Cracks Emerge in Terror Coalition

APDeposed Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, left, President Vladimir Putin and Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov meeting early Monday morning in Dushanbe.
Less than 24 hours after reiterating Russia's support for U.S.-led anti-terrorism efforts in Central Asia, President Vladimir Putin announced his country's staunch opposition to a U.S.-backed proposal to include Taliban representatives in a future Afghan government.

"We think the Taliban regime has compromised itself by working with international terrorists," Putin said on television Monday.

The remarks followed an unannounced pre-dawn meeting in Dushanbe with Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov and Burhanuddin Rabbani, Afghanistan's ousted president and the political leader of the Northern Alliance opposition movement.

Putin called the wish of Rabbani's "legitimate, internationally recognized" government to exclude the Taliban from a ruling coalition "well-founded."

The president's statement was the clearest sign to date of differences in the way Moscow and Washington see the shape of Afghanistan's future government. The United States has called for a broad-based provisional government to ensure stability in the region, and has even expressed willingness to include moderate members of the Taliban. Now Putin has opposed this stance, but it is unclear whether Moscow will have either the resolve or the power to change Washington's mind.

Putin's meeting in Dushanbe, where he stopped on his way home from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in China, was one of several held there Sunday and early Monday. According to news reports, other participants in the talks included Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu and the head of the Federal Security Service, Nikolai Patrushev. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Northern Alliance delegation included the leader of the alliance's troops, General Mohammed Fahim, and his aide, General Abdul Basir.

Putin's statement marked the second time in the past week that Russian officials have insisted that a Taliban presence in any future Afghan government was unacceptable. On Friday, Russia and India issued a joint statement in Delhi saying: "The obscurantist, malevolent, extremist and violent ideologies on which the Taliban movement is based will pose a substantial danger to the stability of any broad-based, multi-ethnic government."

Iran, which also borders Afghanistan and supports the motley Northern Alliance, shares this view.

The idea of including moderate Taliban representatives in a coalition government was first voiced during U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to Pakistan last week.

Speaking at a press conference in Islamabad, Powell said Washington makes a distinction between the Taliban as a regime and as a popular movement. As a movement, "to the extent that they are willing to participate in the development of a new Afghanistan with everybody being represented ... we would have to listen to them or at least take them into account," he said. "You can't export them. You can't send them to another country. You can't ethnically cleanse Afghanistan after this is over."

Experts believe this stance largely hinges on the United States' fear of riling Pakistan. The volatile, majority Muslim country, which shares a 2,500-kilometer border with Afghanistan, was once the Taliban's main supporter but -- thanks to economic incentives and diplomatic coercion -- has lent crucial support to the U.S.-led military operation. Pakistan has been adamant that any new government in Kabul should include Pashtuns, Afghanistan's majority ethnic group, which makes up the Taliban.

"The United States can't afford to lose Pakistan's support," said Kimberly Marten Zisk, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and associate professor of political science at Barnard College. "If that happens, Pakistan could resume its support for the Taliban."

Even worse, turmoil in Afghanistan among Islamic fundamentalists could result in a government takeover in Pakistan, said Celeste A. Wallander, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for International Security and Strategic Studies in Washington. "It would be very dangerous for security in the long-run if Pakistan, which has successfully tested a nuclear bomb, was being run by Islamic fundamentalists."

While experts acknowledged that Russia and the United States have distinctly different visions of Afghanistan's future, they said this would not be a serious impediment to the countries' anti-terrorism cooperation.

"Both Bush and Putin have more to gain from staying in the coalition than breaking it up over the spoils of a war that has hardly started," said Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of the Russian Academy of Sciences' USA and Canada Institute. "They are just marking their future negotiating position, nothing more than that."

The question of a future government is becoming increasingly important as U.S. planes begin striking Taliban front lines near Kabul, and opposition forces are weighing the possibility of taking the Afghan capital by force.

Both the United States and Britain have been reluctant to help the Northern Alliance seize Kabul until a broad-based government is in place -- possibly centering around the aging exiled king, Mohammed Zahir Shah.

Putin pledged to continue military and political support for the Northern Alliance and Rabbani's government, but it is not clear how far Russia would go in supporting the opposition forces -- whose four-year reign in the early 1990s was marked by internecine fighting that left large parts of Kabul in ruins and killed an estimated 50,000 people, most of them civilians.

Almost two weeks ago, Defense Minister Ivanov said Russia did not want to see the alliance in charge of Afghanistan. "We wouldn't want that," he said at a joint news conference with British counterpart Geoffrey Hoon.

Even if, in a bid to maintain its dominance in the region, Moscow does try to back a narrowly based government, it would simply be politely ignored, said Mark Galeotti, Russia expert with Jane's Intelligence. "Russia, Iran, Tajikistan, they are all important. But, frankly, they are not the main players in the latest U.S. operation," he said in an interview from London. "The one who is absolutely necessary for the American effort is Pakistan. And Pakistan is adamant the new government should be broad."

Galeotti and Kremenyuk agreed that the deciding factor in the fledgling conflict between Moscow and Washington would be the situation on the ground.

"If it's the Northern Alliance that eventually captures Kabul, it will be them and Russia calling the shots," said Kremenyuk. "If it's the Americans that enter the city first, they will be the ones who make the decision."