Last Sunday’s “60 Minutes” featured a piece on the villagers of Kapisa Province, Afghanistan. CBS correspondent Scott Pelley found the location where a U.S. air strike killed four generations of one family on March 4. None of those killed was Taliban, and the villagers were furious. “During the Russian invasion we haven’t heard of 10 members of one family being killed by Russians in one incident,” one villager remarked. “But the Americans did that. We used to hate the Russians much more than Americans. … I am telling you Russians behave much better than the Americans.”
Russia‘s behavior may not have changed much since it occupied Afghanistan. Vice President Dick Cheney called the Russian actions during the recent fighting with Georgia “an affront to civilized standards.” But time moves on, geography stays and positions change. Now people in the region are beginning to see no difference between the Russian brutality and American presence both in Afghanistan and Iraq. While that narrowing gap in perceptions constitutes a threat to the sustainability of American policies, it opens opportunities for Russia.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has urged the U.S. to stop its air strikes. “The Afghan people understand that mistakes are made. But five years on, six years on, definitely, very clearly, they can not comprehend as to why there is still a need for air power,” Mr. Karzai said on “60 Minutes.” Moreover, Afghans claim that 90 civilians were killed in an Aug. 22 air strike. The U.S. disputes the number, claiming that fewer than 10 civilians were killed. But these are merely statistics.
Right now, the Afghans are strongly reacting to any loss. On Friday, about 3,000 tribesmen in Wana, the main town in South Waziristan, protested the attacks on the Pakistani side. Fifteen people died in Wednesday’s raid, and the tribesmen threatened to attack American bases in Afghanistan if U.S. operations in the tribal regions do not cease.
In the midst of this uproar, Pakistan on Friday halted the stream of supplies to NATO and U.S. forces, citing security concerns. Pakistan remains an ally to American efforts against terrorism. But it lacks political will in the fight against criminal acts - especially in the tribal areas. Unless the latter prevails, no magic formula will create a successful fight against terrorists; they are criminals first. Those are the challenges that await the newly elected Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari. Few are hopeful of the prospects. That said, the supply route will surely open again. But this proves that Russian cooperation with NATO on Afghanistan can be vital. Since the fighting with Georgia, Russia ended its cooperation with NATO as a result of strong condemnation to its actions.
After his visit to Georgia and Azerbaijan, Mr. Cheney gave strong assurances to Ukrainians in Kiev on Friday that they should be able to live “without the threat of tyranny, economic blackmail and military invasion or intimidation.” But no one rushed troops in to help the Georgians. That fact will set the record for the region. There is no escaping geography. And Ukraine has a large Russian speaking minority, and borders Russia. More, when the U.S. Coastal Guard ship Dallas arrived in the Ukrainian port Sevastopol, it met an angry, anti-NATO crowd. In addition, the Ukrainian government collapsed last week amid fierce tension that was going on for nine months. But it came down to this: Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko accused President Viktor Yushchenko “of putting his political ambitions before national interest.” Mr. Yushchenko had previously accused the prime minister of betraying Ukraine by siding with Russia against Georgia.
Furthermore, while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has become the first U.S official to visit Libya in 50 years, oil remains key to the meeting. Gazprom, Russia’s national gas giant, and Eni, Italy’s major oil and natural gas producer, got together to build a pipeline to bring Libyan natural gas across the Mediterranean to Southern Europe. Europe remains dependent on Russia for energy resources, and the European Union countries continue to make bilateral agreements to secure their energy needs. Russia is building its energy routes like a spider net - all around. Right now, there is no way to get around it.
Russia is an ambitious regional player that cannot be ignored nor provoked. Nobody can get everything that it wants, but priorities should be made clear. If NATO takes the Afghanistan battle seriously, it can’t turn its back on Russia at this time. The Western alliance also needs Russia to deal with Iran. Russia made it clear that it does not want to see a nuclear Iran. But at times, major powers have acted against their national security interests.
This may be the time for a debate that goes beyond promising hope or tough talk, and asks specific questions about U.S. policies. No policy can survive without popular support. A change in approach is needed.
Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.