Russia stops US on road to Afghanistan
By M K Bhadrakumar
Precise, quick, deadly - the skills of a soldier are modest. But then, US
Central Command chief General David Petraeus is more than a soldier. The world
is getting used to him as somewhere more than halfway down the road to becoming
a statesman. Sure, there may be warfare's seduction over him still, but he is
expected to be aware of the political realities of the two wars he conducts, in
Iraq and Afghanistan.
That is why he tripped last Tuesday when he said while on a visit to Pakistan
that the American military had secured agreements to move supplies to
Afghanistan from the north, easing the heavy reliance on the transit route
through Pakistan. "There have been agreements reached, and there are transit
lines now and transit
agreements for commercial goods and services in particular that include several
countries in the Central Asian states and Russia," Petraeus said.
He was needlessly precise - like a soldier. Maybe he needed to impress on the
tough Pakistani generals that they wouldn't hold the US forces in Afghanistan
by their jugular veins for long. Or, he felt simply exasperated about the
doublespeak of Janus-faced southwest Asian generals.
The shocking intelligence assessment shared by Moscow reveals that almost half
of the US supplies passing through Pakistan is pilfered by motley groups of
Taliban militants, petty traders and plain thieves. The US Army is getting
burgled in broad daylight and can't do much about it. Almost 80% of all
supplies for Afghanistan pass through Pakistan. The Peshawar bazaar is doing a
roaring business hawking stolen US military ware, as in the 1980s during the
Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. This volume of business will register a
quantum jump following the doubling of the US troop level in Afghanistan to
60,000. Wars are essentially tragedies, but can be comical, too.
Moscow disclaims transit route
At any rate, within a day of Petraeus' remark, Moscow corrected him. Deputy
Foreign Minister Alexei Maslov told Itar-Tass, “No official documents were
submitted to Russia's permanent mission in NATO [North Atlantic Treaty
Organization] certifying that Russia had authorized the United States and NATO
to transport military supplies across the country."
A day later, Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, added from Brussels,
"We know nothing of Russia's alleged agreement of military transit of Americans
or NATO at large. There had been suggestions of the sort, but they were not
formalized." And, with a touch of irony, Rogozin insisted Russia wanted the
military alliance to succeed in Afghanistan.
"I can responsibly say that in the event of NATO's defeat in Afghanistan,
fundamentalists who are inspired by this victory will set their eyes on the
north. First they will hit Tajikistan, then they will try to break into
Uzbekistan ... If things turn out badly, in about 10 years, our boys will have
to fight well-armed and well-organized Islamists somewhere in Kazakhstan," the
popular Moscow-politician turned diplomat added.
Russian experts have let it be known that Moscow views with disquiet the US's
recent overtures to Central Asian countries regarding bilateral transit
treaties with them which exclude Russia. Agreements have been reached with
Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Moscow feels the US is pressing ahead with
a new Caspian transit route which involves the dispatch of shipments via
Georgia to Azerbaijan and thereon to the Kazakh harbor of Aktau and across the
Uzbek territory to Amu Darya and northern Afghanistan.
Russian experts estimate that the proposed Caspian transit route could
eventually become an energy transportation route in reverse direction, which
would mean a strategic setback for Russia in the decade-long struggle for the
region's hydrocarbon reserves.
Russia presses for role in Kabul
Indeed, Uzbekistan is the key Central Asian country in the great game over the
northern transit route to Afghanistan. Thus, during Russian President Dmitry
Medvedev's visit to Tashkent last week, Afghanistan figured as a key topic.
Medvedev characterized Russian-Uzbek relations as a "strategic partnership and
alliance" and said that on matters relating to Afghanistan, Moscow's
cooperation with Tashkent assumed an "exceptional importance".
He said he and Uzbek President Islam Karimov agreed that there could be no
"unilateral solution" to the Afghan problem and "nothing can be resolved
without taking into account the collective opinion of states which have an
interest in the resolution of the situation".
Most significantly, Medvedev underlined Russia had no objections about US
President Barack Obama's idea of linking the Afghanistan and Pakistan problems,
but for an entirely different reason, as "it is not possible to examine the
establishment and development of a modern political system in Afghanistan in
isolation from the context of normalizing relations between Afghanistan and
Pakistan in their border regions, setting up the appropriate international
mechanisms and so on".
Moscow rarely touches on the sensitive Durand Line question, that is, the
controversial line that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan. Medvedev
underscored that Russia remained an interested party, as there was a "need to
ensure that these issues are resolved on a collective basis".
Second, Medvedev made it clear Moscow would resist US attempts to expand its
military and political presence in the Central Asian and Caspian regions. He
asserted, "This is a key region, a region in which diverse processes are taking
place and in which Russia has crucially important work to do to coordinate our
positions with our colleagues and help to find common solutions to the most
Plainly put, Moscow will not allow a replay of the US's tactic after September
11, 2002, when it sought a military presence in Central Asia as a temporary
measure and then coolly proceeded to put it on a long-term footing.
Karzai reaches out to Moscow
Interestingly, Medvedev's remarks coincide with reports that Washington is
cutting Afghan President Hamid Karzai adrift and is planning to install a new
"dream team" in Kabul.
Medvedev had written to Karzai offering military aid. Karzai apparently
accepted the Russian offer, ignoring the US objection that in terms of secret
US-Afghan agreements, Kabul needed Washington's prior consent for such dealings
with third countries.
A statement from the Kremlin last Monday said Russia was "ready to provide
broad assistance for an independent and democratic country [Afghanistan] that
lives in a peaceful atmosphere with its neighbors. Cooperation in the defense
sector ... will be effective for establishing peace in the region". It makes
sense for Kabul to make military procurements from Russia since the Afghan
armed forces use Soviet weaponry. But Washington doesn't want a Russian
"presence" in Kabul.
Quite obviously, Moscow and Kabul have challenged the US's secret veto power
over Afghanistan's external relations. Last Friday, Russian and Afghan
diplomats met in Moscow and "pledged to continue developing Russian-Afghan
cooperation in politics, trade and economics as well as in the humanitarian
sphere". Significantly, they also "noted the importance of the Shanghai
Cooperation Organization [SCO]" that is dominated by Russia and China.
SCO seeks Afghan role
Washington cannot openly censure Karzai from edging close to Russia (and China)
since Afghanistan is notionally a sovereign country. Meanwhile, Moscow is
intervening in Kabul's assertion of independence. Moscow has stepped up its
efforts to hold an international conference on Afghanistan under the aegis of
the SCO. The US doesn't want Karzai to legitimize a SCO role in the Afghan
problem. Now a flashpoint arises.
A meeting of deputy foreign ministers from the SCO member countries (China,
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) met in Moscow on
January 14. The Russian Foreign Ministry subsequently announced that a
conference would take place in late March. The Russian initiative received a
big boost with Iran and India's decision to participate in the conference.
New Delhi has welcomed an enhanced role for itself as a SCO observer and seeks
"greater participation" in the organization's activities. In particular, New
Delhi has "expressed interest in participating in the activities" of the SCO
contact group on Afghanistan.
The big question is whether Karzai will seize these regional trends and respond
to the SCO overture, which will enable Kabul to get out of Washington's
stranglehold? To be sure, Washington is racing against time in bringing about a
"regime change" in Kabul.
The point is, more and more countries in the region are finding it difficult to
accept the US monopoly on conflict-resolution in Afghanistan. Washington will
be hard-pressed to dissociate from the forthcoming SCO conference in March and,
ideally, would have wished that Karzai also stayed away, despite it being a
full-fledged regional initiative that includes all of Afghanistan's neighbors.
The SCO is sure to list Afghanistan as a major agenda item at its annual summit
meeting scheduled to be held in August in Yekaterinburg, Russia. It seems
Washington cannot stop the SCO in its tracks at this stage, except by genuinely
broad-basing the search for an Afghan settlement and allowing regional powers
with legitimate interests to fully participate.
The current US thinking, on the other hand, is to strike "grand bargains" with
regional powers bilaterally and to keep them apart from collectively
coordinating with each other on the basis of shared concerns. But the regional
powers see through the US game plan for what it is - a smart move of
Moscow spurns selective engagement
No doubt, these diplomatic maneuverings also reveal the trust deficit in
Russian-American relations. Moscow voices optimism that Obama will
constructively address the problems that have accumulated in the US-Russia
relationship. But Russia figured neither in Obama's inaugural address nor in
the foreign policy document spelling out his agenda.
Last Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov summed up Moscow's minimal
expectations: "I hope the controversial problems in our relations, such as
missile defense, the expediency of NATO expansion ... will be resolved on the
basis of pragmatism, without the ideological assessment the outgoing
administration had ... We have noticed that ... Obama was willing to take a
break on the issue of missile defense ... and to evaluate its effectiveness and
But Russia is not among the new US administration's priorities. Besides, as the
influential newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta noted last week, "A considerable
number of [US] congressmen from both parties believe Russia needs a good
talking-to." The current Russian priority will be to organize an early meeting
between Lavrov and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and until such a meeting
takes place, matters are on hold - including the vexed issue of the transit
route for Afghanistan.
Thus, while talking to the media in Tashkent, Medvedev agreed in principle to
grant permission to the US to use a transit route to Afghanistan via Russian
territory, but at once qualified it saying, "This cooperation should be
full-fledged and on an equal basis." He reminded Obama that the "surge"
strategy in Afghanistan might not work. "We hope the new administration will be
more successful than its predecessor on the issues surrounding Afghanistan,"
Evidently, Petraeus overlooked that the US's needless obduracy to keep the
Hindu Kush as its exclusive geopolitical turf right in the middle of Asia has
become a contentious issue. No matter the fine rhetoric, the Obama
administration will find it difficult to sustain the myth that the Afghan war
is all about fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban to the finish.
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.