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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Powder Keg in Central Asia

This week, President Vladimir Putin's aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky accused the ultra-conservative Islamic Taliban rulers of Afghanistan of supporting Chechen separatists and of providing military training to rebels. Yastrzhembsky also said, "I would not exclude the possibility of preventive strikes if there is a real threat to Russia's national interests." Afterward, Yastrzhembsky confirmed that his belligerent statement reflected the official views of the Kremlin.

During a visit last week to Central Asia, Putin agreed to help defend Uzbek President Islam Karimov against Moslem extremists. It would appear that Yastrzhembsky's warning to the Taliban was intended to reassure Karimov and other former Soviet rulers in Central Asia. But in reality, the Central Asian presidents do not seem happy. At least, none of them has expressed his gratitude to Yastrzhembsky.

The Central Asian presidents are authoritarian, in varying degrees. Under their rule, the population of Central Asia, not overly rich in Soviet times, has become more impoverished. The region is a potentially fertile playground for radical Islamic agitation. The post-Soviet Central Asian chieftains are afraid the Taliban could spark an Islamic revolution. But because the Central Asian presidents are so afraid, they try not to provoke the dreaded Taliban publicly.

Karimov, like many other Central Asian presidents, has done his best for years to suppress any form of opposition, especially Islamic opposition. Uzbek and Tajik authorities have also been helping anti-Taliban forces for years in Afghanistan, but have done so covertly.

The Russian authorities themselves for years have been the main supporters of the Taliban's arch-rival, Ahmad Shah Masood. The military secretly supplies Masood with arms and ammunition, using the territories of Tajikistan and other Central Asian states for the covert operation with the tacit support of local authorities. Actually, Iran, which does not like the Taliban and believes its brand of Islam is too conservative, has also been using the territory of some Central Asian states to supply Masood and other anti-Taliban forces, coordinating these operations with Russian agents.

The Central Asian presidents may be authoritarian, but they are secularly so. The governments in Moscow and the West see these secular regimes as an important firewall that may stop the spread of radical Islam. The West, if not actually supporting anti-Taliban, Russian-Iranian covert operations, has at the same time done its best to turn a blind eye.

While Masood and his Tajik tribal warriors are still challenging the Taliban from inside, no serious infiltration into Central Asia is possible. It seems that Masood may fight on for years to come. The Taliban is a religious movement of Pushtuns, the majority tribe in Afghanistan. The Taliban have occupied over 90 percent of Afghan territory, but if they do not eat their pride and make some power-sharing deal with the mountain Tajiks, resistance will continue.

A continuation of covert anti-Taliban operations would seem to be a reasonable policy for Russia to pursue. But open "preventive" strikes could be suicidal. The United States attacked alleged terrorist bases in Afghanistan in 1998 with long-range cruise missiles from the sea. The Taliban could not retaliate.

Russia does not have long-range conventional missiles. A "preventive" strike could only be launched from Tajik or Uzbek territory, and the Taliban would have a pretext for striking back against Russian forces and Russian allies in the region. Russian attacks would recall the bitter memories of the invasion of the 1980s, which could unite Afghans behind the Taliban. Yastrzhembsky's saber rattling, though far less than an actual attack, is in itself extremely unwise.

It seems that the main target of Russian anti-Taliban threats is U.S. President Bill Clinton, not the Taliban. By threatening alleged terrorist bases in a foreign country with attack, the new Kremlin administration is in retrospect condoning previous U.S. raids on such targets. Clinton is coming to Moscow next month, and Putin will no doubt tell him that the West should actively support Russia in its war against "terrorists" in Chechnya. Last month in London, Putin scolded Western leaders for not supporting the Chechen campaign "because they are afraid of a reaction among the Moslem inhabitants of Europe. ... Western Europe could pay heavily for this."

Putin actually seems to believe that he is defending Western civilization. Will he some day bomb the Afghans to prove to the West how good he is?

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