The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Russia are probing a deal under which Moscow could provide the Afghan military with helicopters and possibly others forms of assistance. In return, Russia might gain a voice in the shaping of international security policy for Afghanistan, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told EurasiaNet.
Responding to questions posed by EurasiaNet, Rasmussen recounted that during a mid-December visit to Moscow, he stressed NATO's desire to make expanded cooperation on Afghan security issues "the centerpiece of our partnership in 2010." In Moscow, the NATO chief outlined several ways in which the Kremlin could support the international effort to contain the Taliban insurgency. In particular, Rasmussen requested that Russia provide the Afghan military with a "helicopter package," including not only helicopters, but also spare parts and technical training. He also sought expanded Russian help in international counter-narcotics operations in Afghanistan.
Russian officials offered a tepid response to Rasmussen's proposals, saying only that they would assess the possibilities. Rasmussen subsequently developed a more detailed cooperation plan that was endorsed by the Afghan government. "We are still waiting for a clear answer from the Russians," Rasmussen told EurasiaNet
During the Moscow visit, Russian officials lobbied Rasmussen to enlarge the role of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in the shaping of Afghanistan's security strategy. In particular, they pressed NATO to discuss Afghan security issues directly with the CSTO, rather than by dealing with Central Asian countries bilaterally. In response, Rasmussen said he "conveyed the message to Russia that the more concrete their contribution to our mission in Afghanistan, the greater the likelihood that we could establish specific consultative fora with Russia." In addition to Russia, the CSTO comprises Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
As part of an overall effort to invigorate NATO-Russian cooperation, Rasmussen said the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) would soon establish an Afghanistan Working Group. The new entity would provide "a framework within which we can discuss Afghanistan-related questions with the Russians," the NATO chief said.
When pressed about developing a possible direct relationship between NATO and the CSTO -- or with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, another multilateral group in which Russia plays a leading role -- Rasmussen was guarded. He made clear he did not soon envision establishing formal ties between NATO and the CSTO. In addition, he noted that some Atlantic Alliance members, acting in an individual capacity, had established contacts with the CSTO, including the dispatch of observers to attend periodic "Kanal" counter-narcotics operations.
When asked by EurasiaNet about the Northern Distribution Network -- a Central Asian transport web for the resupply of NATO and US forces in Afghanistan - Rasmussen said the supply line was performing in a satisfactory manner. Rasmussen added, however, that he would like to see the network expanded to include a wider variety of air transit routes. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insightb/articles/eav020210.shtml
During a public appearance at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, on February 22, Rasmussen confirmed that NATO has not shifted its stance on potential membership for Georgia and Ukraine. The alliance remained open to accepting both former Soviet states at an unspecified date in the future, provided they met NATO's membership criteria, Rasmussen said.
Commenting on the military surge currently underway in Afghanistan, where joint US and Afghan forces are striving to push Taliban militants out of strongholds in southern sectors of the country, Rasmussen praised the performance of Afghan troops. "For the first time, we now see Afghan security forces fight determinedly in the southern Helmand province," Rasmussen said. "It is a significant step forward."
The surge is offering "an example of what will happen in the future in a gradual process of handling over more and more responsibilities to the Afghans," the secretary-general continued. "We also see the implementation now in practice of the new civilian strategy: as soon as a district is liberated and cleared, we provide governance; provide development assistance; [and] make sure that people in the local communities will be provided with a better livelihood."
Although Rasmussen anticipated that Afghan forces would assume lead responsibility for security in some provinces later this year, he said that NATO planners and their Afghan government and civilian partners would need more time to establish a set of military and civilian criteria to determine which specific provinces might be transferred.
While Rasmussen characterized the offensive in Helmand Province as a "great success," Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, on February 22 offered a more restrained, although upbeat assessment of the fighting. Mullen stated that the offensive was "making steady, if perhaps a bit slower-than-anticipated, progress." Although "the Taliban's resistance has been at best disjointed," coalition troops were finding that, "in some places, the enemy fights harder than expected," he said.