Reacting to reports of the death of Afghan opposition commander Ahmad Shah Masood, today's Russian newspaper "Izvestiya" says Moscow will have to become more actively engaged in Central Asia, to stem the spread of the Taliban's fundamentalist philosophy. What will Masood's demise, if confirmed, mean for the armed Afghan opposition and the region at large? RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten speaks to a Western and a Russian expert.
Prague, 11 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Sometime in the next few days, diplomats from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Iran, and possibly India are due to meet to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, following reports that Ahmad Shah Masood -- the man who represents the last bulwark of resistance against Afghanistan's Taliban regime -- has been assassinated.
A precise date and venue has yet to be decided. Iranian television reported this morning that the meeting would take place in Tehran. But an official on the Uzbek Security Council, contacted by RFE/RL, said the diplomats would meet in Dushanbe.
One thing is clear. The region's politicians are worried and concern is mounting that if Masood's death is confirmed, the balance of power in Afghanistan may shift in unpredictable ways, creating broader instability.
What makes Masood's fate so important to so many countries? Masood, dubbed the "Lion of Panjshir," acquired legendary status after resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. He is or was the Northern Opposition's most competent tactician and on a political level, he served as defense minister of the exiled Afghan government -- helping to ensure the continued legitimacy of President Burhanuddin Rabbani in the eyes of the United Nations and most world governments.
In the opinion of Aleksei Malashenko, head of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Oriental Studies, Masood is simply irreplaceable:
"First of all, no one of Masood's stature could ever be found to replace him. Several names have been floated. General Fahim is often mentioned as a possibility. He's quite a popular and influential person, but no one has the heroic past and the influence which Masood has or had within the Northern Alliance and in Tajikistan and who was, I would say, as respected in Russia and Iran."
The Northern Alliance may yet succeed in finding another, less charismatic commander, but this will not guarantee that good relations with neighboring states, especially Tajikistan, can be maintained. Malashenko:
"It's very hard, under these circumstances, to predict how relations will develop between Tajikistan and the Northern Alliance because Masood was, in this respect, the key, respected figure. How Dushanbe will behave towards a new potential leader just cannot be forecast."
Another possibility is that the Northern Alliance -- never a very cohesive group to begin with -- will simply fall apart. Robert Templer, director of the International Crisis Group's Asia program, believes this is almost a foregone conclusion.
"I think the Northern Alliance almost certainly will disintegrate without Masood. If he is gone, then it's unlikely to hold together. It was very much an antagonistic group that was held together by force of his personality and reputation. And certainly as a military force, I would say it's spent without him."
This would open the door for the Taliban to extend its control over virtually all of Afghanistan's territory -- raising the issue of recognition. At present, only three governments recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan's legitimate rulers: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan. If however, military opposition to Kabul's rulers collapses, the world will be faced with a dilemma.
Malashenko says: "The legitimacy of the Taliban regime, despite all of its ugly aspects, is a very relevant issue. One can relate to the Taliban in different ways. One can love them, like Saudi Arabia does, or one can hate them as the rest of the world has done. But either way, today, the fact is that the territorial integrity of Afghanistan depends on the Taliban. From this point of view, not recognizing them would be a mistake. But the other side of the coin is that the Taliban are indeed being supported by Osama bin Laden the terrorist. Secondly, the Taliban -- not even judging them from the aspect of world civilization but just on the basis of simple common sense -- at times simply behave like bandits."
Of course, there is also the possibility that the Taliban will prove victorious on the battlefield but will lose the peace, splitting into rival factions. There are indications, says Templer, that this is already happening:
"The Taliban have been quite successful so far in maintaining some sort of coalition, really by bribing certain commanders and by building up this network of control over a certain level of the country. But it's quite a fluid, quite a fragile system and even within the leadership at the moment, what you're seeing is the increasing influence of jihadist foreigners in Afghanistan, with increasing influence over a smaller and smaller group of leaders. And they're being advised by mostly foreigners from the Middle East, North Africa, and Pakistan. And that's bound to cause some discontent."
Malashenko notes that all revolutions run out of ideological fervor after some time. Growing factionalism, he predicts, will eventually lead to the marginalization of the Taliban's more zealous elements.
"Let's look at the Iranian experience. How long did the idea of the Iranian revolution last? Literally, a few years. I think that the Taliban's Islamic super-radicalism is gradually exhausting itself."
Given these predictions, are the Taliban a threat to Russian interests or is President Vladimir Putin's frequent mention of the "fundamentalist Islamic threat" more of a useful bogeyman for Russian foreign policy? Malashenko thinks the latter.
"The Taliban do not directly threaten Moscow -- not Moscow, not Kazan, not Ufa, not even Chechnya. In this respect, the threat is exaggerated and it is aimed at the outside, I would say. Russia is using this threat to try to demonstrate, at times rather successfully, that it is a barrier to Islamic radicalism," he said.
What about the former Soviet republics -- now independent states -- of Central Asia? To what extent does a possible Taliban consolidation threaten them? Robert Templer says Taliban ideology only threatens the Central Asian states to the extent that they are unable to answer their people's basic needs. Very few people would choose to live under the strictures of Taliban rule in Central Asia. In essence, Templer advises, address the poverty and corruption issue and you will have solved the Taliban question.
"You have 95 percent of school-leavers in the Ferghana Valley who can't find jobs. You've seen, in some places, a catastrophic collapse in the level of economic activity and people have to a point where they really don't have many options. And they've got governments that are completely unresponsive to their political and economic aspirations, particularly in Uzbekistan. In this case, you're finding that people are increasingly desperate, they're increasingly drawn towards extremist groups. In Uzbekistan in particular, where moderate Muslims often face arrests purely for having a beard or wearing the wrong clothes, going to a mosque, going to the wrong mosque -- whatever. In those sorts of situations, it's much easier for people to be driven into the arms of extremists. And of course, those extremists are ready and waiting for them and Afghanistan is providing them with a base."
Templer says Russia's attempts to involve itself strategically and militarily in the region are likely to backfire:
"Their response is almost entirely counterproductive to their aim. What Russia wants to see, in general, is a stable Central Asia. By pushing this line that Islamic extremism threatens them, they're actually leading them to policies -- mostly security policies -- that will increasingly destabilize Central Asia. They're making the situation worse, if anything."
In Malashenko's view, there is not much to worry on this score. He says Russia's efforts at forging military and strategic links in the region have created little more than a talking shop so far.
"All these anti-terrorist centers which are being created exist only in words, or at best at the level of interadministrative contacts. Where are the troops? They don't exist and can't exist."
The Afghan scenario, it is clear, could develop in any number of ways. So many variables remain -- chief among them the ultimate fate of Ahmad Shah Masood -- that any reading of tea leaves may prove ineffective at this stage. But the analysts and politicians are already hard at work.