Russia, NATO and Afghanistan: High Stakes Great Game

US President Barack Obama’s now expanding war against the Taliban is garnering support from liberals and neocons alike, from leaders around the world, even from Russia. “We are ready to support these efforts, guarantee the transit of troops, take part in economic projects and train police and the military,” Russian President Dmitri Medvedev declared in a recent press conference with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Moscow and Washington reached an agreement in July allowing the US to launch up to 4,500 US flights a year over Russia, opening a major supply route for American operations in Afghanistan. Previously Russia had only allowed the US to ship non-lethal military supplies across its territory by train.

So far, Obama has all European governments behind him, if not their people. Despite a solid majority in all countries, from Canada to Europe East and West, who want the troops out now, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was able to deliver pledges from 25 NATO members to send a total of about 7,000 additional forces to Afghanistan next year “with more to come” with nary a dissenting voice. In a macabre statement, Fogh Rasmussen welcomed Obama’s surge: “The United States’ contribution to the NATO-led mission has always been substantial; it is now even more important.”

Explaining the willingness of Euro leaders to ignore their constituents, former US ambassador to NATO and RAND adviser Robert Hunter told the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR): “In terms of motivation, very few European countries believe that winning in Afghanistan — that is, dismantling, defeating, and destroying Al-Qaeda and Taliban — is necessary for their own security. A few believe that, but most do not. When they add forces, it is to protect the credibility of NATO now that it is there. NATO has never failed at anything it chose to do.” Part and parcel with this, Europeans want to keep the US “as a European power, not just as an insurance policy but also as the principal manager of Russia’s future.” He ghoulishly agreed with the CFR interviewer that Afghanistan is a way for Europe to “pay the rent” to the US for continuing to bully Russia.

The combined US and NATO forces will bring together a staggering 150,000 soldiers from more than 50 nations, not to mention the estimated 80,000 mercenaries already there, bringing the total to 230,000. Every European nation except for Belarus, Cyprus, Malta, Russia and Serbia will have military forces there, as well as nine of the 15 former Soviet republics. Marvels analyst Rick Rozoff, “Troops from five continents, Oceania and the Middle East. Even the putative coalition of the willing stitched together by the US and Britain after the invasion of Iraq only consisted of forces from 31 nations.” By way of comparison, in September this year there were 120,000 US troops in Iraq and only a handful of other nations’ personnel. The Soviet Afghan occupation force in the 1980s peaked at 100,000 shortly before beginning to pull out in 1989; the British in 1839 had only 21,000 and in 1878 — 42,000.

The world’s last three major wars — Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq — have all been testing grounds for the new, global NATO. Hence the flurry of visits by US officials to prospective members to make sure they sign up for the surge. For instance, Celeste Wallander, US deputy assistant secretary of defence for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, just returned from a visit to her new friend Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, to thank him for coughing up 40 “peacekeepers” who will start training in Germany in January 2010 before deployment in Afghanistan. As if to up the ante with its nemesis, Azerbaijan promised to double its 90 troops. It would be interesting if the two warring nations’ troops were to share barracks. They have far more cause to fight each other than Afghans.

It is hard to imagine this heathen Tower of Babel as an effective force against devoted Muslims ready to die to repel the invaders. But Fogh nonetheless chortles, “With the right resources, we can succeed.” Could it be that one of his “resources” is the “big one”?

What explains Russia’s quiescence at Obama’s determination to wrest Central Asia from its traditional sphere of influence? Russian suspicions about US intentions are very strong on many fronts. Sucking more than half of the ex-Soviet republics into returning to Afghanistan — this time on the US side — is surely brazen. Continuing to expand NATO eastward is strongly condemned by all Russians and is not popular in either Ukraine or Georgia, but continues nonetheless. Russian intelligence is undoubtedly following US and others’ machinations in Chechnya, which continues to be a serious threat to Russian security. Hunter’s cynical explanation to the CFR of Euro complicity in the Afghan genocide is not lost on deaf ears.

Yet, Russia dawdles on its assistance to Iran both in nuclear energy and in providing up-to-date defence missiles, clearly at US prompting. And now seems to be happy that Obama is expanding what all sensible analysts insist is a losing and criminal war virtually next door. Is this evidence of Russian weakness, an acceptance of US plans for Eurasian hegemony which could imperil the Russian Federation itself?

Russia is still in transition, caught between a longing to be part of the West and to be a mediator between the Western empire and the rest of the world. Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, represents this conflict between the “Atlantist” and “Eurasian” vision of Russia’s future, terms which have been popularised by Alexandr Dugin. In a TV interview with Russia Today, loose-cannon Rogozin argued: “There is a new civilisation emerging in the Third World that thinks that the white, northern hemisphere has always oppressed it and must therefore fall at its feet now. If the northern civilisation wants to protect itself, it must be united: America, the European Union, and Russia. If they are not together, they will be defeated one by one.”

But Rogozin is not in favour of Russia merely lying down to be walked over by NATO. He would like NATO replaced by a Euro-Russian security treaty. It is no coincidence that just before Obama’s announced surge, Russia unveiled a proposal for just such a new pact, which despite talk of “from Vancouver to Vladivostok” would essentially exclude the US and include Russia. It would prevent member states from taking actions which threaten other members, effectively excluding Ukraine and Georgia from NATO and preventing Poland and the Czech Republic from setting up their beloved US missile bases. Rogozin’s Atlantist vision would see NATO defanged, and North America forced to ally with a new, independent Europe, where Russia is now the dominant power.

NATO, of course, will not go quietly into the night — unless its latest venture in Afghanistan fails. So Russia is biting the bullet on this war — for the time being. Just in case Obama was too busy with Oslo to notice, Rogozin warned last week that Russian cooperation over transit of military supplies to Afghanistan could be jeopardised by a failure to take the Russian security treaty proposal seriously. In Washington’s worst-case scenario, if its Afghan gamble implodes, not only will it have to take Russia seriously, but so will Europe, giving the Russian Atlantists the opportunity to integrate with Europe without the US breathing down their necks. If by some miracle NATO succeeds in cowing the Afghans and continues to threaten Russia with encirclement, the Eurasians will gain the upper hand, and Russia will build up its BRIC and SCO ties, forced to abandon its dream of joining and leading Europe as the countervailing power to the US empire.

As this intrigue plays itself out, any number of things could tip the apple cart. For example, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, two quarrelsome ex-Soviet republics bordering Afghanistan which are vital to Obama’s surge, virtually declared war on each other earlier this month, potentially complicating the shuttling of US materiel to the front. Uzbekistan announced its withdrawal from the Central Asian electricity grid, a move that isolates Tajikistan by making it impossible for the country to import power from other Central Asian states during the cold winter months. The Tajiks threaten to retaliate by restricting water supplies that Uzbekistan desperately need for its cotton sector next summer.Who knows how this will end? At least they haven’t any troops in Afghanistan, where, like the Azeris and Armenians, they would be sorely tempted to turn their guns against each other rather than against the hapless Taliban.

Eric Walberg is a journalist who worked in Uzbekistan and is now writing for Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo. He is the author of From Postmodernism to Postsecularism: Re-Emerging Islamic Civilization and Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great Games. Read other articles by Eric, or visit Eric's website.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Kenny said on December 16th, 2009 at 10:17am #

    Poor Mr Walberg! President Mubarak must be very displeased with his services! His American Empire propaganda line is wearing increasingly thin! To smear Europe this time, he’s reduced to quoting the US ambassador to NATO (would you believe!) as authority that Europeans want to keep the US as a “European” power” Boy, that’s a reliable source! If it had been someone who might peddle US government propaganda, no one would have believed him. Even Foghhorn Leghhorn claims that the US contribution to Afghanistan is now “even more important”. In other words, NATO is still determined to fight to the last American! And the idea that Foghhorn might be contemplating use of a nuclear weapon is so devoid of common sense that it merely illustrates the desperate position of Mr Walberg’s cause.
    Yet, even a cynical propagandist like Mr Walberg cannot get around the fact that the more the US bogs itself and NATO down in the unwinnable war in Afghanistan, the more resounding will be the defeat for both. The result will be an America that will not even stick its nose outside its own territory for at least a generation and NATO replaced by the European security pact being proposed by Russia. Hence, it is nonsense to claim that the new pact would “exclude” Ukraine and Georgia from NATO, since NATO would no longer exist. And even if Obama had not cancelled the Polish missile project, and even if any US government had ever proposed to station missiles in the Czech Republic, which none ever has, since the US would not be a party to the new pact, there would be, by definition, no American missiles anywhere in Europe.
    As Europe’s largest democracy, it’s just common sense that Russia should be the leader of democratic Europe. That, rather than any an “acceptance of US plans for Eurasian hegemony which could imperil the Russian Federation itself” is why Russia is sitting back and encouraging Obama to bog himself down to his heart’s content!
    Once again, Mr Walberg’s colonial lens distorts the European mentality.

  2. bozh said on December 16th, 2009 at 1:19pm #

    I do not know how many europeans and their respective gov`ts are abhoring or begining to abhor US sytem of governance.
    The system is extremely antihuman. More homogeneous countries such as norway, denmark, finland, poland, czeska, et al must have by now understood america and rejected such a life and particularly their lower class people.
    Yes, i do hate to use words “lower classes“, but it`ll have to do for a few centuries longer or hopefully till next year.

    Are russians onto this? I am hoping they are. And hoping they either join europe or europe joins them. Surely, the gretest monster ever must be smhow stopped in its planetarianism and destruction of most baisc panhuma rights.

    Walberg deserves thanks for alluding to such developments. more cld be said. tnx

  3. bozh said on December 16th, 2009 at 1:23pm #

    correction, “rejection of american system by lower class people in europe“ and not rejection of lower class amers as it sems i have said in the above post! tnx

  4. David Scott said on December 17th, 2009 at 5:56pm #

    Everybody knows that the real reason US troops are in Afghanistan, is to keep the opium fields in full production. Until we remove all our troops from the middle-east, and do something to solve our problems at home, our reputation in every country is ruined. If I could afford to go anywhere after the damage the neoconservative war/profit-mongers have done to our economy, I would definitely say I was from Canada. I invite you to my pages devoted to raising awareness on these important issues: http://pltcldscsn.blogspot.com/

  5. Peter Pan said on December 18th, 2009 at 1:06am #

    The problem with Mr. Walberg is that he suffers a kaleidoscopic view of world events. The guy simply cannot put two things together. The Berlin wall fell without a shot, due to a war of “cultural cooperation”. In order to brake the NATO apart Russia does not need nuclear missiles. It needs a smart guy in Kremlin with a global view of events. And it has one. That’s why dorks with kaleidoscopic view cannot figure out what is going on-they do not have such a view.