I remember a February morning in our Moscow embassy watching on Soviet television the live images of General Boris Vsevolodovich Gromov in his gray greatcoat and “ushanka” (traditional winter cap with fur ear muffs) walking across the bridge spanning
the Amu Darya river that connected the dusty Afghan town of Heiraton with the laconic Uzbek town of Termez (which hides so many secrets), braving the blizzards that blew through the Hindu Kush through the previous night. The charismatic Soviet commander (of David Petraeus’s build – why are they all short and stocky like Napoleon?), who was hardly in his mid-forties at that time in the winter of 1989, had insisted he would leave only with the last Soviet column withdrawing from Afghanistan.
Indeed, thoughts of Russian troops returning to the Afghan border, as seems happening, bring back a host of questions. “April is the cruellest month”, T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land, “breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory with desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.” The Russian press is reporting that Moscow wants its troops to return to the Tajikistan border to monitor 1344-kilometres of the so-called Northern Afghan drug-trafficking route.
The head of Russia’s anti-drug service Viktor Ivanov says a quarter of all Afghan heroin reach Russia through Central Asia. Moscow has been pressing its demand to take over the border security system but Dushanbe has been balking. The Central Asian states are most fanatical believers in the Westphalian notions regarding the sacredness of state sovereignty and will not easily relent in the face of contentions that in an age of globalization such unbending reflexes are passe. Highly confidential talks took place in a “clean room” in Dushanbe in February and rumours of what transpired are now filtering down. Interfax (Russian edition) reported this week that Moscow is stepping up pressure on Dushanbe. An unnamed Tajik source told Interfax: “The negotiations are at a very complex stage. Russia wants to reutrn to this border which is geopolitically very important but Tajikistan remains reticent about the idea.”
Reuters reports that Russian demand is to deploy 3000 troops. Russia’s concerns over the Afghan drug problem are no doubt genuine but, arguably, the issues involved are much more than that. Ivanov, former KGB general, is also an old “Afghan veteran” who served in the Kabul embassy in the 1980s and is a key coordinator with China on the Afghan situation. With the Afghan endgame having begun, the “great game ” in Central Asia is picking up after lurking in the shadows for the past 2-3 years. Russia anticipates an expansion of US and NATO influence into Central Asia. The Libyan crisis, US ABM deployment in Romania, etc. have brought in some “trust deficit” into US-Russia reset. Chinese FM Yang Jiechi is in Moscow to prepare the ground for the visit by President Hu Jintao next month. Asif Zardari is visiting Moscow May 12-15. The SCO summit is due in Astana on June 15. The great powers are jockeying for space. Is it a lull before the storm? What if the “Arab spring” drifts into the Central Asian steppes?