Russia’s assessment of NATO’s operations in Afghanistan, as well as the future nature of the alliance’s mission there, has been mooted within Russian diplomatic circles. These observations, shared with the alliance through official channels, point to genuine concern within Russia’s government and its military and security structures about the possible future impact on Russian security or Central Asian stability if NATO’s efforts to stabilize Afghanistan end in failure. Moscow is not simply sitting back and shaking its finger at a pro-active and expanding Western alliance. In Moscow there is recognition that Western failure in Afghanistan will ultimately have serious implications for Russia. It is also another signal that countries with a vested interest in the outcome of the Afghan mission should plan for a possibly messy Western exit and its complicated aftermath.
On June 25 Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s permanent representative at NATO Headquarters, proposed that one of the sessions of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC), which has been a unique and politically crucial mechanism for the promotion of political dialogue between the alliance and Russia, could be held closer to Afghanistan. He suggested that the NRC at the ambassadorial level would benefit from meeting closer to the region, and he sought to capitalize on the presence at the recent NRC in Brussels of Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s Ambassador to Afghanistan. Together, these diplomats offered a sobering “Russian view” of the security situation in Afghanistan, hardly surprising to NATO officials, confirming how closely and precisely Moscow is following the unfolding NATO crisis. The Western media has portrayed Rogozin’s appointment as a negative signal to Brussels with regard to Moscow’s relationship with NATO, but Rogozin pointed to the willingness to hear these alternative views as an indication that real political dialogue exists.
Given NATO’s recent policies toward Russia’s “big bang” approach to NATO enlargement, which offered future membership (but not yet Membership Action Plans) to Ukraine and Georgia at the April 2008 Bucharest Summit, it was surprising that the alliance showed apparent readiness to listen to such an overtly hostile critique of the challenges facing NATO commanders in Afghanistan.
The Russian view, as summarized by Rogozin, centers on the fact that NATO faces no easy exit from Afghanistan, and its efforts in military, economic, political costs have failed to shed any light on how this might be achieved in the future. “We are ready to continue helping, because if NATO admits defeat in the future, which is a likely outcome, this may lead to a strengthened enemy [Islamic extremists], emboldened by success, standing on the threshold of our home,” Rogozin warned (RIA Novosti, June 25).
Noting that there was a “very short way” from the area of influence to the area of control, Kabulov offered controversial figures on the estimate of the Taliban’s real strength. “In my opinion, the Taliban influences more than 50 per cent of Afghanistan’s territory and control up to 20 per cent of it,” Kabulov said. He also highlighted the existence of areas where foreign troops could not enter: in the south, southeast, west and some areas of the north of the country. He also pointed to the general deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan, despite undisputed advances and successes made by the presence of foreign forces. Kabulov said that the authorities in Afghanistan and the foreign troops supporting it “in fact control only the administrative centers of provinces, more or less strategically important large settlements and roads connecting them, while the whole periphery and rural areas are under the control of anti-government forces” (RIA-Novosti, June 26).
Kabulov himself engaged in some number crunching, underscoring the problems faced by the coalition in combating the Taliban. He calculated that 53,000 foreign servicemen plus from 15,000 to 20,000 Afghans could fight effectively, while around 2,500 Taliban activists, “professional militants,” oppose them. Based on evidence from 2007, however, he calculated that up to 12,500 anti-government “troops” are fighting government and international forces. Moreover, militants pay higher wages than the Afghan National Army, which pays $70 per month, while militants receive from $100 to $120, depending on their area of combat. Kabulov also told NATO ambassadors that the alliance was losing the information war in Afghanistan, as a result of its “flagrant neglect” of the national, cultural, and religious traditions of the Afghans, while the Taliban activists were able to exploit this approach in the propaganda war. “One American soldier costs the [U.S.] treasury more than one company of the Afghan army. Both the Americans and NATO can afford to change this ratio and inject funds there,” Kabulov said. He said that NATO members had to understand the real motivation of Afghan soldiers, since there were so few of the present Afghan servicemen who were sure that they were really “fighting for their homeland,” and not just for the U.S. or the West. “The creation of an effective army has to be based on an inner certainty that it is their country that they may shed their blood for and, what is more, that that is what they are being paid for,” Kabulov stated (RIA Novosti, June 26).
Kabulov was more certain than Rogozin that political and military failure for NATO in Afghanistan is simply a question of time, unless, that is, the alliance could change its strategy and tactics. There are varied views from within the NATO member countries and the alliance planning staffs that are on the way toward achieving some degree of “success,” yet what NATO needs above all is to keep open the dialogue with Russia, drawing on expertise and whatever assistance can be rendered to its efforts. At precisely this time, however, the alliance has chosen to expand once again into former Soviet territory and put at risk the continuing political dialogue with Russia. Yet, in the current NATO debate on Afghanistan, size still appears to matter, even though there is a woeful absence of broader criteria for defining the nature of the NATO mission and for measuring its “success.”