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    Central Asia
     Jun 25, 2008
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Russia joins the war in Afghanistan
By M K Bhadrakumar

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 

Continued 1 2  

The Taliban's shadow hangs over NATO (Apr 8, '08)

Russia throws a wrench in NATO's works (Mar 15, '08)

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