What would Russian Afghan help mean for Pakistan?

March 16, 2008

With NATO saying it is nearing a deal to use Russian land and airspace to supply its security forces in Afghanistan, I’ve been trying to  work out what this could mean for Pakistan.

In the Asia Times Online, former Indian diplomat M K Bhadrakumar quotes U.S. military spokesmen as saying that about three quarters of all supplies are currently sent to Afghanistan via Pakistan. “On the face of it, Washington should jump at the Russian offer of support to the NATO mission in Afghanistan,” he writes. “Pakistan has proved to be an unreliable partner in the ‘war on terror’. The growing political uncertainties in Pakistan put question marks on the wisdom of the US continuing to depend so heavily on Pakistan for ferrying supplies for its troops in Afghanistan.”

File photo of disused Russian tank outside Kabul (2007)My first thought was to ask if this would mean a lowering of U.S. support for Pakistan and a concomitant reduction in the $10 billion in aid that it has pumped into Pakistan since 9/11 to obtain its help in the war in Afghanistan? Many Pakistanis complain the  United States has a long history of using and then abandoning Pakistan, most notably relying on it to arm and fund the mujahedeen fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and then losing interest when the Russians withdrew in 1989.

 But it seems highly unlikely that the United States would turn its back on Pakistan this time around since it can’t afford to keep driving Taliban and al Qaeda fighters out of Afghanistan only for them to seek refuge in Pakistan. According to a report published by the U.S. intelligence group Stratfor in January, “So long as the Taliban have sanctuary and logistical support from Pakistan, transferring all coalition troops in Iraq to Afghanistan would have no effect. And withdrawing from Afghanistan would return the situation to the status quo before Sept. 11. If dealing with the Taliban and destroying al Qaeda are part of any endgame, the key lies in Pakistan.”

In fact it would seem more logical that the United States would want to send troops to Pakistan to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda and prevent them seeking sanctuary there – as Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested in January. That “offer” was promptly rebuffed by Pakistan and is even less likely to be acceptable after parliamentary elections in February left Washington’s ally, President Pervez Musharraf, fighting for his survival.

Outside the Luna Caprese, site of bomb explosion in IslamabadThe new coalition government being put in place by the Pakistan People’s Party of the late Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif is expected to try to avoid the confrontational approach to Islamist militants which left many Pakistanis accusing Musharraf of fighting America’s war, and which many blame for bringing  mayhem into its heartland, including the latest bomb attacks in Lahore and Islamabad.

In a comment on a blog I posted last week, former Pakistan diplomat Wajid Shamsul Hasan writes that “by exploring a more carrot-and-stick approach to dealing with the Taliban and al Qaeda than simply shooting at everything that moves, there may be greater dividends than were possible hitherto. Even the army has been uncomfortable with methods tried thus far.”

There are lots of pieces of the jigsaw missing here. Bhadrakumar says in his Asia Times Online article that NATO is so keen to secure Russian help in Afghanistan that it is willing to defer a decision on membership for Ukraine and Georgia in what he calls “a huge gesture by NATO to Moscow’s sensitivities”. Though the existence of such a trade-off has been denied by western diplomats, it does suggest  Washington is extremely worried about the situation in Afghanistan. If it is desperate enough to go cap in hand to Moscow to help it defeat the Taliban, can it also be patient enough to tolerate a new government in Pakistan trying a more softly, softly approach?

So to go back to my original question, what would a deal between NATO and Russia on Afghanistan, if confirmed, mean for Pakistan? Would the United States’ reduced reliance on Pakistan for supplies to Afghanistan lead to less involvement there? Or does it signal the opposite — that Washington is now so worried about Afghanistan that it will put even more pressure on Pakistan to crack down harder to cut off the escape routes?

In this context it’s perhaps worth rereading Henry Kissinger’s warning to the United States in an op-ed published last week in the International Herald Tribune. “A wise policy must recognize that the internal structure of Pakistani politics is essentially out of the control of American political decision-making,” he writes.



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The war on terror seems to have entered into a crucial stage now. Sooner or later Pakistan, not as a establishment per se, but from societal point of view is going to come out openly in the war on terror, unfortunately, against the western forces. It is not difficult to perceive the future scenario – the current Afghan turmoil will spill over into western and other parts of Pakistan creating more chaos making difficult the logistics support for the NATO forces through Pakistan. Therefore, in such a context it becomes imperative for U.S. to seek Russia’s support.
With increasing opposition against the war in Afghanistan and Iraq back home, it becomes increasingly difficult and testing for the US govt. to fight a war with no collateral losses. That’s next to impossible. The question is how the geopolitical landscape of the war emerges in the months and years to come. Is it going to spread all over Middle East – Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and some parts of North east Africa? This is not an encouraging scenario for NATO to find themselves in. The war has to be fought fast, aggressively, and decisively in their favour, lest it will be another Vietnam and Russians won’t have much to lose.
Nice article by the way. will keep a watch.

Posted by prashant rai | Report as abusive

I am a bit struck by all this debate about the geopolitics of the situation in Pakistan and if Russia is going to do its bit or not and if the U.S.is going to crack the whip.

It all seems so disconnected with the ground as does Pakistan’s own, rather laborious process to name a prime minister

the reality to me, admittedly sitting hundreds of miles away in relative calm, is that the state of pakistan is under such an attack and increasingly powerless to stop it, that it seems quite irrelevant who the country’s prime minister will be or whether the russians will pitch in.

I look at each new attack – the Islambad restaurant over the weekend, Lahore twice during that week on top of an attack on a naval college to name only the latest ones – and it seems clear that the extremist forces have infiltrated every level of Pakistan’s establishment, and are rampaging at will even in the major cities where security arrangements are considered most effective.

One after another they have struck at every major establishment and they are targeted attacks. Four FBI officers (and did anyone tell us what is the FBI doing in Islamabad ?) were wounded in the bombing at the restaurant, the Lahore car bombing was directed at the office of a terrorist investigation cell that has been trained by the Americans, perhaps thats why the FBI is there.

And they attacked the naval college, for the first time ever – is that something to do with the fact that the Pakistan navy is doing its bit for the U.S-led operations in the Arabian sea in support of the war in Afghanistan/Pakistan,

I mean we are now in a situation where there seems to be an armed state within a state, which knows exactly who to go after and when, and we are powerless to stop them.

The West worries that its next attacker will come from the Waziristans or any of other troubled northwest regions, but for the 140 million Pakistanis, the bomber has already arrived, living in their midst attacking, and disappearing.

That certainly worries me far more than who Asif Zardari picks to be prime minister, if not himself, or whether NATO will use Russian land or air space for its Afghan operations.

Posted by ahmad durrani | Report as abusive

In response to your question about why it should matter whether Russia opens up supply routes to NATO in Afghanistan, my point was that it could influence the extent to which the United States sees Pakistan as an essentially ally or potential enemy in the future. As outlined in the comment above yours, a shift towards the latter would have huge consequences for people inside Pakistan.

Also as a follow-up recommend this piece on Countercurrents.org: “Pakistan resists capitulating to new U.S. demands.”

Posted by myra macdonald | Report as abusive

the pakistani government has for years had bad relations with afghanistan. The entire western region of pakistan is comprised of ethnic afghans aka pukhtuns. The status of these “Afghan” regions of pakistn have caused much trouble between afghanitan and pakistan, in fact the border war in the 1960’s caused afghanistan to rely more heavily on the soviets as a reponse to the United states supplying pakistan in the conflict. The result of this conflict led to another one, the afghan russian war, in which communist afghanistan and the soviets battled afghan tajik hazara and nooristani rebels who were supplied by the united states via pakistan. The conflict was sparked when afghanistans communist government asked the soviets to help them against pakistani backed rebels. After the soviet pullout ethnic rivalry between afghans (who only comprise 30 % of afghanistans population) tajiks uzbeks and hazaras sparked a civil war which involved all of the following ethnic armies fighting and allying with each other other at one point or another. Pakistan who at last since the time of its innception at last had a neighbor to the north who was in no condition to threaten it. with the intention of seeking strategic depth in the region paksitan with american aid money funded and supplied the taliban with weapons, ammunition, training facilities, intelligence and at times supplementing their ranks with pakistani soldiers. the newly formed and pakistani controlled taliban fought against the former mujihadeen warlords who were busy conducting genocide against each others civilian population. the taliban quickly was joined by afghans who were fighting with tajiks hazaras and uzbeks. The taliban who are ethnic pukhtuns of pakistan were the obvious choice of the afghan rebels who were their ethnic kin across the political borders of the two countries. With Us suport wannig saudi arabia became the chief funder of the taliban. WIth further saudi support the taliban became a well equipped army with helocopters artillary tanks and trained soldiers who had no shortage of funds or supplies. the rest of the ethnic groups allied with each other to combat the pakistnai based group. tajiks uzbeks and hazaras who comprimise 60 % of afghanistan joined forces but with no major suppliers lost major ground to the taliban, holding only 10 % of afghanistan by septerber 11th. With america looking for blood after 9-11 the tajiks uzbeks and hazaras were funded and resupplied at which point they retook afghanistan with american air support. The Us, after 911 has merly taken sides in the ethnic conflict whose seeds in the 1990’s started the taliban. The side they have taken is with nationalistic pukhtun aka afghans who reside in the urban areas, tajiks, uzbaks, hazaras against the taliban who have the popular support of afghans/ pukhtuns in the countryside and pakistan

Posted by waleed | Report as abusive