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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Islamic Peril Not Real

In August, 1988, endless military convoys were moving across the bridge over the Amu-Darya River on the Afghan border. The battle-weary Soviet army was going home and the sight of the "Friendship Bridge" meant to the soldiers that the war was over, that in a matter of minutes they would receive a warm welcome in the Soviet border town of Termez.

Ten years later, in mid-August, 1998, Termez received a very distinguished visitor -- Uzbek President Islam Karimov. The occasion was far from festive, for Karimov was inspecting the defense lines on the Uzbek bank of the Amu-Darya and even stepped onto the Friendship Bridge. There was a definite risk in it, because the president came well into range of Taliban artillery positioned on the other bank. But no shots were fired and Karimov returned to Tashkent, seemingly satisfied with what he saw at Termez.

For the time being, all is quiet along the Amu-Darya and Pyanj rivers, the point dividing the Afghan Taliban from their northern neighbors. But the silence is deceptive and Central Asian leaders have very grave reasons for worry.

One cannot be sure whether the fears of direct military intrusion from across the border are genuine or artificial. Nothing in the Taliban's practical behavior points to the possibility of aggression against its neighbors. The situation in Afghanistan itself is not entirely favorable for the Taliban. The northern parts of the country, inhabited by Uzbeks and Tajiks, are not yet pacified and the Taliban's ability to put them even under nominal control is questionable. So, the warriors of Islam will have their hands full with internal troubles in the northern region, and the common sense of the leaders and their foreign sponsors will rule out any attempt to come into an open military conflict with the neighboring states.

All this does not mean, of course, that defensive measures taken by Uzbekistan and its CIS allies are unnecessary. On the contrary, every responsible statesman (and Karimov, undoubtedly, is a very responsible and shrewd politician) should take precautions against any eventuality.The military threat is deliberately exaggerated. Though one may safely presume that Uzbek diplomats are trying to persuade Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to restrain their Taliban proteges, Karimov's cardinal objective is to involve Russia in the situation.

The real menace to the present order in Uzbekistan comes not from the Taliban but from an entirely different direction, namely from the internal opposition. The failure of the Uzbek forces in Afghanistan that relied heavily on Tashkent's support and the successful advance of the Islamist warriors inspires opposition to Karimov.

The problems of Tajik leader Emomoli Rakhmonov will be of a different kind. Ahmed Shah Masood -- the hero of Afghan Tajik resistance to the Karmal and Najibullah regimes, to the Soviet army and now to the Taliban -- came out with the idea of a Greater Tajikistan, which should include 10 of Afghanistan's northern provinces, two Uzbek districts and the entire territory of Tajikistan.

An internecine struggle between Uzbeks and Tajiks, and this is exactly what Masood's idea portends, will sweep away the present regimes with unpredictable consequences for all of Central Asia. So, Rakhmonov also turns to Russia for support. Unlike Tashkent, Dushanbe can hardly count on U.S. or Pakistan sympathy. It depends on Moscow too heavily.

In general, it seems that the Taliban will influence further developments in the areas north of the Amu-Darya mainly in an indirect or clandestine manner.

The Taliban's success in Afghanistan proper will cause a colossal problem for its very creator, Pakistan. The Taliban will inevitably turn to their Pashtun brethren in Pakistan. The coals of Pashtun nationalism in northern Pakistan have been glowing for decades and it could turn into a large-scale fire. And, again, any success of force under the green banner of Islam will inflame extremist elements in Pakistan.

There are indications that the pragmatic Pakistani military is aware of the danger and prepared to meet it. But man proposes and God disposes. The Taliban will sooner or later shake off Pakistani control.

Where does Russia come into the picture when it has no common frontier with Afghanistan? Moreover, it has no common frontier with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan or Turkmenistan.

Russia has certain obligations under CIS agreements and has its military contingent and border guards in Tajikistan.

The greatest mistake Russia can make is to allow itself to be involved in Central Asian conflicts, to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for the sake of Karimov, Rakhmonov, and Burhanuddin Rabbani, the nominal head of the Afghan government. Rabbani is no greater friend and well wisher of Russia than any Taliban leader.

Why not let them fight their own hot and cold wars and take the posture of an interested observer? Islamic menace for Russia?

Russians and their Moslem compatriots -- Tatars and Bashkirs -- have lived peacefully together for centuries. There is an evil intent in propaganda efforts to intimidate us with the Islamic threat, to present the Taliban as inhuman monsters and enemies of Russia. They are no worse and no better than any other political group in Afghanistan. Moscow would be well advised to start a peaceful dialogue with them.

Leonid Shebarshin worked for the KGB's First Main Directorate (Foreign Intelligence). He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.