Russia's back in Afghanistan, this time in cooperation with the West -- but do objectives really align?
At the annual NATO summit in Lisbon later this month, Russia plans to make a surprising announcement: It will assist the Western military alliance's war effort in Afghanistan, the land from which it was forced to make a humiliating withdrawal two decades ago after failing to defeat a U.S.-backed insurgency that dealt a decisive blow to an already crumbling Soviet Union.
NATO is portraying the announced cooperation with its International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) as the fruit of a broader rapprochement between Russia and the West, which both Washington and its European allies are eager to cultivate. "The meeting in Lisbon is a real opportunity to turn a new page, to bury the ghosts of the past," Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO's secretary-general, said last week during a pre-summit visit to Moscow. (Rasmussen presented a similar request last year, which the Russians spurned.)
NATO could certainly use more help in Afghanistan (though it would be preferable if its own members, some of which have been hesitant to send more forces and have bound those already in the field under overly stringent rules of engagement, picked up the slack). But it should be clear-eyed about Moscow's motives. The initial appeal of Russia's assistance -- that the country has knowledge of Afghanistan thanks to its own, decade-long engagement -- is belied by its brutal record. Afghans do not have fond memories of their former invaders, and it's not hard to understand why. Possibly 1 million Afghan civilians died in the Soviet war, which was waged with typical Russian carelessness and a complete lack of regard for winning hearts and minds. Russia carpet-bombed huge swaths of territory, laid mines that still maim and kill Afghan civilians, and wiped out entire villages suspected of sheltering mujahideen militants. By contrast, ISAF, though it has been criticized for civilian casualties incurred via drone strikes, is at least cognizant of how such deaths negatively affect its mission and has invested billions of dollars in reconstruction projects. The United Nations estimates that civilian casualties in the latest war, which has lasted nearly as long as the Soviet one, number somewhere between 12,000 and 30,000.
Moreover, the actual Russian commitment is small. Russia will not be contributing troops, the most badly needed resource in a counterinsurgency effort where success depends on dispersing soldiers throughout remote areas. Initial reports peg the promised assistance at a few helicopters and military trainers. The newfound Russian support for the NATO mission in Afghanistan (supposedly predicated on opposition to Islamist militants gaining a foothold in its neighborhood and distress at rising heroin addiction fueled by Afghan opium) does not exactly square with the attempts it has made to undermine the war. When, shortly after 9/11, the United States asked Tajikistan whether it could use the former Soviet republic's territory as a staging ground for the initial attack into Afghanistan (with which Tajikistan shares a 700-mile-long border), the Tajiks resisted due to vigorous Russian arm-twisting. When the United States convinced Kyrgyzstan, another poor, landlocked, former Soviet Central Asian republic, to allow the erection of a transit center that has proved crucial in transporting soldiers and equipment to Afghanistan, Russia immediately complained and began pressuring its government to evict the base. Last year, Russia persuaded Kyrgyzstan's then president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, to expel the Americans in exchange for a $2 billion loan package. Only when the United States offered to triple the rent it was paying to the Kyrgyz government did Bakiyev back down. This year, Bakiyev was violently ousted in an uprising that Moscow helped instigate, and Russia has been quietly pressuring the new Kyrgyz government to evict the Americans yet again.
To be sure, last year Moscow did agree to allow increased transit of supplies to Afghanistan over Russian air space and territory. But this pledge, made just two months after U.S. President Barack Obama announced that U.S. troops would begin withdrawing from the country in July 2011, only illustrates that Russia is preparing for what it sees as a hasty American exit. Russia of course wants to see the Taliban -- whose forefathers it unsuccessfully fought in the 1980s -- defeated and some form of stability restored to Afghanistan, and in that sense it shares a fundamental goal with NATO. But, and perhaps more importantly, it rejects long-term Western influence in the region, which explains why its actions have been so schizophrenic. Indeed, the Kremlin's goals may be mutually exclusive: A stable Afghanistan with some form of decent and representative government (ISAF's stated mission) is hardly compatible with a Central Asian region devoid of an extended Western security presence.
More important than any of these factors, however, is the cynical way in which Moscow will use its paltry assistance to ISAF as leverage with the West in negotiations over other matters, from NATO expansion to human rights to missile defense. More than two years after it invaded Georgia, Russia continues to occupy its neighbor's territory, rendering meaningless the European Union cease-fire agreement it signed at the end of the war. Its recognition of the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and distribution of Russian passports to citizens there is a continuing violation of international law. In August, Russia deployed high-precision air-defense missiles to Abkhazia, and it has signed deals to build permanent military bases in both territories. No doubt Moscow will use its token assistance in Afghanistan as a bargaining chip to solidify its position in Georgia, a country whose westward integration both the European Union and NATO have made a priority. Indeed, Russia has already asked that caps be lifted on the number of ''peacekeepers'' it is allowed to maintain in the breakaway territories.
At the same time it is insisting that the West ratify its occupation of a sovereign country, Moscow is challenging NATO's force posture among its own member states. According to a draft Russia-NATO cooperation agreement that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov submitted to Rasmussen last December, the Russians are insisting that NATO cap the number of forces deployed in Soviet bloc countries (Russia's so-called ''privileged sphere of interest'') at 3,000 and that it station no more than 24 aircraft in those countries for more than 42 days a year. Such demands represent an unprecedented infringement on the non-offensive military decision-making processes of NATO members.
To understand how Moscow views its relationship with Washington, it's best to hear Russian leaders in their more candid moments. "Let's not kid ourselves," Gleb Pavlovsky, a Kremlin insider, said last year in an interview with a Russian magazine. "Obama is no ally of ours. Remember, Obama has no support and is on the brink of an abyss... He needs us more than we need him." Like most transactions, the Russian offer of assistance to NATO in Afghanistan is a quid pro quo. America and its allies should think hard about what they will be asked to offer in return for this meager pledge.
NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images