Nato is Deeper in its Afghan Mire Than Russia Ever Was
Two decades after the Soviet withdrawal, ever more resources are being poured into a war with scant chance of success
Twenty years ago tomorrow the last Soviet units left Afghanistan after a nine-year intervention that took 15,000 soldiers' lives. As they crossed the river Oxus I was in the air above them, the only foreign journalist to fly to Kabul that day. Russian friends in Moscow, where I was this newspaper's correspondent, doubted my sanity, convinced a bloodbath was bound to follow the Soviet exodus. I disagreed. The secular regime under Mohammed Najibullah that the Kremlin left behind had a firmer base than many outsiders realised, thanks in part to support from Kabulis who feared chaos and blood-letting if the mujahideen won the civil war. Two decades later the ironies of America's war in Afghanistan are telling. When Richard Holbrooke, the new US envoy to the region, visited the country this week he may not have been aware of the Soviet anniversary. But the US-led intervention is already almost as long. At this stage of their war the Russians were preparing to leave. Now the US and Nato want to get further in, and if Barack Obama's plans for 30,000 extra US troops are met, along with efforts to get more from Nato, coalition forces will almost equal the 115,000 troops the Russians had at their peak.
Western casualties are considerably less, but Nato has been no more successful. Like the Russians, the western alliance mainly occupies Kabul and provincial capitals. The countryside is vulnerable to attack or in the hands of the resistance - a mixture of Islamic fundamentalists, Pashtun nationalists, local tribal chiefs and mullahs, and Arab jihadis - just like the mujahideen who confronted the Russians. The difference is that the west and Pakistan supported and armed them in the 1980s. Now, using the profits of heroin-running, they are self-sustaining and harder to control. Nato faces tougher challenges than the Russians. Twenty years ago the Taliban did not exist, suicide bombing was not in vogue, and the Afghan army and police were more effective. Kabul under Soviet rule was an oasis of calm, where girls went to school and unveiled young women attended university. The mujahideen fired occasional rockets into the city but caused too little damage to upset normal life. Note the contrast with today's siren-screaming armoured convoys and western offices hidden behind high walls and sandbags, and still the Taliban were able to attack three government buildings a few days ago.
The Soviet invasion violated international law and was condemned by the UN. But its goals were more modest than the US's in 2001. Moscow was not seeking regime change. It was trying to prop up a regime under threat from a mounting civil war. Although western hawks claimed the Kremlin planned to advance through Afghanistan to seize warm water ports in the Gulf, the true aim was limited. Moscow wanted to defend an allied government, contain the mujahideen (who were getting CIA support before Soviet troops invaded), and prevent Afghanistan becoming a pro-western bastion. This was shortly after the US was expelled from Iran and the Kremlin feared Washington wanted Afghanistan as its replacement. Getting out was easier for Moscow than it will be for the US. International negotiations in Geneva gave the Kremlin the face-saver of "parallelism". The peace terms were that the Russians would leave when aid to the mujahideen ceased and an intra-Afghan dialogue was launched. This disguised any appearance of defeat. It even provided a good chance for the Afghan government to continue after Soviet troops withdrew. In fact, it lasted three more years.
The causes and consequences of the Soviet withdrawal and Najibullah's eventual fall have led to some of the phoniest myths of the cold war. Claims that US-provided Stinger missiles forced the Russians to give up and that this humiliation provoked the Soviet Union's collapse are nonsense. Moscow's ally Najibullah fell four months after the USSR died, when the Kremlin's new ruler, Boris Yeltsin, cut fuel supplies to the Afghan army and Abdul Rashid Dostum, the leading Uzbek commander, defected to the mujahideen. Until that moment, they had not captured and held a single city. Another myth is that the west "walked away" after the Russians left. If only it had. Instead Washington and Pakistan broke the Geneva agreement by maintaining arms supplies to the mujahideen. They encouraged them to reject Najibullah's repeated efforts at national reconciliation. The mujahideen wanted all-out victory, which they eventually got, only to squander it in an orgy of artillery shelling that left Kabul in ruins and produced the anger that paved the way for the Taliban. If western governments are now paying a high price in Afghanistan, they have brought the disaster on themselves. The Taliban will not drive Nato out militarily. The notion that Afghans always defeat foreigners is wrong. The real lesson of the Soviet war is that in Afghanistan political and cultural disunity can slide into massive and prolonged violence. Foreigners intervene at their peril.
Nato is in a cleft stick and the idea that, unlike Iraq, Afghanistan is the "right war" is a self-deluding trap. A military "surge", the favoured Obama policy, may produce short-term local advances but no sustainable improvement, and as yesterday's Guardian reported, it will cost the US and Britain enormous sums. Pouring in aid will take too long to win hearts and minds, and if normal practice is followed, the money will mainly go to foreign consultants and corrupt officials. Talking to the Taliban makes sense under Najibullah-style national reconciliation. But the Taliban themselves are disunited, with a host of local leaders and generational divisions between "new" and "old" Taliban. Worse still, since the war spilt into Pakistan's frontier regions, there are now Pakistani Taliban. What of the better option, a phased Nato withdrawal? It will not produce benefits as clear or immediate as the US pull-out from Iraq. Most Iraqis never wanted the US in the first place. They know the destruction the invasion brought, have stepped back from sectarian war, and now have a government which has pressed Washington to set a timetable to leave. In Afghanistan the risks of a collapse of central rule and a long civil war are far greater.
Russia’s ambivalence stems in large part from its renewed effort to assert a zone of influence, flexing its power across the former Soviet Union and deepening tensions with the United States on a range of issues. Its unease over supposed Western encroachment spurred its August war with neighboring Georgia, which wants NATO membership; now it is coming to bear on Afghanistan. The Kremlin under Vladimir V. Putin is essentially making clear that because the United States is maneuvering in Russia’s neighborhood, the Kremlin must exert some control — even if it means hampering the ability to supply the Afghanistan mission.
“Russia wants to be the only master of the Central Asian domain,” said Andrei Serenko, a founder of the Center for the Study of Contemporary Afghanistan, a Russian research group. “Russia is interested, to the maximum extent possible, in making things difficult for the U.S. — in making the transfer of American forces into Afghanistan be dependent on the will of the Kremlin.”
On its face, Russia has a lot to lose in Afghanistan. It fears the spread of Islamic extremism from Afghanistan into Central Asia and on to southern Russia, where for years it has battled an Islamic insurgency in Chechnya and nearby regions. Confronting a serious heroin problem, Russia also urgently needs Afghanistan’s authorities to curtail poppy production. And of course, given the history, Russia might be expected to empathize with NATO over the mission’s difficulties. Beyond its concerns about American soldiers nearby, the Kremlin also seems reluctant to offer significant help until it knows the Obama administration’s stance toward Russia. Relations soured under George W. Bush after he called for Ukraine and Georgia to enter NATO, and proposed an anti-missile system for Eastern Europe. Mr. Obama has not yet said whether he will pursue those policies.
“This is a very delicate moment for Russia, because it is trying to understand the plans of the Obama administration,” said Vladimir Sotnikov, a South Asia expert at the Institute for Oriental Studies in Moscow. “In the Russian political elite, there is a struggle between pragmatists and conservatives. Pragmatists are standing for a new chapter in Russian-American relations, but conservatives are thinking in older terms — ‘Look, no major changes are going to take place, so let’s close down the American base.’ ”
The Russian position on Afghanistan would appear to loom increasingly large as President Obama presses his plan to quell the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and seek out leaders of Al Qaeda along the largely ungoverned Pakistani border. Last week, he announced that he would send an additional 17,000 American troops to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, access to supply those troops through Pakistan has become more tenuous. So, even as administration officials have called for a new era of relations with Russia — what Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. described recently as pressing “the reset button” — they have also begun expressing irritation over Afghanistan.
“The Russians are trying to have it both ways with respect to Afghanistan, in terms of Manas,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said last week, referring to the base in Kyrgyzstan. “And the question is, on one hand, you’re making positive noises about working with us in Afghanistan, and on the other hand you’re working against us in terms of that airfield, which is clearly important to us. So how do we go forward in that light?”
Mr. Gates said he hoped that the United States might be able to reach a new agreement with Kyrgyzstan to keep the base open. His statement suggested that the administration knows that to improve the situation in Central Asia, it most likely has to go through Moscow. Igor V. Barinov, a Parliament member from Mr. Putin’s party who is a prominent voice on defense matters, said the Kremlin realized that it shares many goals with Washington in Afghanistan. He said he would favor eventually even allowing military hardware to be transported across Russia to Afghanistan. (Like other senior Russian officials, he said there was no chance of the Kremlin sending troops to Afghanistan, for obvious reasons.) But Mr. Barinov said that at least for now, the Russian leadership is having a hard time brushing aside its longstanding grievances.
“A lot of these things,” he said, “are the consequences of the attitude that NATO takes and has taken in recent years toward mutually important issues that touch upon the interests of Russia — beginning with the Balkans and Yugoslavia, Kosovo, NATO moving eastward, to Ukraine and Georgia, the Baltic states. And if more attention had been paid toward Russia’s opinion, then the situation would now be much better.”
Dmitri O. Rogozin, Russia’s outspoken ambassador to NATO, has often pointed out that the Kremlin considers stabilizing Afghanistan so vital that even during the strains with the West over the Georgia conflict, it did not rip up its agreement to allow nonmilitary cargo to travel across Russia. Mr. Rogozin reiterated this month that Russia was deeply worried about the spread of Islamic extremism. But he also did not shy from expressing a little satisfaction that the mighty Americans were faring not much better than the Soviets. “They have repeated all our mistakes, and they have made a mountain of their own,” he said.
In other news:
Russian Muscle in Central Asia
Russia is flexing its muscle in central Asia, and the Obama administration had better pay attention. Today's Wall Street Journal headlines: "Moscow Moves to Counter U.S. Power in Central Asia." It cites as evidence, quite correctly, two major steps by Russia:
Russia is reasserting its role in Central Asia with a Kremlin push to eject the U.S. from a vital air base and a Moscow-led pact to form an international military force to rival NATO -- two moves that potentially complicate the new U.S. war strategy in Afghanistan.
Together with Russia's war against Georgia last summer, and the more recent Russian muscle-flexing over gas pipelines that transit Ukraine, the Russian actions in central Asia reflect a no-nonsense message to President Obama that Moscow expects major changes in US policy toward Russia -- and that Moscow is prepared to play hardball to make sure it happens. In addition, in another corner of the former Soviet world, Russia and Belarus are creating a joint air defense system, too. The central Asia base is the US air base at in Kyrgyzstan, established at the start of the Afghan war in 2001, when the Bush administration bullied its way into central Asia on the pretext of fighting the War on Terror. The Manas air base has been crucially important as part of the US air war in Afghanistan, and losing it could severely weaken the US effort there. To persuade Kyrgyzstan to oust the Americans, the Russians agreed to provide the country with a $2 billion loan, $150 million in direct aid, write off $180 million in debt, and build a $1.7 billion power plant for the electricity-starved nation.
Notes the Journal:
The loss of the Manas base would be a major blow to the escalating U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. In 2008, 170,000 American personnel passed through Manas on their way in or out of Afghanistan, along with 5,000 tons of equipment. "We have contingencies, and it's not fatal, but there's no way around the fact that this would be a real blow," said a senior Pentagon official. "It could also leave us more dependent on Russia, which is not a place we'd like to be."
The Russians have offered to support the US war effort by allowing NATO to ship fuel and supplies over land from Europe to Afghanistan. That's become more important as the Taliban shuts down supply lines through Pakistan and over the mountainous border into Afghanistan. But it also would give Russia great leverage over the US-NATO war in Afghanistan. At the same time, as the Journal notes, Moscow announced the formation of a rapid reaction force, jointly with former Soviet states:
Russian paratroopers are to form the core of the new military force, which is planned to be about 10,000 men. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the force will be ready "to rebuff military aggression," fight terrorism, drug trafficking and organized crime, and handle natural and technological disasters. "These are going to be quite formidable units," Mr. Medvedev said. "According to their combat potential, they must be no weaker than similar forces of the North Atlantic alliance."
The AP reports what happened at the meeting of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization:
Russia sought to strengthen its security alliance with six other former Soviet nations Wednesday by forming a joint rapid reaction force in a continuing effort to curb U.S. influence in energy-rich Central Asia. The summit of the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization came a day after Kyrgyzstan said it would end the U.S. lease of an air base that supports military operations in Afghanistan. The eviction of U.S. troops would mark a victory for Moscow in what it considers its historical backyard. Russia, Armenia, Belarus and four Central Asian nations - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - agreed Wednesday to set up a joint rapid reaction force. The force is expected to have about 10,000 members and function under a central command, replacing the existing force, which has 3,000. It is not under unified command. The move would strengthen the military dimension of the alliance, which has served mostly as a forum for security consultations. A Kremlin adviser said Russian paratroopers would form the core of the force. Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, said Wednesday that Kyrgyzstan may host some of the newly formed rapid reaction forces at the base now leased by the U.S.
The Russia-Belarus deal is also reported by AP:
Russia and Belarus will create a new military system to monitor and defend their airspace, the Kremlin said Tuesday - strengthening cooperation between the two uneasy allies who are deeply suspicious of U.S. plans to put a missile defense shield in Europe. The deal reflects the former Soviet neighbors' mistrust of Western intentions. It also reflects their shared opposition to NATO's expansion into former Soviet turf and U.S. efforts to build missile defense sites in Belarus' neighbor Poland and the Czech Republic.
Obama ought to be paying attention not only because Russia can make or break US efforts to negotiate a deal in Afghanistan, but also because Obama needs Russia to help persuade Iran to find a solution to the conflict over Tehran's nuclear program.
U.S., Russia: A Mysterious Satellite Collision
Statistically speaking, the enormous scale of space makes the chance that this kind of direct collision would occur completely by accident infinitesimal. A U.S. Iridium communications satellite and an old Russian communications relay satellite collided over Siberia on Feb. 10, according to reports that surfaced late Feb. 11. Nicholas Johnson, NASA’s chief scientist for orbital debris at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Michael Carey, deputy director of global operations with U.S. Strategic Command, have both confirmed the incident. Iridium Satellite LLC, which provides satellite phone service, has released a statement acknowledging the collision.
Multiple sources have now reported the collision. Some 600 pieces of debris are already being tracked from the event, which reportedly took place over northern Siberia at an altitude of 491 miles. This is well within the most popular band of low Earth orbit for satellites. The collision appears to have involved the Iridium 33 (NORAD ID 24946) communications satellite, launched in 1997, which had been reported by Iridium to be operational. The Russian craft was the Cosmos 2251 (NORAD ID 22675) communications relay satellite, launched in 1993 and widely reported to be nonoperational.
This is the first case in history of two satellites colliding. The orbital altitude where the collision took place is among the most crowded in low Earth orbit, but statistically speaking, the enormous scale of space makes the chance that this kind of direct collision would occur completely by accident infinitesimal. This unlikelihood is compounded by the fact that the U.S. Air Force Space Surveillance Network provides space situational awareness and tracks some 18,000 satellites, orbital debris and other objects orbiting the earth.
Though the network’s tracking of each of these objects is not constant, all objects of a certain size or larger are catalogued; potential collisions or near misses are generally spotted, and satellites can usually be maneuvered to avoid them. As an operational satellite providing regular service, Iridium 33’s orbit should have been stable. (Iridium has said that its global service has been only minimally affected.) The same is true of Cosmos 2251, even though it is likely slowly decaying. Stratfor notes this event first and foremost as anomalous — an important part of the intelligence process. We will continue to monitor the situation closely.