In late January, the central command of the US armed forces announced the deaths of seven US servicemen in Afghanistan in an explosion at an ammunition depot in Ghazni, 100 km southwest of Kabul. In addition to the dead, three soldiers were wounded and another was reported missing. The cause of the explosion has not been made public, but it is clear, though, that Taleban members were involved in the incident.
On the two days prior to this tragic event at the Ghazni depot, two similar attacks took place: a Taleban suicide bomber killed a Canadian serviceman and wounded three others in Kabul, while the next day a Palestinian blew himself up, though an Algerian passport was found later among his remains. A British soldier was fatally wounded, and his five colleagues were only saved thanks to British surgeons working in a field hospital.
These are just a few of the latest reports from Afghanistan that have broken the silence over the real situation for the US and Nato armies in this country. In stark contrast to the events in Iraq, the media hardly devotes any coverage to developments in Kabul and its surroundings. This is perhaps due to the fact that no palpable progress has been made in establishing peace and stability either in the capital or in the provinces. Another possible reason is that the international community is focusing on other, more significant events, such as the guerrilla war in Iraq, where between 20 and 25 people, including US servicemen, die every day. The US has received over 500 coffins from Iraq in comparison to 100 from Kabul. The presidential campaign in the United States and many other events have diverted the public's attention as well.
The main question in Afghanistan just as in Iraq is the meaning and price of US and Nato losses. Financial expenditures are another controversial issue: the Pentagon spends about $1 billion every month maintaining its forces in Afghanistan. As many as 8,500 GIs and 5,000 peacekeepers under NATO command are stationed there. However, the situation has still not stabilised. Although al-Qaeda and Taleban members do not hold any leading posts in the country, they still play a huge role in the country's life, especially in the provinces.
Indeed, democracy remains a distant prospect. A constitution has not been agreed, as the debates in the national Jirga hit a deadlock due to constant disputes and ethnic controversies. Provincial feudalists and leaders of tribal armies are not going to disarm and obey the central government. Moreover, the flows of drugs out of the country has not abated and new terrorist groups are being trained.
The task of eliminating the social roots of the terrorist threat, i.e. crushing poverty, illiteracy and the local population's lack of rights, is an unfeasible task for military contingents. A long-term comprehensive international action plan is required for dealing with Afghanistan as one of the most problematic countries in the world. To this end, it would be sensible to return to the starting point of international Afghanistan-related efforts.
Moscow backed the US and NATO campaign against the Taleban and al-Qaeda not only because it was authorised by the UN and its Security Council. Moscow expected the military operations and other measures to stop the spread of the Taleban ideology to Central Asia and consequently to the heart of Russia. Therefore, Moscow shared intelligence information with its partners, supported Washington and Brussels' request to allow their bases to be temporarily stationed in Central Asia, and provided the Nato military with an air corridor over its territory. Moreover, it lent its hardware and weapons and ammunition to the Northern Alliance, which, along with the Americans, took an active part in the toppling the Taleban regime. How does Russia assess the result of these efforts?
It does not like most of the developments on the southern boundaries of the former Soviet Union. The main point is that the anti-Taleban forces have taken no active measures to prevent drug trafficking, and therefore the flow of heroin from Afghanistan across CIS borders is continuing unabated. Every year, about ten tonnes of heroin are confiscated in Tajikistan alone, while the rest of it goes to Russia and other CIS countries and to Europe. Drug trafficking remains the most important source of financing for terrorists, including in Chechnya.
The Kremlin has not welcomed the United States' aspirations to establish itself in Central Asia for good. There is no end in sight for the coalition forces' anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan, which allegedly required temporary military bases in Hanabad and Manas. Nor has a timeframe for pulling out US and Nato forces from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan been set. According to military experts, this pushed Moscow to set up a Russian military base at Kant aerodrome near Bishkek. Along with the 201st motorised infantry division in Tajikistan, which has not received the status of a military base yet, it is designed to counterbalance the US and Nato forces in these republics and on the outskirts of Kabul.
Proceeding above all from the same considerations, Moscow and Dushanbe made proposals to India's military leaders to modernise the air base in Aini, Tajikistan, and to station Indian aircraft there.
However, the high death toll in Afghanistan and the complications in Iraq might prompt the United States to pull out from Kabul, moving its forces closer to Baghdad and leaving its Nato allies to complete the operation to search for and eliminate bin Laden, Mullah Omar and other al-Qaeda and Taleban terrorists.
For many experts, including the former chairman of the third State Duma defence committee, General Andrei Nikolayev, the crux of the matter is obvious. They claim that the US military presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia, its ambition to deploy bases in Azerbaijan and preserve its presence in Georgia by forcing out Russian troops, is all part of the ultimate goal to prepare a stronghold for comprehensive pressure, including the military factor, on Tehran. The issue does not even concern fighting against terrorism or creating favourable conditions for Caspian oil and gas transportation.
Besides the desire to gain easy access to the richest oil deposits, the war in Iraq and Saddam's overthrow were motivated by the same long-term target. To all appearances, George Bush and his successors will be unable to solve their problems in Baghdad, Kabul and the Middle East in general without replacing the incumbent anti-American authorities in Iran.
However, Moscow and many other capitals are determined to provide no support for these ambitions. And this "muted" standoff is the reason for the present uncertainty in Afghanistan.