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Three Questions: Russia, NATO and Afghanistan

  • Ira Mellman

A man walks by a logo printed on a wall inside the NATO summit venue in Lisbon, Portugal on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010. Heads of State of NATO member countries gather for a two day summit beginning on Friday, and will discuss such topics as Afghanistan and m

Kurt Volker, former US Ambassador to NATO and now the Managing Director and Senior Fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations for the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies says there has been a change in Russia's attitude toward a number of NATO related issues, including a willingness to help NATO and US forces in their battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan. In fact, Russian President Dmitry Mevedev is scheduled to speak to the NATO summit meeting in Lisbon.

Volker said it was in Russia's interest. He said Russia was quite happy to see NATO and the US taking on a problem that exists on Russia's southern flank. That includes violent extremism, the possibility of terrorist groups. So, says Volker, it's in Russia's interest to support the logistics flow to Afghanistan.

One cannot think that the Afghanis are overjoyed about this.

I think what the Afghanis would be very concerned about would be a visible Russian presence on the ground in Afghanistan. They have very clear memories of the role Soviet troops played in their country twenty some years ago. That said, what we’re talking about here mostly is transits for Afghanistan, Russia allowing NATO to provide both rail cars and over flights to get to Afghanistan. That sort of logistical supply is really a good thing. It’s kind of transparent to the Afghan people, but it adds stability to the operation especially given the attacks on the supply lines in Pakistan.

Could this not been seen, however, with a withdrawal date being set up for NATO and US troops, as an opening for the Russians to return?

I don’t think so. In fact, the withdrawal date people are now talking about, and I shouldn’t say it’s a withdrawal date, it’s really a date for the transition to lead Afghan responsibility. That transition begins in July of 2011, maybe even slightly before, but it’s going to take a very long time with a robust international presence there. President Karzai has set out the date of 2014 when he’d like to see Afghanistan fully in the lead. And NATO and the United States have fully supported his efforts to set that deadline. So that is, I think, President Karzai’s date. Secondly, a longer term and more robust commitment from the international community can’t really be read as an opening or handoff back to Russia.

President Karzai is also scheduled to attend this meeting in Lisbon. How important is the topic of the drawdown at this NATO meeting?

I think it’s important because the expectations were set back in December of last year with President Obama’s speech that withdrawals begin in July 2011. If that is not in fact what we expect to see, there’s not going to be a “head for the doors”, there’s not going to be a mass exodus, but rather a longer term commitment, one that’s aimed at a transition over a longer period of time, 2014 out there is the new date, it’s important to reset those expectations.