Barack Obama is facing the “Gorbachev dilemma”

Vasily Kravtsov, a Soviet war veteran who fought in Afghanistan in the 80s, says the US is failing in its campaign there because after nine years it still does not understand the country and its people.

RT: Mr. Kravtsov, thank you for joining us today. Sochi is hosting a summit, the second of its kind after the July session last year in Dushanbe. Does it mean Russia is strengthening its position in the region where it has always been present, and is opening up new opportunities for cooperation primarily with Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Vasily Kravtsov: I think that Russia is trying to strengthen its position. Russia is trying to reserve its position in the settlement process in Afghanistan via this quartet. To achieve this goal, which is really important for both Afghanistan and for the region as a whole, as well as for Russia, these regular events are taking place. I don’t think that this meeting will lead to any important strategic decisions, as the current format in Sochi is characterized by the different positions of its participants. Pakistan has one view on the Afghan crisis, Tajikistan has another view, Russia may have yet another position. But as for Russia and Tajikistan, it’s obvious that they want to settle the situation in the country as soon as possible, they are concerned with terrorism and with drug production and trafficking. As for Pakistan it has been playing a double game over the past 40 years. Verbally, they express their will to fight terrorism, but in fact, and everyone knows it, everything that is now going on in Afghanistan has Pakistani origins, Pakistani influence and impact. If it was not for this external power-play by Pakistan, terrorism would still exist, but it would be of a minor character, a minor insurgent character, nothing more. In this respect, it is important that Russia is more active in discussing the Afghan issue with the countries of this region.

RT: You have mentioned the drug trafficking issue. The statistics say that about 30,000 people in Russia die annually because of drugs coming from Afghanistan. How can the American presence in Afghanistan help resolve this problem and can Russia solve it on its own?

VK: The point is the status of international forces; the UN mandate stipulates their participation in anti-drug measures. From time to time they take part in such operations, but it’s sporadic and aimed at small producers and small smugglers. When carrying out anti-terrorist operations, they come across some drug caravans and destroy them, of course, but nothing more. At a recent international conference in Moscow on this issue, NATO representatives refused to include it on a list that NATO troops must obligatorily participate in fighting narcotics. They fear that this will only pose a greater threat to them in Afghanistan and aggravate their position. So, that’s why they refuse to limit themselves to fight against so-called terrorism. What is terrorism, Afghan terrorism? Nobody has given a precise and understandable definition yet, even the highest ranking American generals who have been leading NATO troops over there haven’t done so.

RT: President Obama has made a decision to cut the number of American troops in Afghanistan considerably. How realistic are these plans, do you think? By how much will troop numbers be cut? Will the Afghan authorities be capable of controlling the situation in the country by themselves?

VK: Nonetheless, over the past nine months the position of the American authorities has changed considerably. On the one hand, American Congress, the House of Representatives, and most importantly the Democratic Party categorically insist on a considerable pull-out of American troops from Afghanistan starting July 1, 2011.

Otherwise they would face a great challenge at the upcoming 2011 elections. On the other hand, the US military command, especially after the start of David Petraeus’ term as ISAF commander, has been looking for excuses to delay President Obama’s decision or to postpone it. We must remember that the larger part of the US military serves the interests of the Republican Party and so does the US defense minister.

I get frequent calls from US journalists asking what the US should do in the current situation and whether they should withdraw their troops next July. I usually respond with a question of my own: “Is there an alternative?” There is not. There is no alternative to the complete withdrawal of US troops. The longer US and NATO forces stay in Afghanistan, the more they will destabilize the region. It is evident that the presence of any foreign troops – be it NATO, US or Soviet troops – will only inspire terrorism in Afghanistan. You cannot depict the country as a den of terrorism, or its people as terrorists by default. This is not true. It is in fact very far from the truth.

There is a faction of people within the rebel movement that use terror methods. Some of these people do indeed have links to “Al-Qaeda”. In no way does this mean that any Afghan, or any armed Afghan, is a terrorist. The US is facing a philosophical problem. They spent nine years there; by December 2010 the length of their military presence will match that of the Soviet contingent. Now over this period they have failed to understand the Afghans’ outlook on life. They do not understand Afghanistan. Barack Obama is now facing the “Gorbachev dilemma” of whether to withdraw US forces. If he withdraws them it will be bad. If he doesn’t it will go from bad to worse. I am deeply convinced that Barack Obama should do the same thing as Mikhail Gorbachev did with Afghanistan. There is no other way.

RT: We have received information about the Taliban making a proposition to NATO to jointly investigate civilian deaths in Afghanistan. How realistic and serious is that offer?

VK: I don’t think it’s serious. I would like to say that the Taliban movement is quite formless, structurally. It is basically a successor to the mujaheddin movement that was active during the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan. It has not changed much since then. The way propaganda is spread hasn’t changed either and I would regard this offer as part of the propaganda war. The Taliban is obviously winning it, by the way. It’s obviously beating the US. As for the offer itself, even if the US or NATO was to agree to it, I don’t think the Taliban would play an active role in the investigation of these unpleasant and difficult incidents.

RT: What is happening in Afghanistan or Pakistan is affecting other countries including Russia. What could Russia do to establish a secure regime in the region?

VK: No single stakeholder in the region will be able to do anything on their own. The US tried to do so, but failed. They brought in the NATO contingent and failed again. I can say that countries in the region with their different stances and viewpoints will never come to consensus on the Afghan crisis. In order to find ways to settle the conflict from outside of the region we will certainly have to draw neighboring countries into the peace process: Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan and definitely Uzbekistan as well. Russia and Kazakhstan will also have to take part.

Russia is Afghanistan’s historical partner and vice versa. The US and NATO states have never been Afghanistan’s partners. They don’t understand the fundamentals of the region. The only country that can provide for a rapprochement between Iran, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan is Russia. This, I think, is one of the main goals of the Sochi summit.