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Russia Opens Afghan Transit Route For NATO's Germany

German troops in Afghanistan
German troops in Afghanistan
BRUSSELS -- Germany has became the first NATO nation to win Russian permission to use the country's railways to transit military goods bound for Afghanistan.

NATO officials see the Russian-German transit deal as an encouraging sign.

It is the first major breakthrough in Russian-Western military relations since the Georgian conflict in August.

It is also the first time Russia has permitted a NATO ally to transit military supplies via an overland route.

But Russia has been careful to avoid giving the impression it is returning to business as usual with the Atlantic alliance, which indefinitely suspended cooperation in the NATO-Russia Council to protest Moscow's actions in Georgia.

A statement posted on the website of the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry on November 20 says Russia wants to deepen cooperation with the alliance on Afghanistan. But the statement only refers to bilateral transit agreements concluded with individual allies such as Germany, and does not mention a NATO-Russia land-transit accord signed on the margins of the NATO summit in Bucharest in April.

NATO officials play down the distinction.

Real Test

The alliance's deputy spokeswoman, Carmen Romero, told RFE/RL that NATO's agreement with Russia must be complemented by similar agreements with Central Asian countries lying along the transit route to Afghanistan.

"First, we have an agreement with Russia to use Russian territory to transport supplies for our forces in Afghanistan. As you remember, this [agreement was] signed last April during [NATO's] Bucharest summit," Romero said. "But this agreement can only work if we also have the same kinds of agreement with three countries in Central Asia, which are Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. So, right now we are in negotiations with these three countries. We hope that we will be able to sign the agreements very soon."

The real test for the NATO-Russia accord will be its implementation.

So far, Moscow's last word appears to be an interview given by Russia's ambassador to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, to the British daily "The Times." In the August 26 interview, the envoy says NATO's decision to suspend military cooperation with Russian must logically include transit to Afghanistan.

Moscow certainly has a real interest in the stability of Afghanistan. Russia itself is home to an estimated 20 million people with Muslim backgrounds. Afghanistan's descent into chaos would also spell disaster for the strategically important and energy-rich Central Asian nations on Russia's highly exposed southern flank.

But Russia now appears to prefer cultivating cooperation with some handpicked allies over forging links with the entire alliance. Thus, the Russian Foreign Ministry statement noted Germany will be permitted to transit "weapons, military equipment, and military goods."

NATO At Disadvantage

Meanwhile, according to NATO's own website, the accord the alliance signed with Russia in April limits land transit to "nonmilitary" equipment.

Air transit between some NATO allies and Afghanistan has blossomed for some time now. NATO as a whole is, again, at a disadvantage and is still conducting negotiations with Moscow.

Romero blames NATO's difficulties on the number of allies involved.

"To negotiate an agreement, 26 is more complicated than to negotiate an agreement on a bilateral basis," she said. "So, individual countries such as Germany, France, and Spain have bilateral agreements with Russia, but one of our objectives also is to reach an agreement with the Russians on this issue."

Expanded access to Afghanistan from the north has become increasingly important to NATO in recent months.

So far, NATO and its allies in Afghanistan have shipped up to 75 percent of their supplies and equipment into the country via Pakistan. But mushrooming attacks on poorly protected and strung-out convoys of trucks by Taliban insurgents in Pakistan's lawless border regions are starting to take a serious toll on NATO's ability to carry out its mission in Afghanistan.

But former Afghan General Noor ul-Haq Uloomi, now a member of the Afghan parliament, warns that northern transit, too, would not be immune to insurgent attacks.

Opportunities For Terrorists

Uloomi tells RFE/RL that opening a northern supply route through Central Asia and Afghanistan's northern provinces could destabilize these now peaceful regions.

"The kind of weak [security infrastructure] we have might give the terrorist an opportunity to mount attacks on the supply lines in the north," Uloomi said. "We should remember that we can see attacks inside Afghanistan. Our government and our international allies should know that there will be military pressure in the north and we need to make good security arrangements."

NATO officials have denied that the attacks on the southern supply routes are causing it "strategic concerns," citing the availability of alternative land and sea routes. They say the choice of routes has been largely a matter of expense for the alliance.

However, NATO sources in Afghanistan have previously told RFE/RL that insurgent attacks on fuel convoys have proven particularly damaging, disrupting NATO air traffic in the southern theater around Kandahar.

The benefits of a northern transit corridor will also largely be limited to areas in the north, center, and west of Afghanistan.

Isolated by the Hindu Kush mountain range and swaths of potentially hostile Afghan territory, NATO forces in the country's restive south, where the Taliban insurgency is at its strongest, are likely to need to continue relying on transit through Pakistan for most of their supplies and provisions.

RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique contributed to this report.

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