Russia joins the war in Afghanistan

Posted in Broader Middle East , Russia , Afghanistan | 25-Jun-08 | Author: M K Bhadrakumar| Source: Asia Times

An Afghan man inspects a Russian-made heavy machinegun.

Moscow is staging an extraordinary comeback on the Afghan chessboard after a gap of two decades following the Soviet Union's nine-year adventure that ended in the withdrawal of its last troops from Afghanistan 1989. In a curious reversal of history, this is possible only with the acquiescence of the United States. Moscow is taking advantage of the deterioration of the war in Afghanistan and the implications for regional security could be far-reaching.

A joint statement issued in Moscow over the weekend following the meeting of the United States-Russia Working Group on Counterterrorism (CTWG) revealed that the two sides had reached "agreement in principle over the supply of Russian weaponry to the Afghanistan National Army" in its fight against the Taliban insurgency. The 16th session of the CTWG held in Moscow on June 19-20 was co-chaired by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak and US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns.

Talking to reporters alongside Burns, Kislayak said, "We [Russia] in the past have already provided military equipment to Afghanistan and we feel there is now a demand by the Afghan population for the ability of Afghanistan to take its security in its own hands." He added it was "possible" that Russia might increase the delivery of arms to Afghanistan, though "I wouldn't be eager to put a number on it".

Washington has consistently rebuffed Russian attempts to become a protagonist in the Afghan war - except in intelligence-sharing. As recently as March, public demonstrations erupted in Afghanistan against alleged "deployment of Russian troops" reported in a Polish newspaper, which had all the hallmarks of a sting operation by Western intelligence. The Kremlin's then-first deputy press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, had to clarify that rumors of Russia sending troops to Afghanistan were "absolutely untrue".
Russian analysts felt that the Polish report was deliberately intended to create "an image of an external threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan in order to give a more plausible explanation for NATO's [North Atlantic Treaty Organization's] military presence in the country".

Clearly, the weekend's announcement in Moscow underscores a change in the US stance. The deterioration of the war is undoubtedly a factor behind the shift. (Incidentally, in a similar shift, Washington recently approached China and India also for the dispatch of troops to Afghanistan.) Britain's Telegraph newspaper reported last week on a growing "despair" in Washington over the NATO allies' perceived failings in Afghanistan. The gung-ho attitude - "have-gun-will-travel" - is no more there.

A top Pentagon advisor told the Telegraph, "There's frustration, there's irritation. The mood veers between acceptance and despair that nothing is changing. We ask for more troops and they're not forthcoming in the numbers we need. The mistake was handing it over to NATO in the first place. For many countries, being in Afghanistan seems to be about keeping up appearances, rather than actually fighting a war that needs to be won. Was that necessary diplomatically? Probably. Is it desirable militarily? I don't think so nor do most others who are involved with Afghanistan."

A German NATO general said on Sunday that 6,000 additional troops are urgently needed in Afghanistan to complement the 60,000 foreign troops already in the country, most of them part of the NATO-led International Security and Assistance Force.

The Russians are all too aware of the pitfalls of another intervention in Afghanistan. Zamir Kabulov, Moscow's veteran diplomat who served in the Soviet Embassy in Kabul all through the 1980s when the Soviets occupied the country, is the present Russian ambassador to Afghanistan. Kabulov recently dissected the tragedy of the Soviet intervention in an interview with the US-government owned National Public Radio. He said: "We underestimated the allergy of the Afghan nation to foreign invaders because we didn't believe ourselves to be invaders at that time ... We neglected traditions and their culture and the religion of Afghans."

With such profound hindsight, how could Moscow be once again wading into Afghanistan? There is no question of Russia ever sending troops to Afghanistan. But what prompts the Russian involvement is the belief that "You can double and triple the number of your contingent and you still will lose this war because it's not a matter of numbers, it's a matter of the quality of the Afghan national army and police", to quote Kabulov.

That is to say, there has always been this belief within the Russian security establishment that the tragedy of Afghanistan could have been averted if only president Mikhail Gorbachev hadn't pulled the plug off the life-supporting system of Soviet supplies for Mohammad Najibullah's regime. They believe that Najibullah, who became president in 1986, could have held on even after the Soviet troop withdrawal if only he had been provided with the necessary material wherewithal.

Questions remain over the Russian enterprise to enhance the quality of the Afghan army. Will Russia also assume the responsibility for training the Afghan army in addition to equipping it? Indeed, that would seem logical. The next best thing would be to involve the erstwhile cadres of Najibullah's armed forces who were trained in the Soviet military academies and intelligence schools. But that might be too much for Washington to stomach.

One thing is clear. Moscow acted with foresight in initiating the proposal at the beginning of the year that NATO could use Russian territory for the dispatch of its supplies to Afghanistan. The agreement formalized at NATO's Bucharest summit meeting on April 2-4 served Moscow's purpose in different ways. Moscow signaled that despite Washington's hostile mode, it is prepared to help out in Afghanistan, which only shows that the Russian-NATO relationship can be based on mutuality of interests and concerns.

As expected, NATO's European members were receptive to such a signal. At the Russia-NATO council meeting on the sidelines of the Bucharest summit, for the first time perhaps, the format worked in the fashion in which it was intended to work when the Bill Clinton administration proposed it to a distraught Boris Yeltsin anxious about NATO's expansion plans in the mid-1990s - that the format would have the alliance members participate as national entities rather than as bloc members.

Russia has a problem with NATO expansion. As Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told Le Monde newspaper recently during his visit to Paris, "There's no Soviet Union anymore. There's no threat. But the organization remains. The question is: 'Against whom are you allied? What is it all for?' And expanding the bloc is only creating new borders in Europe. New Berlin walls. This time invisible, but not less dangerous ... And we can see that military infrastructure is heading towards our borders. What for? No one is posing a threat."

Therefore, Moscow has put NATO on the defensive by stretching a helping hand to Afghanistan. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pointed out at a speech in Moscow on May 28: "Russia does not claim any veto rights. But I think we have the right to expect reciprocity if our partners expect us to consider their interests. Indeed, without such reciprocity, it is hard to see how the Bucharest summit could have produced an agreement on ground transit to Afghanistan. It would, after all, have been easy for us to let NATO carry out its international mission in Afghanistan on its own. But we did not do this ... Russia will continue to be involved to such an extent as meets our interests and principles of equal cooperation."

The directions in which Western "reciprocity" manifests will be absorbing to watch on the Eurasian political landscape. To be sure, there is an overall mellowing toward Russia in the European approach. The George W Bush administration has failed to initiate the deployment plan for anti-ballistic missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. The forthcoming Russia-European Union strategic negotiations on a new partnership agreement promise a new start. These are positive tidings.

But equally, NATO's expansion plan with regard to Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan still remains on the agenda. Russia-NATO tensions have appeared over Georgia and Kosovo. Therefore, Russia won't take chances, either.

Parallel to the growing involvement in Afghanistan, Moscow is also stepping up its military presence in Central Asia. Arguably, the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan has prompted Moscow to beef up the security of the Central Asian region. But a distinctive feature is that Russia's move is also in response to the wishes of the Central Asian states. Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov recently proposed that the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Economic Community must merge into a single body so as to create a "powerful union capable of becoming a counterbalance to NATO and the EU".

From the Central Asian perspective, Russia's capacity to play a bigger role in regional security looks more credible today than at any time in the post-Soviet era. As influential Moscow commentator Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the Politika Foundation, wrote in Izvestia newspaper recently, "The strengthening of ties with Russia today appears much more logical and natural than it did in the 1990s when, on the contrary, the Western economies were growing, while ours was steadily declining. The growing energy crisis also works in favor of integration."

Russia as a status quo power also holds attraction for local governments in Central Asia. Most important, there is profound disquiet in Central Asian capitals regarding the Afghan crisis - the US strategy in Afghanistan and NATO's grit to win the war.

Until last year, Russia and the Central Asian states counted on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) playing a role in stabilizing the Afghan situation. But then they began sensing that China was following a complex policy within the SCO by exploiting it to develop its bilateral links with Central Asian countries and for penetrating deep into the energy sector, but all the while applying the brakes on Russian attempts to augment the grouping's profile as a security organization. (The SCO comprises China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.)

China has virtually put its foot down on a Russian proposal regarding close CSTO-SCO ties. China disfavors SCO-CSTO military exercises. In sum, Beijing seems anxious not to create misgivings in Washington. (The CSTO consists of of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.)

This is not to say that China is indifferent to the stability of Afghanistan. Far from it. China's preference is to keep its options open rather than be tied down by the SCO or overtly identifying with Russian interests. After all, China has huge stakes in Afghanistan. Beijing perceives advantages in directly cooperating with the US (and NATO) rather than from within the SCO. Conceivably, Beijing might not be altogether averse to the idea of sending peacekeeping troops to Afghanistan at a later stage, provided a suitable United Nations mission could be structured.

That is to say, an important phase of the SCO's evolution as a security organization lies ahead when Russia assumes its chairmanship in 2008-2009, following the SCO summit meeting scheduled to be held at Dushanbe (Tajikistan) in August. From all appearances, there has been some serious rethink in Moscow as well during recent months regarding the SCO's potential to play an influential role in Afghanistan, given China's manifestly lukewarm attitude. The Russian thinking also seems to have veered around to abandoning hopes of working within the framework of CSTO or SCO but instead to concentrate on a bilateral Russian-Afghan track.

Afghanistan also does not want to cooperate with either the CSTO or the SCO. During his visit to Moscow on May 25-26, Afghan Foreign Minister Dadfar Spanta made it clear that Afghanistan would not be seeking observer status with the SCO. He let it be known in no uncertain terms that Russia is a low priority for Kabul in its foreign policy - as compared to, say, China. All in all, therefore, Moscow would realize that a long journey lies ahead in cultivating influence in Kabul, which it must undertake all by itself.
Moscow appreciates that the present regime in Kabul of President Hamid Karzai is unabashedly pro-American and is a participant in the US's regional strategy that passes as "Great Central Asia Partnership for Afghanistan and Neighboring Countries", which actually aims at undercutting Russian influence in Central Asia.

Thus, the weekend's announcement in Moscow far from heralds a joint US-Russian effort to stabilize the Afghan situation. In fact, there is hardly any scope for a common US-Russian regional agenda. As Nikonov put it, "We [Russia] and the Western countries have diametrically opposite definitions of success in our policy toward the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] countries. For Russia, success lies in strengthening of integration ties, rapprochement with its neighbors and a strengthening of cooperation. For the West, on the contrary, success means a distancing of these countries from Russia, a reorientation to external centers of power aimed at preventing 'a rebirth of the Russian empire'. When political goals are so diametrically opposed, it is impossible to speak of a common agenda."

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).