Russia stops US on road to Afghanistan
Precise, quick, deadly - the skills of a soldier are modest. But then, US Central Command chief General David Petraeus is more than a soldier. The world is getting used to him as somewhere more than halfway down the road to becoming a statesman. Sure, there may be warfare's seduction over him still, but he is expected to be aware of the political realities of the two wars he conducts, in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That is why he tripped last Tuesday when he said while on a visit to Pakistan that the American military had secured agreements to move supplies to Afghanistan from the north, easing the heavy reliance on the transit route through Pakistan. "There have been agreements reached, and there are transit lines now and transit agreements for commercial goods and services in particular that include several countries in the Central Asian states and Russia," Petraeus said.
He was needlessly precise - like a soldier. Maybe he needed to impress on the tough Pakistani generals that they wouldn't hold the US forces in Afghanistan by their jugular veins for long. Or, he felt simply exasperated about the doublespeak of Janus-faced southwest Asian generals.
The shocking intelligence assessment shared by Moscow reveals that almost half of the US supplies passing through Pakistan is pilfered by motley groups of Taliban militants, petty traders and plain thieves. The US Army is getting burgled in broad daylight and can't do much about it. Almost 80% of all supplies for Afghanistan pass through Pakistan. The Peshawar bazaar is doing a roaring business hawking stolen US military ware, as in the 1980s during the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. This volume of business will register a quantum jump following the doubling of the US troop level in Afghanistan to 60,000. Wars are essentially tragedies, but can be comical, too.
Moscow disclaims transit route
At any rate, within a day of Petraeus' remark, Moscow corrected him. Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Maslov told Itar-Tass, “No official documents were submitted to Russia's permanent mission in NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] certifying that Russia had authorized the United States and NATO to transport military supplies across the country."
A day later, Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, added from Brussels, "We know nothing of Russia's alleged agreement of military transit of Americans or NATO at large. There had been suggestions of the sort, but they were not formalized." And, with a touch of irony, Rogozin insisted Russia wanted the military alliance to succeed in Afghanistan.
"I can responsibly say that in the event of NATO's defeat in Afghanistan, fundamentalists who are inspired by this victory will set their eyes on the north. First they will hit Tajikistan, then they will try to break into Uzbekistan ... If things turn out badly, in about 10 years, our boys will have to fight well-armed and well-organized Islamists somewhere in Kazakhstan," the popular Moscow-politician turned diplomat added.
Russian experts have let it be known that Moscow views with disquiet the US's recent overtures to Central Asian countries regarding bilateral transit treaties with them which exclude Russia. Agreements have been reached with Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Moscow feels the US is pressing ahead with a new Caspian transit route which involves the dispatch of shipments via Georgia to Azerbaijan and thereon to the Kazakh harbor of Aktau and across the Uzbek territory to Amu Darya and northern Afghanistan.
Russian experts estimate that the proposed Caspian transit route could eventually become an energy transportation route in reverse direction, which would mean a strategic setback for Russia in the decade-long struggle for the region's hydrocarbon reserves.
Russia presses for role in Kabul
Indeed, Uzbekistan is the key Central Asian country in the great game over the northern transit route to Afghanistan. Thus, during Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Tashkent last week, Afghanistan figured as a key topic. Medvedev characterized Russian-Uzbek relations as a "strategic partnership and alliance" and said that on matters relating to Afghanistan, Moscow's cooperation with Tashkent assumed an "exceptional importance".
He said he and Uzbek President Islam Karimov agreed that there could be no "unilateral solution" to the Afghan problem and "nothing can be resolved without taking into account the collective opinion of states which have an interest in the resolution of the situation".
Most significantly, Medvedev underlined Russia had no objections about US President Barack Obama's idea of linking the Afghanistan and Pakistan problems, but for an entirely different reason, as "it is not possible to examine the establishment and development of a modern political system in Afghanistan in isolation from the context of normalizing relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan in their border regions, setting up the appropriate international mechanisms and so on".
Moscow rarely touches on the sensitive Durand Line question, that is, the controversial line that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan. Medvedev underscored that Russia remained an interested party, as there was a "need to ensure that these issues are resolved on a collective basis".
Second, Medvedev made it clear Moscow would resist US attempts to expand its military and political presence in the Central Asian and Caspian regions. He asserted, "This is a key region, a region in which diverse processes are taking place and in which Russia has crucially important work to do to coordinate our positions with our colleagues and help to find common solutions to the most complex problems."
Plainly put, Moscow will not allow a replay of the US's tactic after September 11, 2002, when it sought a military presence in Central Asia as a temporary measure and then coolly proceeded to put it on a long-term footing.
Karzai reaches out to Moscow
Interestingly, Medvedev's remarks coincide with reports that Washington is cutting Afghan President Hamid Karzai adrift and is planning to install a new "dream team" in Kabul.
Medvedev had written to Karzai offering military aid. Karzai apparently accepted the Russian offer, ignoring the US objection that in terms of secret US-Afghan agreements, Kabul needed Washington's prior consent for such dealings with third countries.
A statement from the Kremlin last Monday said Russia was "ready to provide broad assistance for an independent and democratic country [Afghanistan] that lives in a peaceful atmosphere with its neighbors. Cooperation in the defense sector ... will be effective for establishing peace in the region". It makes sense for Kabul to make military procurements from Russia since the Afghan armed forces use Soviet weaponry. But Washington doesn't want a Russian "presence" in Kabul.
Quite obviously, Moscow and Kabul have challenged the US's secret veto power over Afghanistan's external relations. Last Friday, Russian and Afghan diplomats met in Moscow and "pledged to continue developing Russian-Afghan cooperation in politics, trade and economics as well as in the humanitarian sphere". Significantly, they also "noted the importance of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO]" that is dominated by Russia and China.
SCO seeks Afghan role
Washington cannot openly censure Karzai from edging close to Russia (and China) since Afghanistan is notionally a sovereign country. Meanwhile, Moscow is intervening in Kabul's assertion of independence. Moscow has stepped up its efforts to hold an international conference on Afghanistan under the aegis of the SCO. The US doesn't want Karzai to legitimize a SCO role in the Afghan problem. Now a flashpoint arises.
A meeting of deputy foreign ministers from the SCO member countries (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) met in Moscow on January 14. The Russian Foreign Ministry subsequently announced that a conference would take place in late March. The Russian initiative received a big boost with Iran and India's decision to participate in the conference.
New Delhi has welcomed an enhanced role for itself as a SCO observer and seeks "greater participation" in the organization's activities. In particular, New Delhi has "expressed interest in participating in the activities" of the SCO contact group on Afghanistan.
The big question is whether Karzai will seize these regional trends and respond to the SCO overture, which will enable Kabul to get out of Washington's stranglehold? To be sure, Washington is racing against time in bringing about a "regime change" in Kabul.
The point is, more and more countries in the region are finding it difficult to accept the US monopoly on conflict-resolution in Afghanistan. Washington will be hard-pressed to dissociate from the forthcoming SCO conference in March and, ideally, would have wished that Karzai also stayed away, despite it being a full-fledged regional initiative that includes all of Afghanistan's neighbors.
The SCO is sure to list Afghanistan as a major agenda item at its annual summit meeting scheduled to be held in August in Yekaterinburg, Russia. It seems Washington cannot stop the SCO in its tracks at this stage, except by genuinely broad-basing the search for an Afghan settlement and allowing regional powers with legitimate interests to fully participate.
The current US thinking, on the other hand, is to strike "grand bargains" with regional powers bilaterally and to keep them apart from collectively coordinating with each other on the basis of shared concerns. But the regional powers see through the US game plan for what it is - a smart move of divide-and-rule.
Moscow spurns selective engagement
No doubt, these diplomatic maneuverings also reveal the trust deficit in Russian-American relations. Moscow voices optimism that Obama will constructively address the problems that have accumulated in the US-Russia relationship. But Russia figured neither in Obama's inaugural address nor in the foreign policy document spelling out his agenda.
Last Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov summed up Moscow's minimal expectations: "I hope the controversial problems in our relations, such as missile defense, the expediency of NATO expansion ... will be resolved on the basis of pragmatism, without the ideological assessment the outgoing administration had ... We have noticed that ... Obama was willing to take a break on the issue of missile defense ... and to evaluate its effectiveness and cost efficiency."
But Russia is not among the new US administration's priorities. Besides, as the influential newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta noted last week, "A considerable number of [US] congressmen from both parties believe Russia needs a good talking-to." The current Russian priority will be to organize an early meeting between Lavrov and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and until such a meeting takes place, matters are on hold - including the vexed issue of the transit route for Afghanistan.
Thus, while talking to the media in Tashkent, Medvedev agreed in principle to grant permission to the US to use a transit route to Afghanistan via Russian territory, but at once qualified it saying, "This cooperation should be full-fledged and on an equal basis." He reminded Obama that the "surge" strategy in Afghanistan might not work. "We hope the new administration will be more successful than its predecessor on the issues surrounding Afghanistan," Medvedev said.
Evidently, Petraeus overlooked that the US's needless obduracy to keep the Hindu Kush as its exclusive geopolitical turf right in the middle of Asia has become a contentious issue. No matter the fine rhetoric, the Obama administration will find it difficult to sustain the myth that the Afghan war is all about fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban to the finish.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.