Permanent American Bases in Afghanistan?

Military Deployment in Mountains of AfghanistanThe publication on Friday night of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs' reaction to the eventual plans of the United States to position its military bases in Afghanistan "on a long term basis" may create a new situation in Russian-American relations or, even more important, in Russia-NATO relations. The initial announcement of the possible American intention to stay in Afghanistan for good was made by the Afghan president Hamid Karzai on February 8 in Kabul. So, the Russian MFA took its time to ponder its reaction.
Image adapted from version copyright (c) 2010. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036

Why so long? Just a year or two ago one could expect a knee-jerk reaction in the form of a resolute "nyet" from all of the Kremlin's towers. Hasn't American presence in Kyrghyzstan and Tajikistan, once presented as a short-time affair due to expire with Kabul's cleaning of Taliban, extended itself into quasi-eternity? There are plenty of reasons for Russia to be concerned. But, obviously, Russia's leaders are reluctant to return to the old zero-sum game in Central Asia, which has been deflecting the attention of both the United States and Russia from some really serious dangers originating from unstable Kyrghyzstan and the uncertainties of Uzbekistan's and Tajikistan's power succession.

The belated Moscow's reaction was rather cold ("Until recently, Kabul and Washington have been assuring the international community that all foreign armed forces would be removed from the Afghan territory before the end of 2014... Why will Afghanistan need the military bases of the United States if the terrorist threat will no longer be relevant?" the Russian MFA asks ).

One can understand the Russian diplomats' concerns after a look at a rather meagre sugar coating which Karzai presented for this rather bitter pill for his two most powerful neighbors - Russia and China. (Russians did not forget China's frustration in 2001 at the fact that the deployment of US and NATO troops in Afghaniastan was agreed with Russia, but not with China).

Karzai said on February 8 that Afghanistan would never provide its territory for any kind of bases which could become the launching pads for aggression against neighboring countries (a footnote clearly aimed at the Russian and Chinese audiences). In fact, he reiterated the old NATO song about a "zone of peace, stability and security" (the enlarged North Atlantic Alliance ) getting closer and closer to Russia's territory. From the West and now also the South, as Georgia and now also Afghanistan may become the somewhat restlees outposts of this much-publicized zone of security. Some very symbolic security, I would say, as both countries still periodically see their governments teaching their subjects with mortars, missiles and tanks - in South Ossetia and in a few of the problematic Afghan provinces.

During my recent trip to NATO headquarters in Belgium, a trip organized for a group of Russian journalists by the US embassy in Moscow and US MIssion to NATO, American and European officials on the staff of this organization made a sincere effort to put our Russian concerns to rest. There was a lot of words said about the common threats stemming for both NATO and Russia from Afghanistan. NATO officials reminded us of Russia's agreement to join NATO's Partnership for Peace program aat its inception in 1994 and the need to increase "interoperability" of Russian and NATO forces in crisis situations.

However, the reality is that during the real "action" in Kosovo in 1999 or in Afghanistan NATO showed little interest for Russia's concerns and objections and even less interest for its advice or shared experience. This unwillingness stemmed from the axiom similar tothe one on "NATO as the zone of peace and security." This second axiom is made public less often but is nevertheless tacitly accepted.This axiom reads, "NATO knows better than Russia." Meaning - where Russia failed, NATO will succeed - just look and learn for your own good.

NATO already had a chance to taste the bitter side of this axiom. The results of the 2010 for the coalition of US and NATO forces as well as the International Security Afghan Force (ISAF) was more than seven hundred soldiers killed, almost 200 up from 2009. That puts the pace of increase in the Western losses in Afghanistan onthe par with the Soviet one in the 1980s. In a 10 years long war, the Soviet army lost over 13 thousand soldiers (overall losses with civilian personnel reached 15 thousand) - not a far cry from the current Western losses anymore.

"If we read some of the memoirs of Soviet officers in Afghanistan and took some of the Russians' advice more seriously, we could have saved ourselves a lot of lives and resources," a representative of the US Mission to NATO said at a meeting on condition of anonymity. However, this US official in NATO pointed our attention to the fact that Afghanistan is a safer and more humane place now. The reason - studying Afghan girls can now be counted in thousands and not in zeros, as it had been the case before the Western intervention in 2001. Could one add that the opposite process took place in the girls' education to the north of the Afghan border, in the Moslem republics of the former Soviet Union, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991- an event still serving as a cause for short-sighted celebration in the West? Does it make the much-maligned phrase of Putin about the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century any more acceptable to the never extinct Fukuyamas from Vancouver to Warsaw? And are we doomed to trying to fill the bottomless pit educating girls on one side of a border at a time? Why are we letting them fall back into the Middle Ages on the "wrong" side of the border simply because of the West's nineteenth century misconceptions about Russia and similar Soviet era rudiments on the Russian side?

So, may be increasing Russia-NATO cooperation and factual (and not imitated) interoperability could provide solutions not only to problems in Afghanistan but to other problems too? Isn't it time to see Russia as a part of the solution instead of as a part of a problem also in other parts of Central Asia and (yes, yes, allow me this heresy!) in the Caucuses?

This could indeed be a reality, but so far the American leadership demonstrates a remarkable lack of phantasy on the matter, as well as a no less remarkable ability to ignore palpable facts, if they don't fit the once accepted policy line.

"Russia's relations with new NATO members, which joined the alliance after 1999 improved," Ivo Daalder, the United States' Permanent Repesentative on the Council of NATO, told our group of NATO visitors. He refused to be moved by any examples of Russia bashing by Poland (prolonged unilateral blocking of negotiations on Russia-EU PCA agreement), Estonia (the Bronze Soldier saga) and other new members.

"Countries that are now members are far less worried about Russia," such was Mr.Daalder's mantra for us.

Were their worries real before or after these countries' joining NATO? And why does their lack of worries push them to further provocations against Russia instead of peaceful and fruitful life under a North Atlantic umbrella? Could this umbrella be a smokescrren for some dastardly revenge action? Such were the questions which Mr.Daalder just refused to ask himself. Otherwise he would not be an American diplomat.

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