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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Afghan Conflict Revisited

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In February 1989, the last Soviet troops left Afghanistan Ч withdrawing from the troubled land where the Soviet empire fought and lost its final war. Now Russia is back again supporting its former foe, mujahedin commander Ahmad Shah Masood, who is fighting the radical Sunni-Moslem Taliban movement that controls more than 90 percent of the country.

For years now, all foreign powers have officially denied that they are supplying the warring Afghan factions. But last week Moscow officially raised its stake in the conflict when it announced a meeting between Masood and Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

Of course, Russian officials have secretly met with Masood many times before. Russia has also been the main coordinator of the multinational effort to boost the anti-Taliban forces for years. After the Taliban captured the Afghan provinces bordering Iran in 1997 and sealed a noninterference agreement with Turkmenistan, Iranian weapons supplies to Masood and other anti-Taliban forces have been channeled by the Russian secret services through Central Asia.

SergeyevТs meeting with Masood is a clear signal that Russian involvement in Afghanistan is no longer a covert operation. This diplomatic demonstration was also backed with barely disguised military support. State-owned ORT television this week showed footage from Afghan territory controlled by Masood in which anti-Taliban forces can be seen using newly painted Ч Russian military style Ч Grad multiple-rocket launchers to lob missiles at Taliban troops.

The same ORT report also showed MasoodТs troops being supported by Russian-made military helicopters. Of course, all warring factions in Afghanistan have for years been been using old Soviet military equipment that was left behind when the Red Army withdrew. But most of MasoodТs present arsenal as shown by ORT did not seem to be of that vintage. On the contrary, it appeared to have been supplied just days ago directly from Russian army stocks.

It has already been reported that Russian military instructors are deployed in Afghanistan and are training MasoodТs fighters to use their Russian-supplied heavy weapons. Most likely the rebel-controlled helicopters that ORT filmed this week are actually being flown by Russian pilots. ItТs also reasonable to suppose that these helicopters operate out of Russian air bases in Tajikistan, since the small mountainous region Masood controls does not provide adequate facilities to maintain combat-ready helicopters.

By flaunting the level of Russian involvement in Afghanistan, the Kremlin is openly challenging the Taliban: Stop trying to wipe out Masood or Russian involvement may be escalated further. ItТs possible that Russia will not confine its support of anti-Taliban forces to mere logistics, but that Russian warplanes could begin a full-scale bombing campaign in support of Masood.

ItТs also important to note that Russia officially stepped up its support for Masood just a few days after talks on Afghanistan in Moscow with visiting U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering. It would seem that the Kremlin first got an OK from Washington before officially disclosing the depth of its involvement in the Afghan conflict. It is also possible that the United States itself will take military action against the Taliban in the near future in reprisal for the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.

With the United States, Russia, the Central Asian republics and Iran all as active enemies, the Taliban would appear to be in deep trouble. But this grand anti-Taliban alliance is shaky: All the partners are highly suspicious of one another; the Central Asian regimes are corrupt and inefficient; several of MasoodТs field commanders have also recently changed sides after apparently accepting bribes from the Taliban; and the minority Tajiks supporting Masood will never win a civil war against the Taliban, which is backed by the majority Pushtu tribes.

President Vladimir Putin has been actively promoting himself as the leader of a crusade against Moslem radicals in Chechnya and Central Asia, and he has been soliciting Western support. At least with regard to the Taliban, it would appear that Washington has unofficially authorized PutinТs crusade. But if the Taliban refuse to back down and Russia is dragged into open hostilities, Putin may find himself fighting a determined foe with no true allies supporting him. The resulting disaster may be comparable to the Soviet debacle of a decade ago.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent, Moscow-based defense analyst.