No way to Afghanistan

In December 2009, the world was close to seeing a political sensation. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary general of Nato, came to Russia to ask for an increased contribution to the Afghan problem. He was welcomed by the president and the prime minister. They listened and even nodded at some points, such as the common objectives of combating terrorism and drugs that have been spreading from Afghanistan.

It proved to be a flash in the pan. Both sides failed to move beyond mutual lamentations about the threats from terrorists and the heroin trade. Rasmussen invited Russia to shoulder a part of the burden the West has been struggling to carry. The Kremlin promised to "look closely at the proposals" and waved a warm goodbye.

For all that, Moscow has not fully turned its back on Afghanistan and the Alliance’s efforts to sort out the many problems there. Russia let allied forces use its airports. It offered a training programme for the Afghan drug police with 200 officers signed up for 2010. It reportedly shares intelligence with the US. Russian generals with Afghan experience talk about it to those willing to listen. Private Russian airlines ship people and cargo to and from Afghanistan, using routes regarded as off-limits by others.

It’s true that compared to the enormous costs borne by the US, the UK and their partners, Russia’s contribution appears modest. That is what Mr Rasmussen came to talk about in Moscow: Hey, guys, still shirking the noble cause? Do you think Afghanistan has a common border with America? It will be the former USSR republics, not California, that will be flooded with the hordes of extremists if they win at home. The same applies to heroin, of which 70pc ends up in Russia, damaging the already delicate health of the nation.

Why is the Kremlin in no hurry to play a full part in this largest-ever counter-terrorist operation? There are a number of reasons, the main one being the USSR’s disastrous failure to complete its “international mission” in the 1980s, a trauma from which Russia has not recovered. The wound is too deep and military involvement is out of the question. There would be massive protests.

Anyway, even a schoolboy will tell you that there is no military solution to the Afghan problem.

There is one more understated reason, as hotly debated behind the scenes as it is carefully avoided by government spokesmen. Moscow largely considers this to be a losing game, and feels little inclined to be involved, even indirectly. Sooner or later, Americans and other Nato troops will have to leave, and there is little telling what they will leave behind for Russia to live with next door.

So shall we stay above the fray and refuse to be anything but witnesses to the events that are likely to influence the rest of the 21st century? Of course not. As soon as the coalition starts doing something that can really bring about a radical improvement, we will be at their disposal. We are concerned about the heroin plague, but the facts show that the amount of drugs produced in Afghanistan soared after the coalition forces took over. Demonstrate that you are serious about fighting the drug business and we will stay staunchly by your side. We want to curb the spread of terrorism, but we clearly understand the futility and damaging consequences of military escalation: the bigger the foreign contingent in Afghanistan, the lower the chances of success.

If we see that apart from killing off guerrillas, you have managed to create a strong and corruption-free government based on popular support, and have begun to rebuild the infrastructure, and launch humanitarian projects, there will be broad opportunities for cooperation.

Nato could learn a lot from the Soviet experience in the 1980s, in terms of having a constructive dialogue with the armed opposition officially known as “the national reconciliation policy”. It is a good sign that this aspect was in the focus of the discussion at the big international conference on Afghanistan held in London on January 28, 2010.

In terms of practical help, Russian companies could come in to upgrade facilities built by the Soviet Union, build new tunnels and bridges. There is one problem. Russian companies have so far been shut out of the Afghan market. “Others are carving up the pie” is a phrase I keep hearing from Russian businessmen who tried to take part in strictly non-military projects in Afghanistan. It is my conviction that all Afghan troubles stem from the fact that many top politicians who shape the destinies of the world today continue to regard Afghanistan merely as an arena of geopolitical competition or “a chessboard” as it was referred to by the UK foreign secretary David Miliband. Sadly, there is still not much mutual trust between the chess players. –

Vladimir Snegiryov worked in Afghanistan as a correspondent (1981-1992), wrote a number of books and film scripts about Afghan war.

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