Russia's Silver Bullet for Afghanistan

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During his election campaign, U.S. President Barack Obama promised to shift the focus of his Middle East policy from Iraq to Afghanistan. There is a good reason for this. Operation Enduring Freedom, the official name for the U.S. contribution to the campaign against terrorism in Afghanistan, brought a quick military victory in that country, but it failed to establish lasting peace. The war drags on as the Taliban continues to control a sizable portion of Afghanistan. Moreover, the Taliban has strong support networks in Pakistan, whose government is unable to control the extremist groups operating in the country.

The Iraq debacle has shown once again that democracy cannot be spread by military force. Of course, Russia would like to see a peaceful and democratic Afghanistan. In fact, Moscow has supported the U.S. doctrine of a "Middle East Helsinki" -- that is, the spreading of democracy in the greater Middle East -- and the post-Sept. 11 NATO operations against the Taliban.

Therefore, Moscow and Washington do not have any serious disagreements over Afghanistan. Russia's leadership is hopeful that with a new U.S. administration, both countries will find new ways of working together to achieve shared goals -- all the more since U.S. officials have stated repeatedly that Russia is a key component of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.

And that strategy includes sending an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan over the next two years. One of the problems, according to NATO's leadership, is that European allies are not carrying their share of the military burden in Afghanistan. Although this issue will be discussed at a NATO summit in April, Europe's small contingent in Afghanistan continues to be a sore point for NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who singled out Germany and France at the Munich security conference over the weekend. "When the United States asks for a serious partner, it does not want advice. It wants and deserves someone to share the heavy lifting," de Hoop Scheffer said.

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The other crucial issue for the United States is how to transport military and civilian freight into Afghanistan. Pakistan cannot guarantee safe passage through its border areas in the Kandahar region and the Khyber Pass. Only two other routes are available. One route would go through Georgia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. The other route would go through Russia, which makes Russian cooperation crucial to Washington's and NATO's success in Operation Enduring Freedom.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced Friday that Moscow and Washington had reached an agreement on reinstating transit routes through Russia of U.S. nonmilitary freight intended for Afghanistan. The transit agreement between Russia and NATO was actually signed last April, and Moscow never closed this corridor. It was NATO that temporarily froze relations with Moscow after the Russia-Georgia conflict in August. In any event, the reinstatement of U.S. and NATO nonmilitary shipments through Russia is one of the most positive developments in U.S.-Russian relations that we have seen in years.

The question remains open, however, about whether Moscow will ever agree to allow the transportation of U.S. and NATO military freight through Russia. If Washington puts this on the negotiation table, Russia's leaders will surely ask what they can get in return. The issue of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia will probably take a back seat in those talks, but an agreement from Washington to withdraw support for a missile defense system in Central Europe may be the very thing that closes the deal.

Nonetheless, Russia's "Afghanistan complex" will surely make the negotiating process more difficult. Russia has no desire to enter into direct military conflict with anyone in Afghanistan. As for the strengthening of Kabul's military potential, most defense experts agree that the emphasis will be placed on military-technical cooperation and the training of Afghan military and police forces.

Russia has very mixed feelings about a greater U.S. military presence in Central Asia. On the one hand, Moscow would like to see the chaos end in Afghanistan and a peaceful regime established. In that respect, a victory over the Taliban is truly in Russia's best interests.

On the other hand, the United States' and NATO's predominate influence in that region will infringe upon Russia's interests there, including its influence among the former Soviet republics. This is why Russia suggests expanding the circle of countries involved in finding a peaceful settlement of the Afghanistan conflict -- above all by inviting nations from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to participate in the peaceful settlement of the Afghanistan conflict. After all, wider cooperation opens up greater possibilities for compromise.

Mikhail Margelov is chairman of the International Affairs Committee in the Federation Council.