Moscow allows NATO vehicle transit to Afghanistan

Russia has agreed to ease rules for NATO armored vehicles, allowing them to be taken to Afghanistan through its territory, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said.

The statement was made after Russia’s top diplomat held talks with his Afghan counterpart Zalmai Rassoul in Moscow.

Later, Moscow’s permanent representative to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, clarified what kind of vehicles were subject to the agreement between Russia and the alliance. The pact covers vehicles that have “reinforced protection against mine and roadside bomb explosions, like Hummers and Mercedes, which are also used to transport United Nations civilian personnel," he wrote on his blog, according to Interfax.

Russia is also ready to take part in restoring Afghanistan’s infrastructure if financial issues are settled, Lavrov said. Speaking at a joint media conference with Zalmai Rassoul, he said Russia could help Afghanistan restore about 150 buildings which were originally constructed in the Islamic republic with the Soviet Union’s assistance.

“We are ready to take part in that as long as we reach an agreement – and I hope we will do so – over the sources of financing,” he noted. That was one of the issues on the table on Thursday and, according to Lavrov, there are ideas on how to sort it out.

The Russian foreign minister expressed confidence that cooperation between the two states will keep developing in such areas as countering drug-trafficking, restoring Afghanistan’s economy, and strengthening security in the war-torn country.

“We are ready to do more for Afghanistan,” Lavrov stated.

Currently the governments are working on an agreement over trade and economic cooperation between Russia and Afghanistan.And that work is nearing its end, Lavrov noted.

In addition, next year Moscow will provide more grants than in 2010 for Afghan law enforcement agencies and also civilians who come to Russia to study.

Russia reiterates necessity to eliminate Afghan poppy fields

The growing Afghan drug threat has long been a thorn in the side of the international community, and is a great concern for Russia. According to UN estimates, Afghan opiates claim some 100 thousand lives every year – 30,000 of those in Russia alone.

In an effort to find a solution to the problem, the heads of the drug control agencies in Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan are planning to hold a meeting next month, Lavrov announced on Thursday.

Later, in February 2011, the issue will be discussed on a broader scale at a third international conference on tackling the Afghan drug threat.

Lavrov noted that Russia intends to have a “substantial talk” on the matter and urge the necessity to intensify efforts on countering drug production, starting from the very beginning of the vicious circle. Yet again Russia is going to urge the elimination of the poppy plantations in Afghanistan.

“We are confident, that it is extremely important to work on hampering the deliveries of precursors used to heroin production,” Lavrov told the media conference. “We have repeatedly raised this issue,” the minister pointed out.

He also said that Moscow is going to significantly increase its contribution to the UN-led social anti-drug program in Afghanistan.

Back in October, thanks to joint efforts of Afghan and American Special Forces and Russia's Federal Drug Control Service, two hundred million doses of heroin were destroyed in the republic.

“[Russia] helped to obtain information on the location of the five destroyed laboratories,” Lavrov noted.

There is a question of what is to be tackled first – drug production or transit, says Ivan Safranchuk from Moscow State University of International Relations.

“That is a dispute with some history, because Russia was pressing NATO and the UN to fight production of poppies inside Afghanistan, while NATO and the UN were pressing Russia to fight transit. And that is a sort of dilemma ‘chicken or the egg’. In my personal opinion, poppies is an issue of top priority, because if there is less production, there will be less transportation and transit,” Safranchuk told RT.

“I think, there is a sort of exchange – Russia helps more with assistance to the NATO operation in Afghanistan and NATO, in response, should take the elimination of poppies inside of Afghanistan very seriously,” he added.

Complications over delivery of Russian choppers to Afghanistan

Russia has made it absolutely clear that its troops are not going to go back to Afghanistan. However, Moscow is ready for cooperation with the North-Atlantic alliance and the Afghan government in bringing stability to the region.

Earlier this month, Russia started shipping small arms and ammunition to Afghanistan’s police forces to help them counter Taliban militants, drug-trafficking and other crimes. Moscow has also sold five Mi-17 military helicopters to Poland for use in Afghanistan. The first two are to be delivered by the end of this year. However, “NATO wants to buy several dozen Mi-17s”, Russia’s Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said.

Sergey Lavrov recalled that the idea of “buying or supplying” the choppers was first voiced by the alliance’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen during his trip to Moscow last December. Russia said it would be ready to consider the proposal “in the context of a common trust fund which would finance such supplies”.

However, “some sort of problems emerged in NATO”. Currently different options are being considered, which will hopefully “help come to an agreement to strengthen the Afghan army with Russian helicopters,” Lavrov said.

The foreign Minister recalled that during the Russia-NATO summit in Lisbon last week, the presidents approved the idea of a project aimed at training Afghan pilots as well as regularly supplying helicopter spares to the republic.

Top-level talks on Moscow-Kabul relations will be held in January next year, when Afghan President Hamid Karzai is expected to visit Russia.

It is in Russia’s interest to help stabilize Afghanistan, believes Afghan member of parliament Daoud Sultanzoy.

”Russia is going to be the first country that will suffer from the problems that will lurk in Afghanistan, whether it is drug problems, whether it is extremism, whether it is terrorism,” he said. “Russia is the closest country from the western world that will suffer from the ills here. I think that it is to Russia’s advantage to help stabilize this country.”

Sultanzoy stressed that it is important that Russia becomes more involved in Afghanistan’s problems to strengthen ties with the country, and not for any other reason.

”It is very important to realize that for more than two centuries Russia and the west have used Afghanistan as a springboard for their bargaining either for proxy war or the theatre for their influence,” he said. “I hope that Russia’s entry this time is for the sake of building good relations with Afghanistan and the relations of two nations should be built on interests of two nations.”

­The head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Russia's lower house of parliament, Konstantin Kosachev, says it is in Moscow's own interests to expand cooperation with NATO in Afghanistan.

“Russia is equally interested in having this operation as a success story. This is not the case yet, because this operation… is meant to solve two problems: one is to combat terrorism coming from the territory of Afghanistan, and the other is to combat production of drugs coming from the territory of Afghanistan… We should further on, support any other forms of this cooperation, military transit included,” he said.

­However, John Laughland, a political analyst from the Paris-based Institute of Democracy and Cooperation, says Afghanistan’s drug problem cannot be solved by military intervention.

“These are intractable problems – at best they are police problems, at worst they are cultural issues. The police problems – because we are dealing here with trying to control cultivation over the vast country, which is difficult to control. And the cultural problems – because obviously the heroin trade is driven by heroin consumption,” he says.

“When you have a dangerous regime or regime that does not do what you like, the best way to deal with it is defensive, in other words you close your border with it, you prevent heroin and so on coming through, you adopt principally defensive measures. I do not think these issues can be solved by going into a country and trying to govern it,” Laughland added.

­Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul told RT that Western countries should increase their efforts to tackle drug production and trafficking in Afghanistan by reducing the demand for drugs.

“The poppy production in Afghanistan is the result of war and lawlessness and despair of the Afghan people, who don’t know if tomorrow they are going to be alive or dead, have no security for their future,” he said.

This fight cannot be won by Afghanistan alone,” he said. “We need the support of the international community… We will do our thing, our job, to reduce and eliminate poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, but also the world and the region should do their effort to reduce the demand. Because there is demand, the production of poppy is there.”