Green Room

Taliban Roll-Up: The Other Connections

posted at 5:42 pm on February 19, 2010 by

The Taliban roll-ups continue in Pakistan, and as AllahPundit and others observe, the scope of this thing begins to look bigger than the interests of tribal mullahs in Pakistan, or even of the Zardari government in Islamabad.  Although I think the Pakistanis are, indeed, acting to curtail independent negotiating activity by the Afghan Taliban with Karzai and NATO, they’re not the only ones who have that interest.  They share it with another significant party.

The timing and acceleration of this roll-up may be related to that dynamic, which we’ll get to in a minute.  But its coincidence with an emerging push in other areas, to get internecine business done in the world of Islamist extremism, makes me wonder if there is something else in play.  A lot of things are happening at the same time:  the resurgence of the Iran-backed Madhi Army in Iraq, and Iranian interference with Iraqi candidate vetting; the murder of Hamas bigwig al-Mabhouh in Dubai, with the cartoonishly obvious “Mossad” sign hung on it by the perpetrators (have any hit men ever left such a trail of pointed clues?) ; the Russian crackdown on Islamist insurgents in Chechnya, which last week saw the demise of the founder of Al Qaeda in the Caucasus.  Now the Pakistanis, necessarily with the approval of the Taliban’s patrons inside the official government structure, are culling the ranks of Taliban leadership.

Some of the conditions for this may have been created by the basically quiescent posture of the Obama administration.  A number of the factions may perceive that now is the time to make moves, eliminate their rivals, and gain ascendancy.  After all, we’re drawing down in Iraq, our influence with both the Palestinians and Israelis is at a low ebb, our significance is waning rapidly in the Caucasus, and we’ve invited everyone in Asia in to join in negotiating a peace in Afghanistan.  But that quiescence is a condition: the sudden scramble manifesting itself across the Middle East and Southwest Asia suggests precipitating factors.

One such factor may be Iran closing in on a working bomb.  The closer we get to that day, the harder they’ll all scramble.  The events of the last few weeks could be a foretaste of the energy to come.  The other might well be something the Pakistanis would probably know before anyone else did:  Osama bin Laden could finally be dead, and for good this time.  The internecine roll-ups and high-level hit jobs are the kind of gangland phenomena associated with the loss of an iconic syndicate leader.

But some level of scramble is inevitable in any case, because of that significant third party that shares Pakistan’s concern about an independently negotiating Taliban.  The party, of course, is Russia.  Russia has a tremendous interest in averting the Taliban’s establishment of a separate power base for negotiating reconciliation – particularly one that would have the de facto imprimatur of the UN, the US, and NATO.  Theory aside, there are two threads in Russia’s post-Cold War history to remind her of what a bad idea – from her perspective – this would be.

One is, of course, Moscow’s problem with Islamist rebels in Chechnya (and with Central Asian Islamists in general).  There are differing views as to how closely integrated the Taliban and the Chechen insurgents have truly been, from an operational standpoint, but no question about the avowed commonality of their objectives.  The Taliban government of Afghanistan became, in January 2000, the only one to ever recognize the independent nation declared by Chechen separatists.  The Taliban’s control of Afghanistan did not result so much in Taliban fighters themselves operating in Chechnya, as in facilitation of Al Qaeda support to the Chechen rebels.  Both the Chechen Islamists and the Taliban have close ties to Al Qaeda.

Chechen fighters have been among those detained in anti-Taliban campaigns, as recently as late 2009 in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Chechnya’s shadow “Islamic caliphate” leadership also celebrates Taliban “victories” in AfPak.  A regional expert at the University of Indiana, South Bend, put it this way in 2007:

Russian and Central Asian leaders continue to be concerned with the spread of Islamic extremism in Central Asia and the Caucasus… they clearly see a connection between these Islamists and those in Afghanistan. Indeed, Chechen Internet sites almost regularly publish glowing accounts of the Taliban and their successful fight against American and NATO forces. Uzbek extremists are also actively engaged in fighting in Afghanistan. The collapse of the Karzai government and the “Talibanization” of Afghanistan would be not just a huge blow for U.S. global prestige but an even more severe blow for the Central Asian states and Russia.

The other thread is Moscow’s long and bitter dissatisfaction with the US handling of Serbia, Balkan Muslims, and the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.  A US push to privilege the Taliban – essentially to make some of them protected partners in negotiation, and give them insider status – would look to the Russians too much like the Balkans dynamic, in which they have always perceived that the US and NATO have privileged the Muslims and taken sides against the Slavic Serbs.  Centuries of invasion and counter-invasion lie behind these perceptions; Russia has experienced Islam as an imperial threat in a way the most Western of powers – the US, the EU-3 – have not.  In Moscow’s eyes, the long series of events in former Yugoslavia, including Western recognition of an independent Kosovo in 2008, is a US-run process that has utterly ignored Russian claims and concerns.

Obama’s appointment of Richard Holbrooke, the Russians’ nemesis in the Balkans during the Clinton years, as his AfPak Czar, cannot have been reassuring.  Recent headlines like this one look, to Russian eyes, like déjà-vu all over again.  With Barack Obama making it clear that he prefers negotiated solutions and accommodation with the Taliban, his administration has at one stroke defined a threat for Russia, and removed any incentive for Russia to remain on the sidelines.  When we were out to destroy the Taliban, Russia could cheer quietly from off the field.  Now that Obama is emphasizing the mainstreaming and political domestication of the Taliban, Russia (a) must do something, and (b) knows the field is clear, because Obama won’t.

Asian commentators have remarked a rapprochement between Pakistan and Russia in the last year.  A fresh avowal of commitment to bilateral ties at the June 2009 summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) may have sounded like diplomatic boilerplate – but it was followed with noteworthy rapidity (that is, the very next week) by the unusual visit of Pakistan’s top military chief to Moscow.  As this Indian analyst pointed out, the visit could not be predicated on longstanding military ties, since there haven’t been any.  Pakistan’s arms purchases and military-to-military exchanges have involved the US and China.

With a thousand new bilateral relationships blooming around the planet in the last year or so – every week sees new best buddies proclaiming cooperation and everlasting friendship – it would be easy to downplay the significance of this one.  (In no event would we have expected collusion between Moscow and Islamabad to be trumpeted in detail; the absence of public disclosures in this regard means nothing.)

But Russia is the other Asian nation with much the same interest as Pakistan in denying the Afghan Taliban a dangerous independence – and an independent posture oriented on a nexus with the US and Western powers, to boot. Russia also has a particular interest in the future of Al Qaeda, and in which Islamic factions control other nations in the region.  Russia being on the move – covertly, and through proxies – would help explain Iran’s energized push in Iraq, which I assess is intended to enlarge the mullahs’ power base and secure the western border.  One effect of that would be improving Tehran’s bargaining position with Moscow.

But why Russia is on the move just now, along with Pakistan and very likely the Saudi backers of the various Al Qaeda organizations (who may have been involved in the hit in Dubai) – the explanations here may all lie in the same set of causes.  If your head hurts, remember:  shadowy, Byzantine moves are the way these Asian actors traditionally work.  There’s a broad-scale maneuvering for position underway.  Significant players perceive that conditions have changed.  This is what the world looks and acts like when the US is just one of the guys.

Cross-posted at The Optimistic Conservative.

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Good take on it overall.

Only slightly learned in Russian, the language, culture and history, I still recall that one of the underlying characteristics of the Russian mindset is paranoia. They trust no one at any level. Although personally friendly, likeable, intelligent, they have that albatross circling their lives. Every one I ever met or who’s writing I analyzed.

That said, since the break up of the Soviet Union, their structural insecurities infused with paranoia must have them looking to resolve inertial forces, those that were born in their Communist cultural expansion in the 20th century, that subjugated cultures and are carried over to this day. Mis-trust begats mis-trust. They most likely feel a need to quell the discord and factious relationships that still exist extant their borders besides the ones still festering internally before there is some spill over.

Just sayin’.

Robert17 on February 19, 2010 at 7:41 PM

Good observation, Robert17. It was borne out in the comments reportedly made last month between Putin and the Russian governor of Ingushetia (Chechnya). Putin’s main point was that “disorderliness” was the big problem in that subregion.

The Russians, of course, don’t address disorderliness by sending in a Petraeus or McChrystal with a massive force of hyperdisciplined infantry to make the civil population feel safe. They target insurgents and terrorists with raids and bombings. That doesn’t work very well.

All that said, Americans will be slowly waking up to the fact that everyone out there is starting to take matters into his own hands. Obama’s proposal on the Taliban is a weak-hand approach that will increase Russia’s problems if it’s allowed to go forward. If it were a strong-hand approach, Russia would come at this differently — but it’s not. Because it’s a weak-hand approach, the nations of the region have the latitude to try to shape it or block it altogether, and to seek to simply do something else. We’re going to be seeing more of that. It won’t be long before it starts putting our troops on the ground in difficult situations.

J.E. Dyer on February 20, 2010 at 1:06 PM

This is good stuff. Hot Air now has a capable foreign correspondent.

percysunshine on February 21, 2010 at 1:07 PM