According to Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO general in Afghanistan, “The situation [there] is serious, but success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort.”
Gen. McChrystal is telling Congress what that really means: To win the war - now in its eighth year - we will need 30,000 to 40,000 more troops on the ground and more cooperation from our friends and allies. Suggested here - and as part of the “revised implementation strategy” - NATO should be thinking of new ways to ask the Russians for help.
Specifically, NATO should invite Russia to send a substantial number of regular and special-forces troops to Afghanistan to help bring the Taliban down once and for all. Perhaps surprisingly, and if presented properly, it could be an attractive idea to the Russians as well, both for reasons of national pride and to help in their own wars against radicals in the Russian provinces.
Some history: In 1979, at perhaps the zenith of the Cold War, the old Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and carried on a bloody war there for 10 years. Because international politics were very different then and because the Russians were attempting to establish a communist regime, we aided the various forces from both inside and outside Afghanistan that opposed the Soviets. Many of them were the same forces and factions that now are arrayed against us, albeit a generation or two removed.
As with many epic struggles, the ironies of past alliances are far less significant than the risks represented by present threats and political realities. The fact is that most radical Islamic factions are united in their hatred of the West, including the post-USSR governments in Russia and in most of Eastern Europe. Accordingly, the struggle in Afghanistan is every bit as significant a threat to the Russians as it is to us and to NATO Europe - and we should be aggressively pursuing their active partnership in the wars against it, especially in an important country that borders the former Soviet empire.
The important thing is that the reasons for their more direct involvement make very good sense today. Furthermore, there are some new reports that they have approached NATO about getting a more prominent role in the Afghan war - they want to be involved in planning and intelligence activities, expanding their role from consenting to overflights and provide some logistic support. They have pointed out that the threat from the Taliban is much closer to them than it is to NATO. It’s right.
We should take them up on it; not only that, we should integrate Russian regular military and special forces into the fight. How many Russian troops? That would have to be determined by mutual discussions between NATO and the Russian Ministry of Defense - or other appropriate authorities - as determined by the parties.
How many more total troops are needed in Afghanistan? The more the better at this stage in the war: So far, the United States has more than 60,000 troops there and our allies have 35,000. And, so far, the Russians have been cool to the idea of actually sending troops - however, that leaves a lot of wiggle room for NATO negotiators as they work toward a more significant Russian role in the war.
As Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said recently, we only have a limited time to successfully resolve the situation in Afghanistan before we risk losing the support of the American people. Also, NATO’s new secretary-general warned that a rush to withdraw from Afghanistan was “not an option” - this despite Western public opinion tiring of the war. This means that the new strategy envisioned has to be a winner. What better way to make it that than with a commitment from the Russians for a direct and more significant involvement in the war?
Daniel Gallington is a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington.