ACURA ViewPoint: David C. Speedie: Time and Opportunity for Accord

Let the record show that on Tuesday, September 28, 2021, America’s top ranking military officer offered a commendably candid assessment of the finale to a 20-year, $3.5 trillion military engagement in Afghanistan.  Of the retreat from Kabul, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said: “From an operational and logistical standpoint, it was successful.  Strategically, the war was lost.  The enemy is in Kabul.”  Such brutally honest assessment—especially that of “the enemy” being once again in charge in Afghanistan, and the possible long-term implications for the United States and other targets of terrorist attack—might lead one to suppose that all possible steps will be taken to contain the potential threat. 

One such step may have been offered by Russian President Vladimir Putin at his June summit meeting with President Biden in Geneva.  Here, Putin reportedly offered use by the United States of Russia’s military bases in Central Asia to monitor and respond to nascent terrorist threats in Afghanistan.  The matter was further discussed by Chairman Milley in his September 22 meeting with his Russian counterpart, General Valery Gerasimov, according to a September 28 article in The Wall Street Journal.

All of which makes eminent sense, for a number of reasons: first, Russia takes the threat to its “soft underbelly” to the south most seriously and has a strong investment in the Central Asian bases; second, Russia made a similar offer immediately after 9/11, to share intelligence and provide flyover and refueling for any Afghan engagement; third. for the United States, this makes strategic and geographic sense—given that the other neighbors of landlocked Afghanistan are China, Pakistan and Iran, all problematical for different reasons.  An interesting corollary issue is that Tajikistan, the Central Asian state with the greatest stake in all this [ethnic Tajiks make up 27% of the Afghan population, a close second to the Pashtuns] has spoken out against the Taliban and has become a haven for Afghan resistance leadership, including Ahmad Massoud, leader of the National Resistance Front and former vice-president Amrullah Saleh, who remained in his country after his boss, president Ghani, had fled.  It would seem appropriate to offer some degree of support to Dushanbe.  

Alas, common sense is trumped by familiar political grandstanding on Russia.  The Wall Street Journal’s 9/28 report goes on to say:

“While the U.S. and Russia share concerns about the threat of terrorism, the idea of working with Russia on counterterrorism is fraught with challenges, particularly politically.  Congress enacted legislation several years ago that precludes close cooperation between the U.S. and Russian militaries as long as Russian troops are in Ukraine, unless the secretary of defense issues a special waiver” [Get to it, Secretary Austin.]

The WSJ article concludes:

“A Biden administration official said the U.S. isn’t seeking Moscow’s permission to position forces closer to Afghanistan but wanted to better understand Mr. Putin’s position. ‘We will pursue our own policies based on our own objectives’, the official said. ‘The reality is Russia is an element of the equation in the region and so we are engaging with them.’ “

“Better understand Mr. Putin’s position”?  “Russia is an element of the equation….”?  Quite apart from the obfuscatory skills of the unnamed official, the myopia here is downright alarming.  As we lick our wounds with the memory fresh of the Afghan debacle, engagement with a player who is significantly more than “an element of the equation” may well be a lifeline.

ACURA recognizes that there will be serious differences between the United States and Russia.  There are also, and will continue to be, opportunities to be taken for shared heavy lifting on global threats, from cyber security to climate change.  In that regard, common purpose on Afghanistan’s future course is surely on the list of no-brainers.

David C. Speedie was formerly [2007-2017] Senior Fellow and Director of the Program on U.S. Global Engagement at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York. He is a member of the Board of ACURA.

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