Moscow Got What It Wanted in Kabul

Moscow has applauded the interim Afghan government approved by the UN Security Council late last week. And it is no wonder: With ethnic Tajiks, its closest allies in the anti-Taliban coalition, holding the most powerful ministerial posts, Russia stands a good chance of getting what it has long hoped for -- a friendly Afghanistan.

But experts warn that long-time allegiances could change once reconstruction money -- of which Russia has little to offer -- starts flowing into the war-torn country.

"Today's connections to the ethnic factions are important but will not necessarily be there tomorrow," said Sergei Kazennov, an expert on geo-strategic issues with the Institute of World Economy and International Relations. "Who knows how the Tajik ministers will behave when they're in power and when they have different sponsors? I don't think they will behave toward Russia the same way they did in the past."

The UN-brokered deal struck last week in Bonn, Germany, and approved late Thursday by the UN Security Council establishes a 30-member interim authority that is to begin governing from Kabul on Dec. 22 with a proportional distribution of Cabinet posts among all of Afghanistan's ethnic groups -- a multi-ethnic mix Russia has supported.

"The decisions made in Bonn are, excuse my immodesty, a mirror reflection of our position," Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Wednesday after negotiators had come to an agreement. "I would like to recall what we said more than a month ago: that we advocate the establishment of a broad coalition representing all ethnic groups."

The Bonn compromise was ironed out after more than a week of talks involving representatives of the Northern Alliance -- drawn largely from the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek minorities -- and three exile factions -- the Pakistan-based Peshawar group, the so-called Cyprus group of intellectuals and the Rome group, which supports Afghanistan's ousted octogenarian king, Zahir Shah.

The estimates used in forming the interim government place the majority Pashtuns at about 40 percent of the population, Tajiks at about one quarter, Hazaras as high as 20 percent and Uzbeks about 5 percent, with smaller groups such as Turkmens, Aimaqs and Nuristanis making up the rest.

According to Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN Security Council's special representative for Afghanistan, the 30 Cabinet posts will be held by 11 Pashtuns, eight Tajiks, five representatives from the Shiite Hazara population, three Uzbeks and three ministers from the smaller ethnic groups.

For now, the distribution of power seems to bode well for Russia. Its closest allies, the Tajiks, have received what experts have called the most crucial posts, with Yunis Qanuni as interior minister, Mohammad Fahim as defense minister and Abdullah Abdullah retaining his Northern Alliance post of foreign minister.

"These ministers dominate the security relationships," Martha Brill Olcott, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said by telephone last week. "It's an uphill battle for other groups to gain control."

Moscow has used Tajikistan as a corridor for funneling military equipment to the Northern Alliance -- primarily to the Tajik faction -- and worked closely with the ministers during negotiations in Bonn.

On Friday, Ivanov met with Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov in Dushanbe to discuss boosting the two nations' cooperation even further, including plans to transform Russia's 201st motorized division, which helps patrol the Tajik border with Afghanistan, into a Russian military base.

While there has been some speculation about possible conflicts of interest among various foreign players involved in Afghanistan, especially Russia and the United States, experts said that, for the time being, the common cause of establishing a stable government seemed to take precedence.

"Right now the Americans and Russians have more in common ... and are both genuinely interested in some sort of balanced government capable of keeping Afghanistan from continuing its civil war," said Rustam Shukurov, a Central Asia expert and associate professor of history at Moscow State University.

The real battle for control, added Shukurov, will inevitably begin six months from now, when the former king is to convene a traditional council, or Loya Jirga, to ratify a transitional government, paving the way for elections within two years.

Meanwhile, the top post in the new government has gone to a long-time ally of the United States, but it is not yet clear how significant his power will be.

According to The Associated Press, interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai, an anti-Taliban Pashtun leader, helped deliver covert U.S. aid to the mujahedin fighting against the Soviets in 1979-89. Since then, the State Department and Congress have invited Karzai to visit the United States, where three of his brothers live, and supplied Karzai with ammunition and food in his battle against the Taliban this fall.

Shukurov said it was too early to forecast which countries might reap the most economic rewards from a stable Afghanistan, which could become an important route for lucrative oil and gas pipelines.

But several experts said the key factor in determining loyalties in the region would be cash.

"The most powerful weapon the international community has is aid money," said Dmitry Trenin, deputy director of the Moscow Carnegie Center.

"Eventually that aid will have to be given to the Afghan chiefs to distribute. It may even have to go toward bribing warlords to turn them into peacelords," he said.

Russia clearly understands the importance of aid. On Sunday, a 25-truck convoy crossed into northern Afghanistan from Tajikistan carrying more than 100 tons of food, medicine and other supplies, news reports said.

Speaking in Dushanbe after talks with Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah, Ivanov said that Russia is focusing all of its energy on humanitarian aid.

"This is what Afghanistan needs most of all right now, not military-technical assistance," he said, according to Interfax.

Ivanov added, however, that "if Afghanistan's Defense Ministry requests arms deliveries or training for Afghanistan's military personnel in Russia, those requests will be met."

It was not clear whether Russia would agree to send its troops to Afghanistan as peace-keepers.

The Defense Ministry's official daily, Krasnaya Zvezda, quoted Ivanov as saying that "servicemen from the Russian army have not taken and will not take any part in military operations on the territory of Afghanistan." However, Ivanov acknowledged the possibility of a United Nations peacekeeping mission there and at least two Russian dailes -- Kommersant and Nezavisimaya Gazeta, both controlled by self-styled Kremlin opponent Boris Berezovsky -- interpreted the statement as proof that Russian troops would be part of such a force.

Krasnaya Zvezda and other media quoted Ivanov as saying that "it will be necessary to closely examine what status this military contingent will have, what it will be doing and where it will be sent."

After the closed-door meeting in Dushanbe, Abdullah told reporters that he and Ivanov had also discussed the new interim government. He said the 30-member Cabinet would do its best to reach compromises acceptable to all the factions and mentioned the protest lodged last week by anti-Taliban warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostum.

Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, had complained that his faction was not fairly represented in the new administration, and observers worried that internal dissent could jeopardize Kabul's interim government. But Reuters reported Sunday that a senior U.S. State Department official said Dostum has agreed to work with the new government.

"Dostum said he is willing to cooperate with the interim administration. We heard yesterday. We talked to people of his faction," the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters traveling with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who arrived Sunday in Moscow.

Staff Writer Natalia Yefimova contributed to this report.