Petraeus’s serious Russia mistake

Last Tuesday, the NYT reported that US Centcom chief David Petraeus announced that, to support the NATO campaign in Afghanistan, NATO now had “transit agreements for commercial goods and services in particular that include several countries in the Central Asian states and also Russia.”
Turns out Wonderboy Petraeus jumped the gun badly on that. (HT: B of Moon of Alabama.) Thursday, Russian General of the Army Alexei Maslov told the news agency Itar-Tass definitively that,

    “No official documents were submitted to Russia’s permanent mission in NATO certifying that Russia had authorized U.S. and NATO military supplies transit across the country.”

Turkmenistan also denied having reached a transit agreement with NATO.
Last August, you’ll recall, NATO decided to break off the “partnership”-type arrangement it had with Russia, in protest at Russia’s military actions inside sovereign Georgia.
But NATO also badly needs Russia, if it is to find any kind of a viable alternative to the debilitating reliance it has on Pakistan, to get supplies in to the NATO war effort in deeply landlocked Afghanistan. (Oops, maybe Pres. Bush and his advisers should have looked at a map of Central Asia before they decided to invade and occupy Afghanistan?)
Since August, the Russians have linked the question of NATO-transit-rights-to-Afghanistan to that of restoring the NATO-Russia partnership agreement. (Russia also has several other live concerns about US military policy in the countries on its western border, including the future of the missile defense system Bush insisted on planting into Poland and the Czech Republic.) That’s why Gen. Maslov and other Russian leaders were quick to deny Petraeus’s claim he already had the transit agreement with them.
Today, Russia’s envoy to NATO did get a meeting with the alliance’s 26 member-ambassadors, after which the participants indicated that the restoration of the full former level of relationship might happen as soon as next month.
Tough luck for the reckless, pro-American Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili who actually started the war with Russia last August with, presumably, the aim of drawing NATO troops into his country in his defense.


Over at Moon of Alabama, I noted that this mistake by Petraeus is significant. I also noted that Petraeus seemed not to have much feel for the diplomatic gravitas required in his new position as head of Centcom. Previously, he was head only of the US forces in Iraq– and that was before the US-Iraqi Withdrawal Agreement, too. So he really never had to do very much in that job to build or maintain relationships with other sovereign governments; only with the “government” of still-occupied Iraq.
Now, he does need to be much more aware of the international diplomatic/political dimensions of everything he does and says; and h can’t simply take the reactions of other governments completely for granted.
I see that retired Indian Ambassador MK Badhrakumar made this same point in this lengthy and informative article on the ever-evolving diplomacy around the Afghanistan/Pakistan question.
Badhrakumar writes that Moscow’s intelligence assessment is that

    almost half of the US supplies passing through Pakistan is pilfered by motley groups of Taliban militants, petty traders and plain thieves. The US Army is getting burgled in broad daylight and can’t do much about it. Almost 80% of all supplies for Afghanistan pass through Pakistan.

Badrakumar also has some additional good material on the strengthening of Moscow’s interest in becoming a player in Afghanistan.
Writing about a visit President Dmitriy Medvedev made to the Uzbek capital of Tashkent last week, he wrote,

    Medvedev made it clear Moscow would resist US attempts to expand its military and political presence in the Central Asian and Caspian regions. He asserted, “This is a key region, a region in which diverse processes are taking place and in which Russia has crucially important work to do to coordinate our positions with our colleagues and help to find common solutions to the most complex problems.”
    Plainly put, Moscow will not allow a replay of the US’s tactic after September 11, 2002, when it sought a military presence in Central Asia as a temporary measure and then coolly proceeded to put it on a long-term footing.

He writes about Karzai, perhaps sensing a cooling of the support he’s been getting from Washington, now starting to reach out to both Russia and China for support and new relationships, including through his coordination with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which unites Russia, China, and all the Central Asian countries that were once part of the Soviet Union.
Badhrakumar adds:

    The SCO is sure to list Afghanistan as a major agenda item at its annual summit meeting scheduled to be held in August in Yekaterinburg, Russia. It seems Washington cannot stop the SCO in its tracks at this stage, except by genuinely broad-basing the search for an Afghan settlement and allowing regional powers with legitimate interests to fully participate.
    The current US thinking, on the other hand, is to strike “grand bargains” with regional powers bilaterally and to keep them apart from collectively coordinating with each other on the basis of shared concerns. But the regional powers see through the US game plan for what it is – a smart move of divide-and-rule.

He concludes:

    Evidently, Petraeus overlooked that the US’s needless obduracy to keep the Hindu Kush as its exclusive geopolitical turf right in the middle of Asia has become a contentious issue. No matter the fine rhetoric, the Obama administration will find it difficult to sustain the myth that the Afghan war is all about fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban to the finish.

Indeed.
Gen. Petraeus and everyone else who works at high levels in Washington on Afghanistan/Pakistan needs to rapidly acquire a much richer (and less arrogantly colonialist) understanding of the real geopolitics of the region in which increasing numbers of US and NATO troops will be mired for some years to come. (What a depressing thought.)

2 thoughts on “Petraeus’s serious Russia mistake

  1. Don Bacon

    Well, here we have an army general doing badly (of course) at the art of diplomacy because the US State Department has been largely neutered and such matters are now handled by the Pentagon. At least he didn’t start a new world war; let’s be thankful for small favors. Perhaps the new SecState will put a leash on him (ooops — I’m starting to talk like HC now).
    Apparently this subject, while informally discussed today, has been deferred to the upcoming Munich Security Conference, Feb 6-8, which is expected to repair the Russia/Nato ties severed by the Georgia affair. The main topics on the agenda of the upcoming Munich Security Conference will be the future of NATO and the European security architecture, non-proliferation and nuclear weapons issues, challenges of a new world order and regional crises like those in Afghanistan, the Middle East, the Central Caucasus and the Balkans.
    “The first official contact between Russia and NATO will take place at the Munich conference on security, between the head of the Russian delegation, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, and NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer,” Rogozin said.
    Moscow is no fan of the Taliban and is ready to deal.
    MOSCOW (AP) — President Dmitry Medvedev said Friday [Jan 23] that Moscow is ready to help stabilize the situation in Afghanistan by allowing the United States and others to cross Russian territory with cargo intended for coalition forces in the war-wracked nation.
    Medvedev said that Russia also is prepared to help international efforts to combat drug-trafficking and terrorism in Afghanistan.
    During his visit Friday to Afghanistan’s neighbor Uzbekistan, Medvedev voiced hope that Barack Obama’s administration will do better than its predecessors in stabilizing Afghanistan.
    “Let’s hope the new U.S. administration will be more successful than the previous one in dealing with the Afghan settlement,” Medvedev said on television.

  2. John Francis lee

    My first thought is sadness that the poor Afghani people matter so little to anyone, Russian, American, or European that, like the Palestinians of Gaza, people are only interested in which power or alliance will “benefit” most from their certain suffering and potential demise.
    But this is the background of all decisions the “strong” make regarding the “weak”.
    As for Russia’s reasoning, they undoubtedly gained some insight during the death throes of their previous incarnation:
    Financial exhaustion triggered by a war in Afghanistan brought down the mighty Soviet Union just 20 years ago. Could this be our fate as well?
    And who could wish to hasten it, at a profit, more ardently than the Russians at this point?
    Given our collective inability to exercise any control over the actions of “our” government, perhaps we the people do secretly as well?
    Sooner rather than later if, as it seems, it must be that we lie broken in the gutter before we even consider collectively the reform of our ways.

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