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Afghanistan: Inconsistencies In The State Of The War On Terrorism

Almost immediately after Uzbek security forces fired on demonstrators in the eastern city of Andijon on 13 May, Russian officials, later supported by their Uzbek colleagues, began blaming elements infiltrating from Afghanistan for instigating the events and claimed that the combat capability of subversive elements in Afghanistan was not diminishing. However, the final declaration from the meeting of the heads of member states of Shanghai Cooperation Organization, held recently in Astana, Kazakhstan, called for the U.S. and its allies to withdrawal their military units from Central Asia. RFE/RL examines the contradiction in the two comments made by Moscow and some of its Central Asian allies.

After the Andijon incident, Russian media immediately began quoting "high-ranking sources," who said that "large number of militants, comprising bandits, Islamists, radicals, and Taliban fighters" infiltrated [Uzbekistan] from Afghanistan and regrouped "at a juncture between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan." These charges were then echoed on several occasions by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Speaking at the NATO defense ministers' meeting in Brussels, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov on 9 June voiced his concern over the "continuing activity of antigovernment groups" in Afghanistan, adding that "combat activities" of the neo-Taliban, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-e Islami, and Al-Qaeda, is "not subsiding."

Ivanov claimed that his government had "information that purposeful training of militants who are supposed to go to other countries continues in Afghanistan." Then, repeating the charges already made by Lavrov, the Ivanov said that a "vivid instance" of such subversive activities originating from Afghanistan "could be seen during recent developments in Uzbekistan." According to Ivanov, Moscow had "reliable" information that the events in Andijon "were instigated from Afghan territory."

Claiming that a number of neo-Taliban have been "preparing an invasion of Uzbekistan for a long time," Ivanov asked his NATO colleagues: "Who, how, and with whose help organized the disturbances" in Uzbekistan?

During a visit by Uzbek President Islam Karimov in late June to Moscow, his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin said that while he will not "dwell on other aspects of the tragic events of 12-13 May [in Andijon]," he can "confirm gunmen did infiltrate from special bases in Afghanistan."

Challenge To The Validity Of Russian Charges

There are several factors that cast doubt on the allegations made by the three top Russian officials about the presence of the neo-Taliban in Uzbekistan. Geographically, for neo-Taliban fighters to cross over directly from Afghanistan into Uzbekistan, they would have to, first, reach the northern regions of Balkh Province -- where the neo-Taliban have not been active since late 2001; second, they would have to cross the carefully guarded, 135-kilometer border formed by the Amu River that separates Afghanistan from Uzbekistan. From there they would have to go though much of Uzbekistan and/or Tajikistan to reach the area mentioned by Russia's leadership.

While not impossible, to complete such a mission, the neo-Taliban fighters would need the skills of some of the world's best special-operations units, which, judging by their activities in Afghanistan, they don't seem to possess.
The Russian Defense Minister claimed that his government had "information that purposeful training of militants who are supposed to go to other countries continues in Afghanistan."

The Afghan government has also rejected Moscow's charges.

In a letter to Putin in late June, Karzai called for "mutual trust" between Afghanistan and the Russian Federation. Karzai assured his Russian counterpart that "the government of Afghanistan will never allow the Afghan soil to be used as a base to carry out terrorist activities" elsewhere.

The Afghan president expressed hope that Moscow will "stop the spread of suspicion and untrue beliefs" and that the two countries deal with each other "on the basis of facts." Despite "bitter experiences that resulted from the invasion of Afghanistan by the former Soviet Union [in 1979]," Karzai wrote to Putin, "for the "historical interests of the peoples" of Afghanistan and Russia "we need to look into the future" and implement "reasonable polices."

Rangin Dadfar Spanta, one of Karzai's foreign-policy advisers, told RFE/RL on 29 June that Kabul reacted "with regret" to Putin's remarks. Spanta attributed the unrest in Uzbekistan to "developments in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan and also the proximity [of Uzbekistan] to democratic countries." According to Spanta, the activities of the neo-Taliban and Al-Qaeda were "mainly against Afghanistan" and had "nothing to do with Central Asia."

Is Afghanistan Free Of Terrorism, Or Not?

While Russia and Uzbekistan are yet to offer substantive proof of their allegation that neo-Taliban elements and other subversive elements trained in Afghanistan were behind the Andijon incident, no official from either country has retracted their claim that essentially Afghanistan is so unstable that on its territory exists terrorist training camps and through its borders, even to the relatively calm north, subversive elements are able to cross with ease into Central Asia.

It was therefore surprising to read that the heads of members states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which includes Russia, China and former Soviet Central Asian republics with the exception of Turkmenistan, at their annual meeting declared that the United States and its coalition partners should establish a deadline for the withdrawal of their military facilities from Central Asia based on "positive dynamics of stabilizing internal political situation in Afghanistan."

"Considering the completion of the active military stage of antiterrorist operations in Afghanistan," the declaration stated, the SCO members states "consider it necessary" that antiterrorist coalition partners involved in the Afghan campaign "set a final timeline" for the use of the bases that are located in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
The Afghan president expressed hope that Moscow will "stop the spread of suspicion and untrue beliefs" and that the two countries deal with each other "on the basis of facts."

While the United States has rejected the demand by SCO and the issue is still being debated in some of the Central Asian capitals, one question that needs clarification, especially from Moscow and Tashkent, is whether terrorism has been indeed defeated in Afghanistan, or not?

The issue of U.S. bases in the region may very well be linked to the overall strategic balance of power in the greater Central Asian region between Washington and Moscow and their respective allies. Likewise, the contradictory statements coming from Russia and Uzbekistan regarding the defeat or resurgence of terrorism in Afghanistan may be linked to threats to the survival of the authoritarian regimes of Central Asia, ranging from democratization to local opposition. Nevertheless, the charges made by Moscow and Tashkent regarding the Andijon incident and their signature on the SCO declaration casts doubt into the credibility of both the earlier claim and their current demand.