Page 1 of 2 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
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
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
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
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,