Russian Advice on Afghanistan

We open the introductory issue with the New York Times Op-Ed of Jan 12, 2010. The article immediately triggered a routine hit back by few Western medias (most emphatic surprisingly in French Le Monde by Natalie Nougayrede) followed by bitter extra comment from a Russian blogger. Obvious propagandistic touch of the Western reaction suggests that the Russian officials were  quite successful in digging out some notable facts of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan…

The length of the NATO operation in Afghanistan will soon become comparable to that of the Soviet involvement there. But the military actions we conducted 20 years ago differed fundamentally from those of today.

We were fighting against the fathers of today’s Taliban militants face-to-face, whereas Western armies prefer to fight from the air. This allows them to save soldiers’ lives, but does not secure them from tragic mistakes that kill and wound civilians.

It is not only the nature of war and its means that have changed; the whole world has evolved. So it is wrong to compare these two operations in terms of death tolls or material and moral damage. A more challenging issue is to understand the political ramifications for NATO, Western security and the future of Central Asia. It is imperative for all three that NATO keep to its commitment in Afghanistan.

Recently there have been numerous appeals in Europe to curtail the presence of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan as soon as possible. The arguments underpinning such appeals are essentially both pacifist and irresponsible.

The national selfishness of peace-loving Europeans is understandable. There is a persistent flow of bad news from Afghanistan — military losses, scandalous incidents involving NATO soldiers, terrorist activity and the suffering of civilians.

No one likes bad news, especially if it comes from the provinces where one’s country’s soldiers are deployed. The Afghan problem causes growing irritation, fatigue and misunderstanding on the part of the public. Moreover, the state of their troops in the Afghan swamp mars NATO’s image as “the most successful alliance in the world.”

The logical question arises: “Why on earth should we be taking part in all of this?” While the main NATO power — the United States — sees the mission in Afghanistan as essential, the alliance includes 27 other member states, some of which have joined for reasons that have little to do with displaying heroism in far-away wars.

That is precisely why the ISAF operation in Afghanistan is the moment of truth for NATO. If the alliance does not accomplish its task, the mutual commitments of its 28 member-states would be undermined and the alliance would lose its moral foundation and raison d’être.

We know all too well what happens to unions that become meaningless. The war in Afghanistan was one of the major factors in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Officials in Brussels and Washington who are thinking of a rapid exit strategy for the ISAF mission are engaged in elaborating on a suicide plan. Withdrawal without victory might cause a political collapse of Western security structures.

This troubles Russia far less than the consequences for the region itself. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 was not a shameful escape accompanied by the hooting of the mujahadeen. The Soviet Army entered the country, accomplished its tasks — unlike the Americans in Vietnam — and returned to its motherland.

In fact, we were the first to defend Western civilization against the attacks of Muslim fanatics. No one thanked us. On the contrary, everyone was impeding our actions: The United States, NATO, Iran, Pakistan, even China. After the withdrawal of the Soviet Army, the Najibullah government that we left behind in Kabul remained in power for another three years.

It is true that Soviet troops committed serious errors in Afghanistan. We had no teachers.

How long would the Afghan government endure today if it were left alone to face the Taliban? A rapid slide into chaos awaits Afghanistan and its neighbors if NATO pulls out, pretending to have achieved its goals. A pullout would give a tremendous boost to Islamic militants, destabilize the Central Asian republics and set off flows of refugees, including many thousands to Europe and Russia.

It would also give a huge boost to the illegal drug trade. Opium production in Afghanistan in 2008 came to 7,700 tons, more than 40 times that of 2001, when international forces arrived. If even the ISAF presence could not prevent the explosive growth of Taliban drug dealing, than it is not difficult to understand what a NATO pull-out would lead to. As people in the West count the coffins of NATO soldiers from Afghanistan, let them not forget to include the coffins of Americans and Europeans who were killed by Taliban heroin in their own countries.

A “successful end” to the operation in Afghanistan will not come simply with the death of Osama bin Laden. The minimum that we require from NATO is consolidating a stable political regime in the country and preventing Talibanization of the entire region.

That is the Russian position. We are ready to help NATO implement its U.N. Security Council mandate in Afghanistan. We are utterly dissatisfied with the mood of capitulation at NATO headquarters, be it under the cover of “humanistic pacifism” or pragmatism.

We insist that NATO troops stay in the country until the necessary conditions are provided to establish stable local authorities capable of independently deterring radical forces and controlling the country. That is why we are helping NATO by providing transit for goods and training personnel for Afghanistan, including anti-narcotics officers.

Nevertheless, our cooperation with NATO is substantially limited since we are not sending our own troops to Afghanistan. We’ve been there before and we did not like it. That said, we are training CSTO Rapid Reaction Forces — an operational formation of elite units from Russia and our allies in Central Asia — in case of a NATO fiasco.

Meanwhile, NATO should get down to studying our war in Afghanistan, in which the Soviet Union managed to deter the onslaught of Islamic fundamentalists for a full 10 years.

Boris Gromov, acting governor of the Moscow region, in 1980s commanded the 40th Soviet Army in Afghanistan.

Dmitry Rogozin is Russia’s ambassador to NATO.

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