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Can NATO and Russia Cooperate on Afghanistan?

By Andre de Nesnera
Washington DC
23 March 2009

Foreign Ministers from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have recently agreed to resume ties with Russia that were suspended last August as a result of Moscow's five-day war with Georgia. This has led to the possibility of NATO-Russia cooperation on Afghanistan.

NATO has been operating in Afghanistan since 2003. The alliance has more than 60,000 troops as part of a U.N. mandated contingent known as the "International Security Assistance Force". It is the military alliance's first mission outside the Euro-Atlantic region.

The United States has 38,000 troops in Afghanistan, some of which serve under the NATO banner.

Analysts say the U.S. and NATO war effort in Afghanistan was dealt a blow when the government in Kyrgyzstan [last month] decided to evict U.S. forces from the Manas air base the United States has leased since 2001.

The U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Clinton administration, Robert Hunter, says Russia was not helpful in the Manas affair.

"Russia has already done something to hurt, namely leaning on the Kyrghyz to close down the air base in a place called Manas, which the United States was using to transit supplies into Afghanistan. At the same time, the Russians have said that non-lethal equipment, that is equipment that is not designed for war fighting, can transit through its country," Hunter said.

Columbia University's Robert Legvold says the Russians are of two minds when it comes to Afghanistan.

"They clearly are uncomfortable with a NATO and a U.S. military presence in Central Asia. But I think they genuinely are concerned about failure in Afghanistan, which would allow the Taliban back into power and create potential instability in Central Asia which is their southern front. So we will have to see where they go in the longer run. But right now they have not been as helpful as they could have been, even if you put the best face on it," said Legvold.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer did try to put the best face on it when he addressed reporters earlier March 5 following a foreign ministers meeting in Brussels. He specifically addressed the issue of NATO-Russia cooperation on Afghanistan, especially finding an alternative supply route to the Manas air base.

"Russia has shown an interest, and I think we should be happy about that, to work together with NATO on the so-called 'northern route.' And we are, as you know, in NATO, already for quite some time, negotiating with Central Asian states to make that northern route possible. So Afghanistan is a case in point where, I think, NATO and Russia can better work together," he said.

But Jason Lyall from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs questions whether Russia will cooperate either with NATO or with the United States on Afghanistan.

"At the present time, no. The Russians do not really have a lot of incentives to help the United States on this particular issue. So I would be surprised if we saw Russians exerting any leverage to help out on this particular matter. And I would actually expect them to keep trying to make themselves as difficult as possible for the United States to move troops and equipment into the region," Lyall said.

Lyall believes Moscow is disingenuous when it talks about helping the U.S. or NATO effort in Afghanistan.

"There are all of these restrictions on the aid right now. The Russians are saying that they will help with non-lethal aid, which is not clear what that is," Lyall said. "And then obviously Russia doesn't have a land border with Afghanistan and so it [supplies] has to be traveled through the air. And so this makes it much more cumbersome for the United States to operate - it would put restrictions on the kind of aid and assistance that they can bring through, and cargo that they can bring through. So it is not clear exactly what the Russians are doing other than playing this game of on the one hand shutting down Manas and on the other hand looking like they're not."

Analysts say whether Russia helps NATO in Afghanistan or not, the situation in that country will dominate the alliance's upcoming summit marking NATO's 60th anniversary.

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