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    Central Asia
     Oct 28, 2010


NATO invites Russia to join Afghan fray
By M K Bhadrakumar

North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) officials have revealed their proposal with Moscow regarding a vastly stepped up Russian involvement in the Afghan war is in the final stages of negotiation and they are hopeful of formal agreement being reached at the alliance's two-day summit in Lisbon from November 19.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has announced his acceptance of the NATO invitation to attend the Lisbon summit, where he also scheduled to have a two-hour meeting with United States President Barack Obama. Aside Afghanistan, Medvedev's agenda includes Iran, a Russian proposal on a European security architecture and NATO's offer to cooperate with Russia on its missile defense system (which it is linking up with the US's).

Afghanistan promises to be the biggest vector of Russia-NATO

 

cooperation to date. It doesn't come as surprise. A sort of romance was in the air though Moscow kept coyly disputing. Like in the Charles Dickens novel David Copperfield, we knew "Barkis is willing". Barkis fell for small things - Clara Peggotty making "apple parsties" or that she "does all the cooking" - but the smart Russian diplomats will drive a hard bargain with NATO before a nuptial knot is tied.

The Russian ingenuity aims at making cooperation with the NATO a lucrative business deal as much as a political embrace.

However, the timing is significant. NATO hopes to tango with Russia in Lisbon within a few hours of settling into a long-term partnership with Kabul under a status of forces agreement with the Afghan government that peers into the post-war era. In short, NATO is joining hands with Russia even as it consolidates military presence in Central Asia - an incredible turn to the great game.

But stranger things have happened. Moscow seems increasingly confident of the reset with the US. The big question is how Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a host of others - Iranians, Central Asians (especially Uzbeks), Chinese and the Afghans (especially Pashtuns) - view an emergent NATO-Russia condominium.

NATO officials indicated that the deals included a supply of Russian helicopters and Russian crews to train Afghan pilots, Russian military instructors training Afghan military, expansion of the transit and supply routes for NATO forces in Afghanistan via Russian territory, and effective cooperation in curbing drug trafficking and strengthening border security.

The NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen told the Guardian newspaper: "The [Lisbon] summit can mark a new start in the relationship between NATO and Russia. We will hopefully agree on a broad range of areas in which we can develop practical cooperation on Afghanistan, counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics.

''Russia is strongly interested in increased cooperation ... Last December when I visited Moscow I suggested that Russia provide helicopters for the Afghan army. Since then Russia has reflected on that and there are now bilateral talks between Russia and the United States. I would not exclude that we will facilitate that process within the NATO-Russian Council."

Russian helicopters are rugged machines suitable for the tough conditions in Afghanistan and Afghan armed forces are used to Soviet-era equipment. Russia has been insisting on a "commercial" deal. But the deal has manifestly political overtones. Will Russia be deputing its military instructors to Afghanistan or will Afghan officers get trained in the Russian military academies?
The proposal to deploy Russian helicopter crews to Afghanistan is a dramatic step. Of all the images etched deep in the Afghan consciousness and jihad mythology, it is the Russian helicopter gunships criss-crossing the Afghan skies raining death and destruction during the period 1979-89 that still evokes fear and fury. No doubt, the return of Russian military personnel becomes a highly symbolic turning point in the 30-year Afghan civil war.

How far is NATO is coordinating with Karzai? Karzai kept a cool distance from Moscow during most of the time and only lately, when his relations with the West began plummeting did he begin thawing. Karzai will now have to think hard and measure the hostility toward Russia still among the Afghan people. He is debilitated in the Afghan bazaar by the image of being a puppet of foreign powers.

Second, Karzai is barely keeping equilibrium in a tempestuous relationship with Western forces over whom he has no control. Two days ago, he lashed out at the West. He also "stormed out" of a meeting with the US commander, General David Petraeus. Conceivably, he is also watching with disquiet the latest chapter in the US's dalliance with the Pakistani military. Karzai's preference will be to have independent dealings with the regional powers, especially Russia.

Third, the Russian entry will cast shadows on the Afghan ethnic mosaic. It has been with non-Pashtun nationalities - especially Tajiks and Uzbeks - that Moscow got deeply involved over the years. Moscow had little to do with the Hazaras and was mostly on uneasy terms with the Pashtuns (despite keeping subsoil contacts with the Taliban). The officer corps of Afghan armed forces is predominantly Tajik and the Pashtuns have misgivings that Moscow is once again developing the sinews of its erstwhile proxies.

More so, as the Russian military personnel will be coming in at a time when non-Pashtun groups have begun secretly arming themselves fearing a Taliban takeover in Kabul.

The Taliban will take serious note of any form of Russian military involvement in the war and that can have serious implications for the Taliban's future cooperation with Central Asian militant groups. The Taliban viewed as something within acceptable threshold that Russia provided NATO with air and land supply and transit arrangements. But the threshold of the Taliban's tolerance may change, especially if the nascent peace talks fail to take off and the accent falls on the resistance.

Third, suffice to say that regional powers like China, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan will be curious about Russia joining hands with NATO bilaterally, sidestepping the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In effect, the kaleidoscope of collective security in Central Asia undergoes an ominous tilt. NATO still views the CSTO and SCO disdainfully.

On balance, NATO and the US are net gainers. The timing is perfect. NATO ensures that Moscow acquiesces in its long-term military presence in the region. NATO has multiple motives. With the specter of defeat staring at it, NATO has nothing to lose. These are days when the alliance and the US in particular feel lonely when the dusk falls - and it's good to have company of friends who have moved about in the dark in the Hindu Kush. In any case, Moscow has been bending over backward to be helpful.
It is useful to keep Russia engaged instead of ignoring it lest it acted as a "spoiler". Moscow still wields influence over non-Pashtun groups opposed to reconciliation with the Taliban. Also, Pakistan no more objects to Russia's entry. Moscow made serious overtures to Islamabad to reach a modus vivendi over Afghanistan and it is paying dividends.

In practical terms, the northern supply route via Russian territory is a great boon for NATO with insurgents having stepped up attacks on the two routes running through Pakistan.

But the geopolitics of NATO-Russia tie-up isolates China and Iran. Conceivably, the US is pursuing this tie-up as a matter of regional policy. According to NATO officials, a separate agreement on limited Russian cooperation with NATO's European missile defense plans is also in prospect at the Lisbon summit, which is a symbolic demonstration of a security matrix struggling to be born. It seems the reset process with Russia that Washington mooted modestly as a course correction from the George W Bush era is beginning to impact on the geopolitical chessboard.

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.

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