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    Central Asia
     Apr 8, 2008
The Taliban's shadow hangs over NATO
By M K Bhadrakumar

It may seem the outcome of the summit meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) at Bucharest, Romania from April 2-4 and the weekend meet between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President George W Bush at the Black Sea resort of Sochi has gone in favor of Washington. At least, media commentators in Moscow assess Russia "lost" the NATO summit.

An element of anxiety surely crept in. The Bucharest summit and the Sochi meet are watershed events. US-Russia relations have reached a crossroads. A new long-term confrontation may ensue, or the path opens to partnership relations. The US delegation conceded nothing to Moscow. The George W Bush administration carried a tough brief - "there's no trade-off, period", Bush said as


he headed for Bucharest. On the one hand, the Bush administration wants to create a legacy by transforming NATO as the dominating political-military force in Europe under American leadership. On the other hand, it wants this achieved without a breach with either its allies or Russia.

There were only two ways such balancing could be achieved: one, by pushing for a large-scale breakthrough, and, two, through a strategic compromise with Russia. Washington opted for the first. But it's a tough call. In the process, it failed to secure a NATO Membership Action Plan for Ukraine and Georgia. But it extracted a pledge from NATO allies that the matter will be taken up again in December.

Moscow anticipated this outcome. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, "This will not be unanswered. But we will respond in a pragmatic way, not like little school boys who were hurt and fled their classroom slamming the door to cry in the corner." He hinted the issue is far from over. "We are prepared for various scenarios," he added.

Again, American diplomacy appears to have scored a tangible success in getting NATO to agree to look at a "bolt-on system" connected to the planned US missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. The summit decided to task NATO to develop options for a comprehensive missile defense architecture to extend coverage to all ally territory and populations not otherwise covered by the US system. The findings will come up for review at the alliance's 2009 summit. The NATO leaders realized the "substantial contribution that the US system can provide".

On the face of it, the European anti-ballistic missile system has turned from an American project into a NATO project. This, in turn, will undermine Russia's ability to oppose it, because it may now have to deal with the Western community in the form of NATO. Indeed, Moscow faces a hard choice - either settle with Bush in the remaining months of his presidency or prepare to face the brunt of Senator John McCain (who has emerged as the front runner in the US presidential election). The Democrats are no better, either. Richard Holbrooke, who advises Hillary Clinton, or Zbigniew Brzezinski, who seems to guide the Barack Obama team from the backstage, share McCain's outlook with regard to "revanchist Russia".

An unnamed Kremlin source admitted at Sochi that Putin and Bush failed to overcome differences over the missile defense system. Putin himself acknowledged at the joint press conference with Bush at Sochi on Sunday: "I won't hide the fact that one of the most difficult issues was and remains the American missile defense system in Europe ... I want to be understood correctly: there has been no change in our fundamental attitude to the American plans." Significantly, Bush's response contained no promises of a rethink, no assurances of an accommodation.

So, is it a new cold war? Putin says "no". He expresses cautious optimism that an agreement on missile defense is still possible. He insists, "There was some positive progress. Our concerns were heard by the American side." He believes Bush is "seriously and sincerely" seeking to resolve the problem and "we fully support this attitude".

Where is the catch? Are we missing something? The answer may be found in the coming months in the tangled mountains in faraway Afghanistan. Unnoticed by the security officers clearing the homeless people and stray dogs around the palatial venue of the summit in the Romanian parliament building, downtown Bucharest had a visitor with brooding eyes and unkempt beard who lingered in the shadows all through and watched the proceedings - the Taliban.

Once the theatrics surrounding NATO expansion and the US missile defense wear out and a reality check inevitably follows, the existential question will stare all in the face - the alliance's faltering operations in Afghanistan.

Russia offered a rope at Bucharest, which the alliance grasped, while Washington pretended it didn't quite see that happening. The significance of the agreement reached in Bucharest on Friday is yet to sink in. The agreement concerns transit of NATO's food and non-military cargo and "some types of non-lethal military equipment" across Russia to Afghanistan.

NATO supplies will be transported thousands of kilometers across Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Even though the letters regarding the transit were exchanged between Lavrov and NATO secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer at the ceremony in Bucharest, Russia has treated this as a matter concerning the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The topic figured at the informal meeting of CSTO foreign ministers held in Moscow on March 28 "because transit to Afghanistan simply for objective geographical reasons also calls for appropriate arrangements with many countries which are members of CSTO", to quote Lavrov. CSTO comprises Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

In the ultimate analysis, therefore, Russia has acted in consultation with and on behalf of the CSTO partners. This has implications, no matter CSTO's standing in NATO eyes. Moscow made no bones about the fact that sheer pragmatism had guided its decision. Lavrov said, "If we pretend to be offended and block this transit, the efficiency of the combat against terrorism, which is not very good as it is, will worsen dramatically; and the only result will be that in the absence of a restraining factor, all these drug traffickers and terrorists will feel freer in planning their actions in Central Asia and Russia ... Russia's pragmatism and interests prompt us to support the activities of those who are trying to deal with the terrorists in Afghanistan."

But there is more to Moscow's "pragmatism". The Russian ambassador in Kabul, Zamir Kabulov, told Vremya Novostei, "The longer NATO remains in Afghanistan, the worse it will be for them. But it would be incorrect to imagine Russia wants NATO out of Afghanistan as soon as possible, at any cost. We will not let them out of Afghanistan until they solve the problems they have created - international terrorism, unchecked increase in drug trafficking - and build a strong state there, and rebuild the economy."

That is to say, Russia will provide all logistical support to NATO so that the alliance can focus attention on bleeding itself white in Afghanistan. An engrossing equation is developing that may determine the alchemy of Russia's relations with NATO for years to come. Whether Washington acknowledges it or not, the transit agreement gives Russia a role in the NATO operations in Afghanistan. The criticality of this role will only increase as NATO's heavy dependence - 70% plus as of now - on transit through Pakistani territory becomes more and more unsustainable.

Russian and NATO intelligence cannot be unaware that the Taliban have begun targeting Torkham, the strategic check post on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, which is also the main gateway for supply convoys for the alliance's forces. On March 20, a convoy of 40 oil tankers supplying NATO forces was destroyed in a series of explosions in a parking lot at Torkham. No doubt, the Taliban have identified NATO's supply and logistics systems as its Achilles' heel. Meanwhile, the willingness of the democratically elected government in Pakistan to continue as an ally in the "war on terror" itself remains to be seen.

What all this adds up to is that the Bush administration's triumphalism over the NATO Bucharest summit is going to be short-lived. How NATO is going to be able to extricate itself from the colossal muddle in Afghanistan is a wide open question. Attacks on NATO troops are now taking place at the rate of 500 per month. With all the heavyweight punches at the Bucharest summit, Washington failed to get any significant numbers of additional troops from its NATO allies.

The commitment by France, Britain, Poland, Spain, Romania and others add up to 2,000 to 2,500 troops, according to the White House, but the commanders in Afghanistan say they could use in immediate terms as many as two or three brigades, equal to some 10,000 troops. The US will have to make up the shortfall.

The US spokesman put on a brave face, claiming that "regardless of the situation in Iraq", Washington is committed to Afghanistan for the long haul. But then there is yet another side to it - the financial drain. The operations currently cost the American taxpayer US$100 million per day, which works out to $36 billion annually. The US is nowhere near the end of the tunnel after having spent $127 billion in the war in Afghanistan since 2001.

Above all, the political chessboard is dramatically shifting. The proposal made by Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov at Bucharest for the resuscitation of the "six plus two" contact group underscored this. Ironically, "six plus two" was created in the 1997-2001 period under the United Nations auspices for promoting reconciliation between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance groups. It comprised China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Pakistan and the US and Russia.

Karimov suggested an expanded format of "six plus two", including NATO, should work on a potential roadmap leading to peace in Afghanistan. Curiously, even as he was addressing the NATO leaders in Bucharest, a spokesman of the erstwhile Northern Alliance revealed in Kabul that they had already commenced secret talks with the Taliban. "We are both Muslims, we are both Afghans, and we are both dissatisfied with the [Kabul] government's performance," he reportedly claimed. He implied NATO is the outside party.

Karimov's proposal will be attractive to many NATO member countries, which remain skeptical about the US's so-called "comprehensive strategy" in the war and are inclined to exploring an exit strategy. (Der Spiegel reported that a German paper outlining an "exit strategy" figured in closed-door discussions at Bucharest.) At any rate, Washington will be irritated that the Uzbek proposal implicitly seeks a voice for Central Asian countries (and Russia and China) in NATO's war in Afghanistan.

To be sure, Moscow is keenly taking note. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko told Interfax news agency in Moscow last week that Russia would be willing to deepen cooperation with NATO over Afghanistan, but this would not happen "if each other's lawful security interests are not taken into account". He added in good measure, "There is no trade-off and there cannot be one."

Russia's transit deal might appear to involve only NATO's food and non-military supplies. But then, as the soldier in George Bernard Shaw's play Arms and the Man would say, chocolates are more important than ammunition. Grushko is justified to anticipate NATO's European members - and even Washington - will eventually appreciate Russia' s goodwill. Until that happens, Moscow wouldn't conclude who lost and who won at the summit in Bucharest.

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).

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