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CEPS Commentary, November 2001

The War against Terrorism and the Transformation of the World Order, three perpesctives

By Alexei G. Arbatov, Vice-Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the State Duma

A Russian perpective by Alexei G. Arbatov, Vice-Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the State Duma, November 2001

The tragic events of September 11th 2001 should have started the new era of world politics and US national security strategy. Indeed, perceptions of the new changed order of international security priorities for the civilized world, the sympathy towards the victims of the massacre and the condemnation of the barbaric act were overwhelming. Also impressive was the degree of cooperation in the antiterrorist operation against Osama ben Laden and Taliban, built in the shortest possible time between the West, led by the United States, and Russia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Central Asian states (foremost Uzbekistan and Tajikistan), with political support by China, India and Iran.

However, two months later after the "Black September", the weaknesses of the coalition and deficiencies of the operation are becoming more and more evident, as well as the confusion and inconsistency of the United States and other major players in adopting a new security strategy and still less in implementing it.

1. Legal and political framework of anti-terrorism policy.

As any ad hoc coalition the present one is quite fragile and is not based on a clear common definition of the threat or common understanding of joint interests and means of fighting for them. There is no accepted universal definition of "international terrorism" in the international law, or any UN-approved or other multilateral convention on countering it, which might be compared to definitions of "aggression", "self-defense", "peace-keeping" or "peace-enforcement".

Luckily, the subject of retaliation is Taliban, based on the territory of war-ravaged Afghanistan, not recognized internationally, discredited by its extremist policy and barbaric behavior, and not affiliated closely with any great world or regional power (except Pakistan and Saudi Arabia relatively manageable by Washington). Hence uniting against it was rather easy. The case would be very different would the obvious base of the terrorists be Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Pakistan. Or would the target of such horrendous act be one of West European countries, Russia or Japan. Repeated US indications of its plans to hit other suspected regimes already strains the coalition and may split it if such plans are implemented.

Lacking a recognized definition of "international terrorism", its "harboring states" and legitimate targets and means of retaliation, American arbitrary choice of scapegoats among the states disliked by Washington anyway, is raising the question about the legitimacy of hitting other states, suspected of supporting terrorist organizations, but friendly to the United States (Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Albania, Jordan etc.).

Many secessionist ethnic or religious movements in various parts of the world employ terrorism as their method of fighting against superior governmental forces, many of them have international ties and foreign funding and some of them are fighting against really oppressive authoritarian regimes (i.e. Curds and Shiites against the regime of Saddam Hussein). Are all of them to be declared as international outcasts and to be treated as targets of retaliation by antiterrorist coalition? Or is the United States and its Western allies to be the judges and executioners of such cases?

A selective attitude towards terrorist organizations and their paramilitary forces, as well as to the states harboring them, based only on American political preferences, cannot provide a long-term foundation for the international antiterrorist coalition or its allied strategy. To the contrary, such policies of the United States may turn the fight against terrorism from a major uniting international factor into a great new point of international discord, leading to a confrontation between great world and regional powers and even straining the Western alliance itself.

2. Implementation of the antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan.

Another serious problem is that the new look at security induced by the events of September 11th seems still to be quite superficial and yet unable to bring really deep revision of the old policies. This relates to several countries, including Russia, but is primarily reflected in the actions by the United States.

Washington should be given credit for making effort to secure authorization by the UN Security Council for conducting its operation, in contrast to American earlier disregard for the United Nations. The two adopted resolutions provide some legal framework for the use of force, although opinions differ as to how long and at what scale this war would stay within the bounds of legitimacy. Nonetheless in planning and implementing the military operation the United States keep to its tradition of unilateralism of the 1990's at best consulting its NATO allies and informing Russia, but not doing any joint planning or coalition war-fighting.

Partially this may be explained by the fear of intelligence leaks, but mainly, no doubt, by US willingness to keep maximum freedom of action in using its overwhelming power, selecting targets and countries for attack and conducting negotiations with whatever counterparts on conditions of Washington's preference.

This is why, aside from Great Britain and few other allies (Australia, Japan) other US partners and Russia are not in a hurry to join the fighting, confining its support to political declarations and some indirect material cooperative actions. Moreover there is a growing concern in some West European states, Russia, China, India and Iran about the practical goals of US operation and its diplomacy on the post-war settlement in Afghanistan. This is already seriously detracting from the military effectiveness of the operation.

Ben Laden's formations and other terrorist organizations in Afghanistan cannot be routed out without destroying Taliban army and political leadership. Taliban, in contrast to Slobodan Miloshevich or Saddam Hussein, cannot be brought to its knees only by high altitude air bombardment or cruise missiles - if only for lack of cost-efficient targets in Afghanistan and total disregard for civilian casualties by Taliban. It may only be defeated on the ground by large-scale offensive combat operations, which neither of major powers is willing to contemplate for obvious reasons. The only remaining alternative is to arm, train and advice the Northern Alliance to do the job with close air support of the antiterrorist coalition and with the help of its selective special (commando) actions on the ground. Implementing such campaign from aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea or from the bases in the Persian Gulf area is too far away.

Conducting massive and prolonged military actions from Pakistan is impossible because of the fragility of its domestic situation and the threat of fundamentalist uprising and extremists gaining access to nuclear weapons.

India is not a viable option either because of geographic and terrain reasons, as well as because of the threat of destabilizing Kashmir and disenchanting Pakistan and other Muslim nations. Iran is still less possible since the United States was too arrogant to do anything serious in recent times to improve relations with this country and to overcome past grievances. Neither Pakistan nor Turkey would be happy about such rapprochement.

Hence the only base for US (or US-British) combat operations would be Central Asia - primarily Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. That would have to deeply involve Russia both politically and militarily. The transit of supplies would have to go through Russia's air space and ground communications (and Kazakhstan's since Turkmenistan is neutral).

Besides, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are having very tense relations, as are the respective ethnic groups in the Northern Alliance. For the United States to rely fully on Uzbekistan would not be wise, since this would estrange Tajikistan and Tajiks in Afghanistan, while Uzbek units of the Northern Alliance (commanded by general Rashid Dustum) are militarily quite weak and relatively few in numbers.

3. Russian position, domestic views and concerns.

Moscow has been repeatedly hinting at its willingness to give Washington broader support, besides sharing intelligence information, providing air corridor for humanitarian cargo, participating in rescue operations and supplying arms to the Northern Alliance.

It's possible to speculate that Russian leadership, despite strong domestic opposition, would be ready to provide robust military advice and direct air cover to anti-Taliban forces, as well as coordinate air and missile strikes at Taliban with the United States.

This would be virtually an allied relationship. However, neither Washington, nor its NATO allies seem to be ready for such a breakthrough. They fear implications of this new relationship for other Western interests: i.e. NATO extension, BMD/ABM Treaty problems, Russian foreign debt, the war in Chechnia, rivalry over Caspian oil shelf etc. This would also mean for Washington reaching consensus with Moscow on post-war settlement in Afghanistan (taking into account the interests of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as well), which may take a lot of effort to bring Pakistan on board, straining relations with this principal American partner in the region.

Russian leadership has probably gone as far as possible in cooperating with the West and much further than could be expected from President Putin, judging by his previous cautious middle-of-the road policy, based on a bureaucratic consensus (i.e. his positions on the national anthem and symbols, land reform, budget policy, the military reform etc.). The majority of Russian public opinion, parliament, mass media or military bureaucracy does not support his line on the antiterrorist campaign, although there is little open opposition to Vladimir Putin due to the general curtailment of any political opposition to Russian President after the middle of the year 2000 (last presidential elections in Russia).

Part of this internal opposition to cooperation with the United States is due to great-accumulated mistrust and hostility to US unilateral policies and force employment of the 1990's (NATO expansion, military action against Yugoslavia, arbitrary strikes at Iraq, rejection of the ABM Treaty, START-2 and follow-on strategic agreements, CTB Treaty etc.). In many cases US policy towards Russia was deliberately formulated in most arrogant and insulting ways. So a common question is: why should Russia now help Americans?

Another reason is the unwillingness of a large part of Russian political elite and strategic community to go for much closer cooperation, much less some kind of alliance with the West - for its domestic and foreign policy implications.

Finally, there is a wide-spread fear in the society of another involvement into a quagmire of a counterinsurgency war after bitter experience in Afghanistan in 1979-1989 and two bloody and campaigns in Chechnia in 1994-1996 and 1999-2001, as well as a fear of terrorist attacks on Russian civilians. A popular concern is that the United States would bomb out and fly away, why Russia would stay to deal with the disrupted wasp nest. Hence Putin's cooperative strategy is tolerated for the time being, but in case of mishaps or US arbitrary actions the pressure would be enormous for a radical policy reversal.

Political conservatism of the West is understandable. However, it means exactly that September 11th has not brought a fundamental revision of the old security interests or policies. The new threat is being addressed within the framework of old priorities or with their minimal corrections. This also relates to the US propensity of unilateral planning and implementing military actions, giving no more than a lip-service to the UN Security Council authorization for the use of force, preserving options of arbitrary decisions to hit other states (if only to make up for dubious efficiency of operations in Afghanistan).

4. Politics in and around Afghanistan.

Moreover, determined to exterminate ben Laden and his main organization Al-Quaida, Washington still has reservations about fully destroying Taliban (which is inseparable from Al-Quaida and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) out of concerns about post-war settlement and peace-reconstruction in Afghanistan, as well as about relative influences of external powers on Kabul. This inconsistency makes it easier for Taliban and Al-Quaida to withstand US-British air raids and to bargain for eventual compromise.

The three main dangers with respect to the current operation are:

  • Destabilization of Pakistan and Islamic extremists' access to nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
  • The split of the antiterrorist coalition due to unilateral actions of Washington or excessive collateral damage of air strikes otherwise inefficient in crippling Taliban.
  • Taliban's attack to the north across the borders of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which would make Russia, fight on the ground without any guarantee of US protection, participation or serious assistance.

As of now, the way coalition, led by the USA, is acting - it is neither prepared to meet any of these contingencies, nor capable to decisively defeat Taliban

The United States, Russia and some other countries may come out of this war either in much closer relations to go on suppressing terrorism - or with much greater controversies, which would make terrorism invincible in the long run. Despite some amazing initial progress, as the time goes by, the coalition is loosing momentum and making insufficient efforts to ensure the former and prevent the latter. What should be done to change this?

In the short term the United States should abandon its unilateral mode of operation and involve Russia in the decision-making process on defining political and strategic goals of the operation in Central Asia, as well as military planning and, if need be joint combat actions. The world has really changed after September 11th, if all of a sudden in the most important US security issue Russia has become the main potential American partner - much more important for doing the job, than all other NATO members or other US formal allies. This reality must be recognized both in practical Washington's policy and in formal agreements.

Indeed, if Russia is to get deeper in this war, it would need US (or Western) security guarantees analogous to North Atlantic Treaty Article V, at least related to the present operation in Afghanistan in case Russia becomes a subject of terrorist retaliation, as presently threatened by Islamic extremists.

The cowardly and unrealistic idea of separating Taliban from terrorist organizations, or distinguishing between "bad" and "good" Talibs should be abandoned as well. Taliban political regime and army must be destroyed, while alternative moderate Pushtu organization should be created as an alternative to Taliban and as a participant in future Afghan peaceful settlement.

Washington and Moscow must closely cooperate to bring together Tashkent and Dushanbe and their respective proxies in Afghanistan, as well as to arm and train them for counteroffensive to defeat Taliban's army on the ground. The two great powers should cooperate in setting the infrastructure in Central Asia to provide the Northern Alliance close air support (may be joint US-Russian-British) and other forms of military assistance.

It is necessary to prepare for possible destabilization of Pakistan, primarily by planning to evacuate or destroy its nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and research-production-testing facilities.

Washington should make urgent efforts to improve its relations with Iran and India (in which Russia could give it a good help) as alternative partners in Central and Southern Asia, in case Pakistan is destabilized.

The mid- and long-term policy should aim at elaborating and adopting a legal framework for defining "international terrorism" and ways to deal with it. Possibly a permanent UN structure to monitor this problem would be useful, as well as regional organizations in NATO, EU, CIS etc. If there is an international convention on this subject, it must be ratified by all states, while those opposing it should be subjects for international sanctions, as well as regimes, proved to be harboring terrorists.

Traditional alliances and bilateral relations should be revised from the point of view of who is harboring and funding international terrorists. Some terrorists cannot have immunity only because great powers or their allies protect them.

More aid and assistance in economic development has to be provided to post-war Afghanistan and other countries of this kind to fight poverty and ignorance, fuelling extremism, and to give other ways for earning money, than drug business.

The process and regimes of non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems must be made much more stringent and unbiased as to its application to some states. India and Pakistan should be pressured into joining CTB, provided that the United States ratifies this treaty.

Russia and the United States should agree to deep cuts in their strategic offensive weapons (down to 1000 warheads or less), while introducing amendments to the ABM Treaty to permit extensive testing of new technologies for possible future joint deployment. In the meantime, the two powers and their allies could start developing theater antimissile defense system to protect Europe (including Russia), Asian Russian territory and US allies in the Far East. Other countries may be invited to join the project if they eliminate their missiles of medium and shorter range (as defined by INF Treaty).

This may seem as a toll order indeed, but such steps cannot be seen as excessive - if only the notion of a new "post-September" era of international security is something more than pompous political declarations.

Alexei G. Arbatov


See also:

the original at:

International Anti-Terror Coalition

Russia - US Relations

Russia - EU Relations

AMB Treaty

NATO expansion

CEPS Commentary, November 2001

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