NATO cooperation with Russia is worth pursuing

The new secretary-general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has called on NATO to form closer ties with Russia, and suggested discussing linking missile defense systems. This is an excellent idea.

Mr Rasmussen, former prime minister of Denmark, has also said that NATO and Russia should focus on their common interests, and not their disagreements. It is easy for those in politics to pander to the hardliners in their constituencies by criticising and talking tough. But since the election of Barack Obama (and probably before then), the United States has adopted a more conciliatory attitude toward all its potential opponents. As yet, this new approach has reduced tension between the US and Russia. Barack recently cancelled US plans for components of a missile shield to be placed in Poland and the Czech Republic, former Soviet satellites, and the Russian government responded by shelving plans to deploy missiles in Kaliningrad.

Upholding the nuclear nonproliferation regime is one common interest of both NATO and Russia. Barack has taken action to show he is committed to nonproliferation, which will probably help his diplomatic efforts in places like Iran as well. Republican accusations that these actions will embolden America’s enemies and Czech opposition worries that they will endanger its nation are unfounded. Friends and foes alike take cues from the United States. If the US is building big weapons, they will too. If the US reduces missile stocks, other governments are expected to put their weapons development on hold. Fear drives militaries to order bigger and better weapons. Barack’s moves on missiles, and NATO’s greater cooperation with Russia, will reduce fear, not increase risk-taking. And to say that the US must be a bulwark against all possible threat from Russia is along the lines of the incorrect belief that the US can contain any and all threats direct against itself or its allies. It cannot. However, the deeper its ties to Russia are, the more painful sanctions will be to Russia if it becomes belligerent.

Russia and NATO also have common interests in fighting piracy and terrorism, and energy supplies. The Georgia question, human rights and so on will need to be addressed but it will soon be possible to discuss them against the backdrop of amicable talks. Until then, NATO and Russian governments should embrace confidence-building measures. These measures should include reciprocal information exchanges among security forces, joint military exercises and cooperation to reduce the spread of small arms and land mines around the world.

Not many of these suggestions are in the works but they are all possible ways of reducing animosity between two blocs that have been considering on the brink of a war of annihilation. If Mr Rasmussen stays on course, he will leave a legacy of peace.

Finally, an end to poppy eradication in Afghanistan

After years of wrongheaded “War on Drugs” policies in Afghanistan, the United States says it has changed. Richard Holbrooke, a highly experienced diplomat, now US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said “we’re going to phase out eradication” of heroin-producing poppies. This can only be good.

87% of the heroin bought in the world in 2004 was made from poppies grown in Afghanistan. (1) That number has climbed from 70% in the 1990s, a big drop in 2000 due to a ban on poppy farming by the Taliban (2), and a resurgence to as much as 90% today (3) (though figures vary).

Eradication efforts do indeed destroy some acreage of poppy farms, but they do not help reach any of the US’s goals. The UN Office of Drugs and Crime report that “the Taliban and other anti-government forces” earned between 50 and 70 million dollars from poppy production in 2008. (4) Antonio Costa, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, says that the same people may also be hoarding poppy stocks, in order to decrease the amount available on the market and push up prices. (4) Moreover, spraying crops punishes the innocent farmers growing them. If Afghan farmers lose their crops to foreign invaders, who are they likely to turn to for protection? If more poppies are eradicated, the price of heroin goes up, the so-called insurgents make more money and gain more allies. Is it any wonder they are putting up such a fight?

In fact, President Barack’s focus is shifting from Iraq to Afghanistan precisely because it is becoming the more difficult of the two conflicts to win. Iraq has always been seen as the pointless, unnecessary war, the bad war, and the one most frequently designated a quagmire. The reality has changed as Iraq has become more stable and Afghanistan conflict has become to look intractable. Richard Holbrooke has been saying since he was sworn in as Special Representative that Afghanistan will be “much tougher than Iraq” (5), and since a year earlier that US counter-narcotic policy in Afghanistan “may be the single most ineffective program in the history of American foreign policy”. (6) He also said that “Nato’s future is on the line”. He is surely right. More importantly, a collapse of NATO’s operations in Afghanistan could mean more violence in Central Asia, more radical Islamism and more suicide terrorism in America and Europe.

For now, let’s get back to drugs. There are alternatives to destroying poppies (though Afghanistan’s Ministry of Counter Narcotics might disagree (7)). Growing poppies could be considered an advantage rather than a scourge. The Senlis Council suggests using them to manufacture opiate-based, legal painkillers such as morphine. (8) Other countries, such as Turkey, grow poppies legally and sell opiates to the United States. Giving farmers a rich market for their crops would mean giving them a livelihood and delivering them from the Taliban. Decriminalising poppy production in Afghanistan will help the cause of NATO forces.

Spokespeople have used the words “phasing out” to explain their shift in policy away from spraying poppy fields. These words make it sound like a slow process that will not end overnight. Nevertheless, policy is moving in the right direction. An end to the eradication of poppies could be the turning point in the war for a democratic and stable Afghanistan.

Patience with Afghanistan could be wearing thin

Governments of democratic countries take a big risk when they go to war. The war can only go on if the people allow it. If public sentiment turns against the war, perhaps because too many troops are dying, a new government will come to power and end it. Vietnam is a good example of this: public opposition in the US increased every year until the war ended.

President Barack wants to increase American and NATO troop levels in Afghanistan for a war that up to now has looked unwinnable. Some reports have certainly said that troop levels are too low, so more fighters could be the way to gain the ground that has been slipping away. But the insurgency NATO is fighting has been increasing in intensity. Moreover, Pakistan is slowly crumbling and could become the next Afghanistan: ineffectual, corrupt government, violent, chaotic, and a hotbed of Muslim hatred of the West.

If that were not enough, NATO has been talking about rebalancing its priorities, afraid of Russian encroachment in Eastern Europe and the Arctic. While Barack might want to focus his war efforts on Afghanistan, his allies have other worries. For international alliances, public opinion in other countries matters just as much as at home.

The main reason the US effort in Vietnam failed was because the marines did not win hearts and minds. Hearts and minds means building hospitals and schools, protecting civilians and arresting–but not torturing–those who target them. If the accounts are correct, there is some effort to do these things in Afghanistan. Could more be done? Could we see the results? And are Afghanis really benefiting from NATO’s presence? The answers to these questions are in the hands of the militaries, in charge of strategy and the media, in charge of perception.

I predict that the public in the US, Canada and Britain will lose patience with the war in Afghanistan before NATO’s mission is complete. If there are not marked improvements in the lives of most Afghanis in the next two years, expect the boys home by 2012.