phase 1 is Afghanistan. Phase 2 is another couple of countries, probably Sudan and Somalia. And then Phase 3, you spread your net wider."

But to get that far, the U.S. will first have to plunge into startlingly new political and diplomatic territory. Joining Russia in arming the Northern Alliance, whether covertly or otherwise, involves the United States in the region, no matter how the coming weeks play out. It will take ongoing and flexible diplomacy to ensure Russian President Vladimir Putin's continued support. It will also put the U.S. in league with the three Central Asian republics along the Afghan border -- Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan -- all of which face internal instability, which they see as being fueled by the Taliban and its aid to Islamic militants.

Bush and Putin held a lengthy phone conversation on Saturday, variously estimated at between 40 minutes and nearly an hour. Many suspect a tacit deal between the two leaders whereby the U.S. gains access to bases in the Central Asian republics still dominated by Russia, and in return Russia gets carte blanche to try to stamp out what it describes as "terrorists" fighting for Chechen independence.

An effort to oust the Taliban will set a number of precedents. Never before have U.S. military units deployed on the soil of the former Soviet Union. And it may mean the United States will look the other way on Chechnya, despite repeated charges of human-rights abuses by Russian troops, Heyman says.

"This is almost a rerun of Roosevelt and Stalin," Heyman said. "There is common cause. Putin would love for the Americans to finish off the mujahedin and the Taliban, to wipe them out militarily and to cut them off. We're seeing a rerun of 1942, with Putin saying 'I'll deal with the Islamic fundamentalists in my area and you deal with them in your area.' They may even be going to something like zones of influence. Quite clearly, the United States can't police the whole world, but it can police some sections of the world, and the Russians can police other areas."

The nightmare years of the failed Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Russia's version of the Vietnam experience, probably rule out direct participation of Russian soldiers. But just about everything else appears possible.

"I don't think involvement of Russian troops in Afghanistan can be publicly supported in Russia," Mikhail Margelov, a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, told the BBC on Friday night. "I can foresee the participation of the Russian army in giving corridors for U.S. planes and giving military bases on the territory of Tajikistan or other neighboring C.I.S. countries that belong to Russia."

The Northern Alliance can hardly believe the sudden change in its fortunes. Just days before the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington it lost its most charismatic leader, Gen. Ahmed Shah Massoud. The assassination of Massoud, described by novelist William Vollmann last year in the New Yorker as "a brave and brutal Tajik fighter," left the alliance dispirited and seemingly without a future. Now, suddenly, it has a superpower behind it.

"America is our friend," a Northern Alliance fighter named Abdurazek told the Guardian's Ian Traynor. "We want America to bomb the Taliban. And then only Allah knows what will happen."

Out of caution or patriotism, U.S. media have for the most part downplayed the importance of northern Afghanistan. When London's Guardian reported on Friday that two U.S. transport planes had landed in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, bringing surveillance equipment, there was little follow-up in the U.S. press.

But sources in Tashkent confirm that at least one U.S. plane has landed, and over the weekend other agencies were confirming the development as well -- which is almost sure to include the arrival of U.S. special forces. U.S. attack helicopters left over from NATO exercises earlier this month are also reportedly at the ready near Tashkent. U.S. bombing runs in support of the Northern Alliance seem likely to commence, probably sooner rather than later.

Secretary of State Colin Powell seemed almost to confirm the military buildup in Uzbekistan on Sunday. Asked about persistent reports of U.S. military planes landing there, he told ABC "not to my knowledge," then added: "But, of course, we do have repositioning of forces taking place." As veteran foreign affairs columnist Jim Hoagland wrote Friday in the Washington Post: "The Pentagon let it be known Wednesday that U.S. combat aircraft were headed toward the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The leak was in itself an effective tool in raising the pressure on nearby Afghanistan to rid itself of prime suspect Osama bin Laden and his camps."

Uzbekistan, which has a population of more than 25 million, was used by the Russians during their 1979-89 war against Afghanistan as a key staging area. The Uzbeks, like the Russians, have their own troubles with Islamic fundamentalism, and ample motivation to join the fight against the Taliban regime. The government believes the Taliban had a role in a terrorist bombing that killed 16 people in Tashkent in early 1999.

The Uzbek government of authoritarian leader Islam Karimov has cracked down on free speech and other human rights in its battle against the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which it believes has bases in Afghanistan and has ties to bin Laden. But it faces the risk of an internal backlash if it openly sides with the Americans.

"It's very delicate, primarily because in Uzbekistan there has been a lot of suspicion by the government that a lot of the terrorists live here with us," said Josh Machleder, an American living in Tashkent who reports for Internews. "Uzbek authorities have gone on a huge campaign, and there are many people sitting in jails for having any kind of link to Islamic fundamentalism. There's the risk that it may be inciting forces that are lying dormant here. It may awaken a sleeping bear."

Other serious problems loom as well. For example, the international heroin smuggling trade route runs right through neighboring Turkmenistan, with lesser quantities coming through Uzbekistan itself. In the turmoil of a wartime refugee crisis, drug trafficking and other criminal activity could be expected to escalate wildly. But there is a widespread sense among the people that action needs to be taken against terrorists.

"We don't just know about this terrible international terrorism from the newspapers, but we also unfortunately had to face it on the 16th of February 1999 during the explosions in Tashkent," Kamol Rakhimov, chairman of a textile company, told Transitions Online. "We cannot stay indifferent to what had happened across the ocean."

Tajikistan has a much longer border with Afghanistan, running from Uzbekistan all the way along the small finger of Afghan territory that protrudes toward China. But so far, it has been much more coy about military cooperation with the United States, and may only offer such cooperation if it is kept quiet. At least 1,000 Russian troops are still stationed in Tajikistan, making the matter of hosting a U.S. military presence more delicate.

President Emomali Rakhmonov said Saturday that the Tajiks would "cooperate" in the "struggle against terrorism," but pointedly did not spell out just what that meant -- and what it did not mean.

The Tajik government, like the Uzbek government, must worry about the twin threats of Islamic fundamentalists and a refugee crisis as Afghans come pouring out of their own country. According to Moscow political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, keeping their own fragile governments in power could be the biggest problem.

"For Tajikistan, as for the other neighboring Central Asian republics, the main threat is not possible aggression by the Taliban but the internal situation," he told the Washington Post. "In all of them the ingredients for so-called Islamic revolution are present: poverty, youth unemployment, absolute corruption and inefficiency. Sooner or later they will face this threat. But for the Taliban, the main ambition is to take control over the whole of Afghanistan, not a global Islamic revolution."

As for the third of the three Central Asian republics bordering Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, analysts agree it's likely to play a less important role. That's partly because of geography. It lies to the west, away from the roughly 10 percent of Afghanistan controlled by the Northern Alliance. But as the country most disrupted by the drug trade emanating from Afghanistan, it, too, has strong motivation to offer assistance against the Taliban.

Nearby Kazakhstan does not border Afghanistan, but its offer Monday to let the United States use its airspace -- and military bases and airfields -- adds still more credibility to military options emanating from the north. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev told CNN that not only would his country help, but that he expected all of his Central Asian neighbors to offer similar help.

It's all very good news for the Northern Alliance, which can now more readily receive military and technological help from Russia as well. "It's probably no secret to anyone that Russia, like certain other states, has for several years provided moral and other support to the Northern Alliance," Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told Itar-Tass news agency offer over the weekend.

No, it's no secret -- and the Taliban knows it has a problem. It released a letter on Monday directed to Uzbekistan, saying the U.S. spy plane the Taliban allegedly shot down came from Uzbek territory -- and warning its neighbors not to "act unwisely" and aid the U.S. effort. But whatever else is true, it's clearly too late for warnings like that to stem the flow of events already set in motion.

By Steve Kettmann

Steve Kettmann, a regular contributor to Salon, is the author of "One Day at Fenway: A Day in the Life of Baseball in America."

MORE FROM Steve Kettmann

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Afghanistan George W. Bush Russia