What price Russian cooperation on Afghanistan?

January 6, 2009

According to the Washington Post, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates sees opportunities for the United States to cooperate with Russia on Afghanistan. The newspaper says Gates, a longtime Russia analyst during his years with the CIA, sees Moscow as less of a threat than do many inside and outside the U.S. military establishment. ”Russia is very worried about the drugs coming out of Afghanistan and has been supportive in terms of providing alternative routes for Europeans in particular to get equipment and supplies into Afghanistan,” it quoted him as saying.

The story is interesting in the context of the United States searching for new supply lines through Central Asia into Afghanistan as an alternative to Pakistan before it sends in thousands more troops.  “The plan to open new paths through Central Asia reflects an American-led effort to seek out a more reliable alternative to the route from Pakistan through the strategic Khyber Pass,” the New York Times said.

It quoted U.S. officials as saying that delicate negotiations were under way not only with the Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan but also with Russia, to work out the details of new supply routes. “The talks show the continued importance of American and NATO cooperation with the Kremlin, despite lingering tension over the war between Russia and Georgia in August.”

In an editorial, the International Herald Tribune picked up the same theme, saying that the passage from Pakistan, through the Khyber Pass, had become too dangerous. “Despite the tension in U.S.-Russian relations since the war in Georgia last August, Russian officials are saying openly that they share with NATO a strategic interest in helping protect Afghanistan from the Taliban. Toward that end, Russian and NATO representatives have been discussing the transport of NATO supplies to Afghanistan through Russia’s airspace.”

The question of how far Russia and the United States will cooperate on Afghanistan could have a major influence on both Pakistan and India.  Going back to the days of the Soviet occupation, Pakistan’s relationship with the United States has been driven by its status as a frontline state in wars in Afghanistan. India in turn resents Pakistan’s pivotal role in the Afghan campaign, fearing this might undermine its efforts to convince the United States to lean on Islamabad to crack down on militants it blames for the Mumbai attacks.

So how far will the United States be willing to modulate its approach to Russia to win its cooperation on Afghanistan and reduce its dependence on Pakistan?  The Washington Post quoted Gates as saying that, “One of the challenges facing the new administration is figuring out kind of where you push back on the Russians and where . . . there are opportunities to build a closer relationship.” But Gates also said in an article in Foreign Affairs that the United States must not fail in Afghanistan.  ”To be blunt, to fail — or to be seen to fail — in either Iraq or Afghanistan would be a disastrous blow to U.S. credibility, both among friends and allies and among potential adversaries.”

With President-elect Barack Obama avoiding making comments on foreign policy until he takes office on Jan. 20, it’s hard to judge how he will juggle all the competing foreign policy demands on him, from the Middle East to South Asia to relations with Russia and elsewhere.  But will a man who has declared Afghanistan to be a priority be willing to make compromises on other issues affecting Russia, including U.S. plans to set up a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic in the face of intense opposition from Moscow?   (This website has a good round-up of stories about the missile shield, including, if you scroll down to the bottom, links to editorials for and against the idea.)

A rhetorical question, obviously, until Obama takes office.  But surely an intriguing one, particularly in South Asia where every nuance of U.S. policy is studied closely. Russian support in Afghanistan might — or might not — influence the U.S. attitude to India and Pakistan. It might — or might not — be affected by issues as apparently different as the missile shield.  But did any of us ever think, before now, that the balance of power in South Asia could be affected by events in Poland and the Czech Republic?

This is one I’m going to watch closely and I would appreciate comments and links to stories that illuminate the subject both before and after Jan .20.

 

(Photos: Reuters file photo of Russian tanks during crisis with Georgia; Pakistani soldier on guard at the Khyber Pass; President-elect Barack Obama)

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