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
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
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,
''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
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
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
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
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.