Russia, U.S. Look For Place In Kabul

What speaks louder in Afghanistan -- weapons or money?

The answer could be key in deciding whether Russia, which has been arming the opposition for years, or the United States with hundreds of millions of dollars on offer will have a stronger sway over the allegiances of the new Afghan government.

Should the new government that takes shape be pro-Western, Russia, in a worse-case scenario, could find its cashcow oil and gas industries shaken, some analysts said. Western companies could win approval to build pipelines across Afghanistan that would end Russia's near-monopolistic grip on lucrative Caspian energy shipments.

For now, however, unity is the theme being invoked by Russian and U.S. officials working to bring democracy to Afghanistan. Putting years of discord about Afghan politics behind them, Moscow and Washington in recent weeks have found common ground on a new Afghan administration, agreeing that it should be a coalition representing all of the country's ethnic segments, including the majority Pashtun group. Members of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban would be excluded.

Russia wants "a coalition of all nationalities and peoples living on Afghan territory without any discrimination -- with one exception, discrimination against the Taliban," Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Monday, reiterating earlier Russian remarks.

The United States and Russia sent special envoys to Kabul this week to work with the Northern Alliance, which now controls at much of the country, on setting up a post-Taliban government. United Nations officials are also participating in the talks.

Their meetings have resulted in an agreement from the Northern Alliance to meet for an all-Afghan conference in Berlin next week to build a provisional council that would pave the way for a formal government.

"It will be a broad-based government looking after the interests of all ethnic groups," Russia's envoy to Kabul, Alexander Oblov, said after talks with Northern Alliance leaders Tuesday.

Although Russia and the United States say they will not try to create the government, they both would certainly like to influence it.

Russia has for decades had a vested interest in the country in its backyard. The Kremlin long sought to keep pro-Moscow Afghan leaders in power in order to maintain peace in Afghanistan. The lack of such a leader led to the disastrous Afghan War after which Soviet soldiers withdrew in defeat. The last pro-Moscow leader, President Najibullah, was executed by the Taliban when they seized Kabul in 1996.

In recent years Moscow has been providing the Northern Alliance with guns, tanks and other weapons for its fight against the Taliban. The arms shipments are continuing to this day, and the Kremlin has signaled that it has no plans to stop.

The U.S. government, in contrast, has done relatively little in Afghanistan since the Soviet forces withdrew in defeat.

That all changed with the terror attacks of Sept. 11, when the White House pinned the blame on Osama bin Laden and leaders of his al-Qaida network, believed to be hiding in Afghanistan.

Two months of U.S-led air strikes against the Taliban have done what the Northern Alliance couldn't do with Russian weapons alone -- provided the extra muscle needed to retake much of Afghanistan.

Arms and ammunition have had their place, but what the country really needs now is money for reconstruction, analysts said.

"The only way to underpin discussions of democracy is to pour billions and billions of dollars into Afghanistan," said Thomas Withington, a research associate at the Center for Defense Studies at King's College in London. "In order to drag it back into civilization, you have to essentially build the country from scratch."

The United States is more than ready to lend a helping hand. U.S. President George W. Bush last month committed $320 million in assistance to Afghanistan. On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department held a conference of representatives from 21 nations and the European Union to discuss further assistance. It was the first step in what is expected to be a long-haul effort to rebuild the country.

"We will demonstrate to the world that not only we care, but we know how to change conditions quickly in a way that makes a difference," U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill said.

Russia, with financial concerns of its own, is unlikely to offer to chip in.

"I can't imagine how Russia can participate in an economic reconstruction," said Alexei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center.

"The Northern Alliance leaders can take assistance from anyone now. But they will prefer not to deal with Russia and to organize their coalition based on the interests of the West, especially the United States," Malashenko said.

U.S. and Russian officials currently seem to see eye-to-eye on resolving the conflict, but what would happen once an Afghan government is set up is anybody's guess.

As Alex Vatanka, editor of Jane's Sentinel Russia CIS, sees it, the sticking point may well be Caspian energy.

"U.S. and Russian interests could diverge over Caspian oil," Vatanka said by telephone from London. "Russia has been persisting in having oil imported westward from the Caucasus. A stable government in Afghanistan would mean that the U.S. could get away with having its oil companies operating from there and Pakistan. What will happen to the interests of Russian oil?"

Malashenko said any U.S.-led economic recovery plan in Afghanistan would likely include an American-financed pipeline.

"A gas pipeline is a key point. Its construction would create a huge infrastructure," Malashenko said.

"Russia has wanted all the gas and oil pipelines to go through Russia," he added. "Now a new line could be opened in another direction, which would be a big step in the redistribution of energy in the region."

Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation in Washington offered a similar prediction, pointing out that U.S. company Unocal just four years ago courted Kabul over such a project. Unocal in 1997 put together a consortium to build a $2 billion pipeline through the country.

"As long as the Taliban was in power, U.S. plans to build a pipeline were a pipe dream," Cohen said. "However, with stability returning to Afghanistan, Unocal or other energy companies could revive the project."

Such a pipeline could be build from Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to the Indian or Pakistani markets, he said.

However, energy experts in Moscow said such predictions were off the mark.

"I'd be surprised if after 20 years of war the U.S. would want to build a pipeline in Afghanistan," said Stephen O'Sullivan, head of research for United Financial Group.

Also, Washington is unlikely to want to disrupt its increasingly close relationship with Moscow, O'Sullivan said.

Even if such a pipeline were built, it would be years before it was completed. Analysts agreed the odds are not good that peace would last long enough in a country like Afghanistan to allow large undertakings like pipelines. Ethnic and religious divisions have destroyed previous attempts to create broad-based governments in Kabul.

"The track record is poor when it comes to implementing a peace plan for Afghanistan," Vatanka said. "We'll have to wait and see what happens after the conference in Berlin."