Taliban’s return to power: what concerns Russia the most
by Ramtanu Maitra on 12 Mar 2010 2 Comments

It is a certainty that one of the key subjects of discussion between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin [who visits India in March 11-12], will be the changing situation in Afghanistan. There is little doubt that in the capitals of both nations, the return of the Taliban to share power with a weakened President Karzai has set off alarm bells.


Meanwhile, the Indian media reports that discussions have begun at a high level in New Delhi to open talks with Pakistan’s ISI and the Afghan Taliban in light of increasing evidence that US-NATO troops are losing ground rapidly, and the only option the Obama administration is now looking at is bringing in the Taliban to share power in Kabul. India’s National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon has already visited Kabul, ostensibly to investigate the latest attack on Indian citizens there, and it can be fairly assumed that his view of the unravelling Afghan situation is no different.


It is likely that the re-think on New Delhi’s part is based on a number of factors. There is a realization that with the deterioration of the Afghan security situation, and further weakening of President Karzai by the US and NATO, the control of Afghanistan is steadily slipping into the hands of the Pakistani Army and ISI, and the battling Taliban. Having invested about $1.7 billion in various infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, India is now fearful that if bridges are not built with the ISI and the Afghan Taliban quickly, it may become irrelevant in the future Afghanistan. At the same time, India is also considering paring down its involvement in reconstruction projects in Afghanistan. Projects under way may be wrapped up quickly and there may even be a freeze on undertaking new projects. Islamabad has made clear that it views a strong Indian presence in Afghanistan poses a security threat to Pakistan.


Media reports indicate that the advice to engage with sections of the Taliban and start a limited dialogue with the ISI came from the Prime Minister’s Office. Though controversial, the advice is stems from India’s need to ensure Afghanistan is not handed over on a platter to Pakistan. In line with that thinking, India is also considering helping prop up a friendly political alliance in Afghanistan and intensively engaging with Russia and Iran.


As yet, no such re-think has been reported by the Russian media. While India’s concern over the Taliban coming back to power centers on how to protect the ‘good work’ New Delhi has done during the US and NATO occupation of Afghanistan, as well as India’s strategic interest in that country, Russia’s worries are different. Moscow, and the nations that Moscow considers should be in its sphere of influence in Central Asia, are already under attack from the forces operating inside Afghanistan. Moscow fears that the US and NATO decision to endorse an Afghan Taliban of takeover of Kabul would further embolden the anti-Russia forces in and around Afghanistan. It is expected that Russia will plan some contingency measures to strengthen its security in light of that threat.


Use of opium to weaken Russia’s southern flank


It is now well established that bordering north of Afghanistan, Central Asian states have been devastated by drug-money-financed terrorist movements, acting in the garb of orthodox Wahabi Islamic tenets. Located south and west of Afghanistan, Iran has been inundated by opium and heroin, which are destroying a generation of Iranians. This region has been systematically handed over to terrorists since the United States and its NATO allies launched their “War on Terror,” ostensibly to eliminate violence and terrorism in Afghanistan.


In 2001, when US invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban, which harboured the infamous enemy of the United States: al- Qaeda, Afghanistan produced less than 100 tons of opium. In 2007, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Afghanistan’s opium production was 8,240 tons - twice as much as Taliban ever produced during its five-year reign, and at least eight times the quantity Afghanistan ever produced before the Soviet Army invaded in 1979. In 2008, production dropped, through a “successful campaign,” to 7,700 tons. In 2009, according to the US State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) released in March 2010, citing UNODC, opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan decreased from 160,000 hectares to 120,000 hectares. However, because of improved weather conditions and enhanced productivity, yields increased. UNODC estimates that production of opium gum will be 6,900 tons in 2009.


Reduction in cultivation has been attributed to a combination of factors, including decreased opium prices relative to abnormally high wheat prices, and improved governance and security in key provinces. This amount of opium, converted into heroin, would still generate about $4 billion for Afghans who control the business, while the street value in Europe of that heroin could be anywhere between $130-$140 billion.


What is important to note is that the data presented by the UN Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) shows that the opium poppy fields were larger in 2009 than in 2006, when UK troops were deployed into Helmand. Although the country’s opium poppy areas decreased by 22 percent, production of raw opium fell by only 10 percent, at most. British experts have established that Afghan farmers have learned to produce more opium juice per poppy than a year ago: 56 kilograms of opium per hectare (2.47 acres), and 15% more.


According to British sources, the overwhelming majority of captured Taliban admit that they receive the bulk of their funds for food, fuel and weapons, from the drug business. The price of raw opium has fallen to $48 per kilo, as supply has dramatically increased, yet another proof of the failure of US and British anti-drug policies.


Back in September 2005, in testimony prepared for the US House Committee on Armed Services Threat Panel hearing on threats in Eurasia, an US Central Asia security expert Martha Brill Olcott said: “…One of the as yet unwritten stories associated with the ouster of President Askar Akayev (Kyrgyz President) last March was the role drug money played in mobilizing support both for and against the now-deposed president. As with so many interesting stories in Central Asia, what everyone knows and what everyone says are usually two different things.”


Ms. Olcott also said: “The role that drug money plays in making and breaking governments in this region is certain to increase, as long as the drug trade from Afghanistan continues almost uncurbed. And, drug money is already so important for most of the countries of the region, that should narcotics production be sharply curtailed in Afghanistan, it might reappear in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan - all weak states, with the right climate-soil conditions for cultivation (as do parts of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan)...


The Jihadi Terrorist threat


In recent years, the north Caucasus region of Russia has been ravaged by Wahabi-indoctrinated jihadis. These jihadis are now stronger than ever in Chechnya and two flanking provinces, Daghestan and Ingushetia. In an interview with “Moskovsky Komsomolets,” Boris Karnaukhov, deputy head of the Russian government’s criminal investigation arm for North Caucasus, points to the very different trends observed over the past year in Chechnya and Daghestan. In the former, the number of crimes against government officials has fallen, but in the latter, there has been “a sharp increase.”


Jihadis in the Russian provinces and in the five “stan” countries (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan) are intertwined, but their mode of operation is different. In the Russian provinces such as Chechnya, Daghestan and Ingushetia, these jihadis combine their separatist flag with their caliphate demands. In the “stan” countries, the objective of the jihadis is to remove the moderate-Muslims and take control. In addition to these “stan” countries, the jihadis have also become prominent in Azerbaijan and Abkhazia, among other areas.


The intertwining between jihadis operating in Russia and Central Asia has formed by means of the opium/heroin money to finance the insurgency operations and the jihadis’ demand for an Islamic caliphate to secure support of the Muslim world. The demand for a Caliphate is a convenient tool to give terrorism a religious “colour”, telling the Islamic world that they are fighting a “religious” war against the infidels.


At the core of this jihadi operation rests the London-headquartered Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT) - a Wahabi Sunni-dominated Pan-Islamic movement. This supra-national outfit wants to unseat governments of all sovereign Islamic nation-states to establish a Caliphate that will govern the Islamic countries by laws set in place by the ummah. Although HuT is recognized as a terrorist organization, and hence banned in many countries, it is fully functional in, and protected by, Britain. Besides the opium/heroin money, the HuT is financed by Saudi and Kuwaitis. On ground, HuT is peaceful and opposes violence. According to published reports by experts, HuT is predominantly active in Central Asia and parts of Europe - notably Britain. It claims to be active in over 40countries with 5,000 to 10,000 core members. The HuT has been known to have strongholds in the mixed-border region of Ferghana Valley in Central Asia, especially in Uzbekistan where a bulk of their activity is carried out.


While official HuT members carry the Holy Quran, put on the white robe and preach the peaceful establishment of the Caliphate, the group interacts closely with many terrorist jihadi groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), among others. The IMU provides the main impetus keeping the insurgency going in Russia and Central Asia. However, there was evidence of some LeT activity in this area. The interplay between HuT and IMU is interesting: while HuT carries Holy Quran, IMU carries assault rifles. Central Asia intelligence officials point out that they have noticed that most, if not all, members of the IMU were “former” peace-loving, Caliphate-seeking HuT.


Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) has long accused Hizb ut-Tahrir of links with separatist fighters and alleged Arab mercenaries combating Russian troops in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. The FSB claims the group has been officially joined by members of the IMU. Observers noted that the IMU is, in turn, linked to the Afghan Taliban religious militia. Routed and pushed out of Afghanistan during the early US-led military campaign in Afghanistan, they have found a home in the tribal area of Pakistan. At least until recently, the IMU was protected by Pakistani intelligence. Under American pressure, Pakistani military has pushed them northward into the “stan” countries.


Moscow has reason to worry that when the Afghan Taliban re-acquires power in Kabul, these terrorist groups will have their shelter in Afghanistan. It is where they will recruit, arm and train the terrorists, probably with the help of professional soldiers from the Pakistani military. A safe house as large as the nation of Afghanistan will provide the IMU, HuT and other terrorist groups an ever-expanding base from which to launch deadly attacks into Central Asia and the North Caucasus region.


A victim of the Afghan opium/heroin influx that has created almost 2.5 million addicts, Russia has raised the security threat posed by Afghan opium in the region over the years in international fora. Following the attack on Mumbai in Nov 2008, in an interview with the Russian daily Rossiskaya Gazeta, Russia’s federal anti-narcotics service director Viktor Ivanov said: “The gathered inputs testify that regional drug baron Dawood Ibrahim had provided his logistics network for preparing and carrying out the Mumbai terror attacks.” Ivanov said the Mumbai attacks were a “burning example” of how the illegal drug-trafficking network was used for carrying out terrorism.


In February, Ivanov told the press: “Whereas drug production in Afghanistan has increased 40 times during the last 10 years in the presence of international troops, the previous year saw only a dramatic decline in the volume of confiscated drugs…the number of arrests of drug dealers has likewise dwindled 13 times, and the number of drug laboratories increased 10 times in the last three years.” Ivanov added that the policy may have serious ramifications for the West’s peace efforts in Afghanistan, and expressed deep concern over the alarming rise in the flow of drugs from Afghanistan into Daghestan in Russia’s volatile North Caucasus region, leading to an increase in crime and terrorist activity.


He noted that over the past years, the United Nations had shirked its responsibilities in implementing an anti-drug program in Afghanistan, leaving it to NATO, which in turn had passed the issue on to local authorities. “The main emphasis should therefore be laid on improving mechanisms of international cooperation, because without cooperation it will be virtually impossible to effectively tackle... the drug situation within the country,” Ivanov said.


On March 3, Ivanov told RIA-Novosti that the international forces in Afghanistan have failed to tackle drug trafficking during their 9-year military presence. Afghan opium production increased dramatically after the US-led invasion that toppled the Taliban in 2001, and Russia has been one of the most affected countries, with heroin consumption rising steeply. Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s envoy to NATO, described “heroin aggression” as “the main threat to Russia,” and last month Moscow urged NATO to prioritize the fight against drug trafficking in Afghanistan.


The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review News Services Inc.

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