Shopping For Enemies

Vladimir Putin's war in Chechnya is just eight months old, and for Russia it has already taken on a grimly familiar pattern. Its troops cling tenuously to occupied positions all over the breakaway region, but are now subject to repeated--and lethally successful--raids by Chechen fighters. And in the mountains south of the capital Grozny, rebel units still roam with relative freedom, confident that they will again eventually drive the Russians back across the border. But if President Putin's new government is to be believed, not only has Moscow just begun to fight against what it calls Chechen terrorists, it may actually consider widening the war against their alleged accomplices--specifically, radical Islamic groups based in northern Afghanistan.

Just days after Putin returned from a trip to two former Soviet republics that border Afghanistan, members of his government made it sound as if Russia now seeks a rematch in the place where the Big Red Machine (the former Soviet Army) was humiliated in the 1980s. Last week a Russian government spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, raised the possibility that Moscow may bomb bases in Afghanistan training Islamic fighters destined for combat in Chechnya. The Taliban, the hard-line Islamic group that rules Afghanistan, openly supports the rebel fighters in the breakaway region of Russia. Yastrzhembsky's statement--"We would not exclude the possibility of preventive strikes if there is a real threat to Russia's national interests"--came shortly after Putin's visit to Uzbekistan, the large former Soviet republic that borders Afghanistan. There, much to the Russian military's delight, the new president signed a series of security agreements. By the end of last week Putin's Defense and Foreign ministers echoed the idea that Moscow may strike from the air against terrorists beyond Chechnya.

Having restarted, and gotten bogged down again, in Chechnya (the last war Russia lost), the notion of an attack on Afghanistan seems quixotic at best. Moscow's humiliated troops pulled out of there in 1989, a defeat that accelerated the demise of the Soviet Union. Bombing again, many analysts believe, might only fan the anti-Russian sentiment in the Islamic world that Moscow so worries about. "All the fundamentalists will begin blowing up Russian Embassies instead of U.S. Embassies," says Andrei Piontkowsky, a political analyst at the Moscow Center for Strategic Studies.

The rhetorical blast last week probably has more to do with Putin's diplomatic agenda than with a desire to refight the Afghan war. That one of his earliest trips as president was to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan plainly shows Putin's determination to reassert Russian authority in the former Soviet republics, particularly those on its southern flank. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has steadily campaigned to lift the republics--particularly those, like Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, which possess rich oil and gas reserves--out from under Russian influence. It has established military cooperation programs through the so-called Partnership for Peace Program with many of the 14 republics.

This has infuriated Moscow's military, which looks to Putin to re-establish its prestige, authority and budget. One of the ways Putin is responding is to set things right in Moscow's backyard. One Western diplomatic source believes the Russian high command is euphoric after signing a series of military pacts with CIS Central Asian states. "It's like a fairy tale for them, the old Soviet Union coming back together bit by bit." The brass is 100 percent behind the idea of a more aggressive role in Afghanistan in order to "show the region who's boss," the diplomat adds. They are so enthusiastic, according to this source, that he does not rule out the possibility of some sort of military action in Afghanistan. The Russian senior military command "have been pushing to try this kind of stunt for a while... ever since the United States bombed Afghanistan and Yugoslavia. They want to get even with the United States, even if there's no obvious military advantage to be gained."

The Russians also implied last week that they would have as much justification as the United States did in hitting Afghanistan. Bill Clinton went after suspected hideouts of Osama bin Laden following U.S. Embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya in the summer of 1998. And recently, the State Department officially cited both Afghanistan and Pakistan as sources of state-sponsored global terrorism.

The Russians concur. Moscow points out that Afghanistan and Pakistan have trained thousands of Islamic militants. Up to a few thousand of them still live in Afghanistan, including bin Laden, the alleged sponsor of global terror. And in interviews with NEWSWEEK, Taliban officials acknowledge that the so-called Islamic Movement, led by suspected terrorist Juma Namangani, is allowed to maintain an office in Kabul. Why? "We allow them to stay because they have helped in the jihad against the Russians," Mullah A. Khaksaar, the Taliban's deputy Interior minister, said.

Putin will talk up the need for Russia and the West to cooperate in fighting Islamic terrorism when Bill Clinton arrives this week. It's a clever enough diplomatic tack. Should the day ever come that Russia does decide to strike, there's not a lot the West could say in response. Still, most diplomats in Moscow believe cooler heads are likely to prevail. For all the noise Putin and Islam Karimov, the strongman who rules Uzbekistan, make together about combating the Islamic threat to their countries, the Uzbek leader may actually be among the last people who'd like to see a Russian strike against supposed redoubts in Afghanistan. Militarily, Uzbekistan is the most powerful country in central Asia, and Karimov has never hesitated to use force against the Uzbek Islamic opposition. But bombing could conceivably trigger an organized terror campaign far more potent than anything he has yet had to deal with.

Karimov has spent much of the last few years violently suppressing real and perceived opponents. In February 1999, five bombs exploded in Tashkent, the capital city, killing 16 people. He responded with a ferocious campaign of arrests, torture and show trials that ran into an estimated several thousand of alleged Islamic radicals. Several prisoners died of apparent torture while in custody, according to reports by Human Rights Watch. And his enemies have, in fact, found succor in Afghanistan. NEWSWEEK recently visited the Kabul office of Karimov's main armed opposition, a group called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan; as many as 2,000 fighters from the group also have received sanctuary just over the Uzbek border in the northern Afghanistan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghan sources say. At their recent meeting in Tashkent, Putin no doubt told Karimov that he knows how he feels. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar has permitted the Chechen opposition to open an embassy in Kabul, and Kashmiri rebels who operate from bases in Afghanistan have donated cash and fighters to the Chechens.

But diplomatic sources in the region insist that Karimov, like Putin, has focused on the alleged Islamic threat for domestic political reasons as much as anything else. They say the Islamic Movement is too small and disorganized to be a mortal threat to Karimov, given Uzbekistan's still formidable Army. If it were anything else, why would the approach to "Friendship Bridge"--which links Afghanistan to the Uzbek city of Termez--be free of fighters and armor? When the Taliban first captured Mazar in 1996, a panicked Uzbekistan placed concrete blocks backed by tanks and men on the approach. Last week no such obstacles were in sight. Talking about--and exaggerating--the threat, Karimov's critics say, enables the president to maintain his tight control over what remains essentially a police state. "The warning that these men are ready to come over the hills any moment is a pretext to crack down on opponents," said Acacia Shields, Human Rights Watch's representative in Tashkent.

Whether that's true or not, Karimov knows well enough that any Russian intervention across his border would pose serious risks. "It would escalate tensions in the area and could blow up the whole of Central Asia," says Aleksandr Pikayev, a military analyst at Moscow's Carnegie Center. Russia's military doesn't have the hardware to hit northern Afghanistan from its own territory. (When the United States bombed, it used sea-fired long-range cruise missiles launched from off the coast of Pakistan.) Military sources in Moscow say that Russian cruise-missile attacks would most likely have to come from Uzbek air space. And the Taliban leadership made clear last week that it would consider that very unneighborly behavior. Karimov was apparently getting the message. In an interview published Friday in the Moscow newspaper Kommersant Daily, the Uzbek president said of all the bombing talk: "Nobody yet takes it seriously."

Putin, officials in Moscow say, most likely feels the same way. A strike would no doubt only increase the commitment of the Taliban, as well as others in the Islamic world, to aiding Russia's enemies in Chechnya. For all these reasons, the hawkish talk is likely a bluff--albeit a reasonably useful one. It projects an image of a reinvigorated Russia asserting its regional authority and helps keep the West off Putin's back about Chechnya. But the most immediate and pressing reason for the sudden championing of the airstrikes in Moscow, says one NATO source, may simply be "to cover up the fact that Chechnya is going nowhere." And no amount of rhetoric in Moscow is going to change that familiar fact on the ground for the Russian troops stuck in their country's latest quagmire.

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