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British newspapers this week reported that Russia is "coming back" to Afghanistan 20 years after the withdrawal of Soviet forces. That was a reference to statements by NATO officials that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will discuss cooperating with the military alliance at a NATO summit next month.

Seeking to entice the Russians, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told "The Daily Telegraph," "The summit can mark a new start in the relationship between NATO and Russia."

He's right to say so, but the reality of Moscow's intentions -- along with the question of whether the Kremlin really wants to help or would rather see the Afghanistan effort fail -- are far more complicated than they may seem, not least because Russian attitudes to the Soviet war and the current conflict remain dubious.

Beyond that, Russia isn’t really coming back to Afghanistan. The cooperation on offer is limited to providing helicopters to NATO and training to Afghan troops. And, it would presumably come not only at the full sticker price of Moscow's goods and services, but if the Kremlin gets its way, also political concessions.

In the nine years since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, Russia has often said it's ready to share advice from the Soviet experience, a message repeated last month by Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov. Some advice has been given, and Russia has opened a land corridor for non-lethal NATO supplies to cross its territory.

Russia is understandably still spooked about any significant involvement in Afghanistan. But, given the pressing security threat Afghanistan poses Russia, it's indicative that there hasn't been far more cooperation. Islamist groups are burgeoning north of Afghanistan's border in former Soviet Central Asia -- most recently Tajikistan -- where thousands of troops are battling an insurgency that's staging ambushes and bomb blasts, and, the authorities say, establishing links with the Taliban.

Radical Islam was one of the Kremlin's ostensible worries even before the Soviet invasion of 1979, when the Iranian Revolution rang alarm bells in Moscow. Among the far bigger justifications for the war was the fantastical fear that the United States was preparing to invade Afghanistan (In fact, Washington had been steadily losing interest in Afghanistan since its post-World War II involvement). Many Soviet soldiers and officers sent to Afghanistan during and after the invasion in 1979 expected to face American soldiers, testament to how poorly the Kremlin was prepared for what really confronted them there.

For years following the Soviet withdrawal, many Russians saw the war as a tragic mistake. More recently, however, attitudes to the war as well as the current situation have been increasingly affected by Moscow's new confrontation with the United States. Veterans speak less about lessons to be learned from the Kremlin's blundering in the 1980s and more about Soviet soldiers courageously carrying out their "internationalist" duty to shore up a fellow communist regime. There's more handwringing now about how valiant Soviet boys were killed by devious CIA agents in Afghanistan.

That's seen as a lesson about the current need to approach Washington with great suspicion. Despite the stated desire to help U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan -- something Moscow can’t deny is greatly in its interests, not only by helping combat Islamist insurgencies in Russia's volatile southern Caucasus region, but also the opium trade that's fueling a heroin epidemic in Russia -- many Russians secretly want the United States to fail in Afghanistan. American success where the Soviets failed would mean a loss of face.

So it's no accident that along with the statements about wanting to help in Afghanistan, Russians often issue warnings about how today's conflict is no different than the Soviet one, and that U.S. and NATO forces will meet exactly the same fate the Red Army suffered there.

In fact, despite the many similarities and common mistakes -- not least the killing of civilians and the alienating swagger of occupying forces -- the two conflicts are undoubtedly different. Moscow never really understood the nature of the civil war in which it intervened in 1979, seeing the conflict through the ideological lens of spreading Marxism-Leninism in a region in which most locals lived according to medieval sensibilities. Soviet troops were ill-equipped, hungry, poorly disciplined, and often drunk or high. More Soviet soldiers died from disease than combat. Soviet forces unable to identify or locate rebels who would melt away into Afghanistan's mountains and villages responded with atrocities, carpet-bombing and turning much of the country into a lethal minefield.

Speaking to the BBC this week, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev warned that military victory in Afghanistan is impossible. "Obama is right to pull the troops out," he said, "no matter how difficult it will be," adding the best NATO could hope to achieve is to help the country rebuild after the war.

Isn't that what Washington is trying to do? Unlike Soviet leaders misled by rosy KGB reports meant to please them, President Obama knows the problems in Afghanistan. Chances are they're indeed insurmountable, but after eight years of failed Afghanistan policy, he's taken on the unenviable but unavoidable task of mounting a surge in the hope of exiting a conflict he didn’t launch, while walking a political tightrope.

Despite its rhetoric of magnanimity, Russia's help in that effort has been tiny. Moscow sees Afghanistan less as a common threat than a way to squeeze concessions from Washington and NATO, including over missile defense plans and objections to Russia's recognition of Georgia's breakaway regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia. More significant, a Russian draft cooperation agreement passed to NATO from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last year stipulates the Western military alliance shouldn't deploy "significant forces" in new, former communist members. That's hardly something Rasmussen will be able to sell to those countries even if it were acceptable to the NATO leadership.

Moscow still sees its role as playing a new version of the old Great Game of control in Central Asia. But if the Kremlin views the world as locked in 19th-century notions about great-power jockeying over territory, other countries are trying to move on. Rasmussen may be right to praise Russia, but his flattering descriptions of its actions shouldn't obscure its true intentions.

-- Gregory Feifer

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