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.