Through the Afghan Looking Glass

The news today that the United States government will be paying $367 million dollars to Russia, for 21 Russian Mi-17 “Hip” helicopters for use by Afghanistan’s military, for some reason made me recall something I heard Monday.  I was talking about the Libya crisis to an E-Ring friend and former colleague in the Pentagon who told me, “the difficulty in Libya is that this is all new territory for us, new because it’s more complex, and so we have to figure it out as each new complication comes along.”

That’s one way of looking at modern life, as if drowning in too much data. Perhaps there’s another, driven more by longer memory, and analysis “à la recherche du temps perdu.”  Let’s set down some facts, past and present, and see if any lessons emerge. With apologies to Mark Twain whose forward to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn reads:

“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By Order of the Author”

Once upon a time, not so long ago (the 1980s), the United States armed Afghan “rebels” against an oppressive central government and its foreign puppetmaster patron, the Soviet Union. The rebels pre-existed the foreign involvment; in fact there is difficulty finding a historical point in the region’s history when there weren’t “rebels” against anyone claiming to be “the government.” (If it’s easier for you, imagine the residents of the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia.)

The Soviet Union’s military leadership had studied closely the American experience in the Vietnam War, and one of its lessons was that militarily the U.S. Army’s counter-insurgency strategy actually worked well, emphasizing mobility and rapid application of lethality at earliest detection of enemy movement. Whack-a-mole can actually work when you have a god’s-eye-view of the theater, and ubiquity – defined in part as lots of helicopters. The lesson the Red Army also learned was that superior firepower has successful but ugly results, but then the USSR had little domestic opposition to worry about… until Gorbachev’s policy of Glasnost opened a flood of internal debate and opposition.

Anyone who saw the movie Charlie Wilson’s War (or who read the book) knows the basic story of what happened in the Afghanistan war in the 1980s: the Soviets tried to use helicopter-mobile warfare against the mujahedeen rebels; the United States “secretly” armed the rebels with portable anti-aircraft weaponry and training optimized to kill helicopters; and the rebels wound up forcing the Soviets to give up and withdraw, as their Kabul puppet-government fell.

кто кого?

Flash forward to today, April 6 2011, and the announcement in the Russian media: “Russia to Supply Military Choppers to Afghanistan.”  Now, the helicopter purchase shouldn’t exactly be a suprise, to those who have been following events closely. Indeed, at the Lisbon Summit, NATO leaders approved “the development of an NATO-Russia Helicopter Maintenance Trust

Mi-17 / Russian designation Mi-8M

Fund in 2011 to support the Afghan Armed Forces to operate its helicopter fleet more efficiently” (from the official communique). The best coverage of the ins and outs of this on-again, off-again “fund” and its origins is coming from Roger McDermott, longtime Russian military watcher at the University of Kent and the Jamestown Foundation, as in his early piece dissecting Russian sources on the emerging helicopter topic back in 2009. Last summer, when DoD first began the acquisition with NATO funds, U.S.-based Sikorsky actually protested the purchase and argued instead for their Sikorsky S-61.

One Russian source today quoted Afghanistan’s Air Force Chief of Staff General Abdul Wahab Wardak as saying: “As I told the Americans, the contract is about to be signed. We will deliver 21 Mi-17 helicopter. We expect that the machine will start to arrive at the end of the year – we are very much needed. Mi-17 is better adapted to our conditions than any other helicopters, and our pilots are familiar with. We flew on them since 1980. I myself have learned to fly them [in] the Soviet Union, so I know what I’m saying.”

Last November, in an interview with Russia’s Interfax news agency, Afghanistan’s Foreign Minister Zalmay Rassoul spoke frankly about his government’s rationale for them:

Question: Afghanistan is interested in acquiring Russian helicopters, and  it has been announced that a special international trust fund is to be  established for this purpose. Is Afghanistan considering purchases of other  military hardware from Russia?

Answer:You know that Russian helicopters are adapted very much to  Afghanistan geography [LS: stop with the humor, you're killing me] and we have a lot of Afghan pilots who know about Russian helicopters. So definitely we need these helicopters and we are looking forward  to having these helicopters, spare parts, and the training of pilots for these  helicopters. The Russian Federation is also supplying the Afghanistan police  with Kalashnikov machine-guns and other light weapons, and the prospect of  further military cooperation is in discussion.

Question: How many helicopters should be supplied to Afghanistan  within the financing to be provided for [by] the trust fund?

Answer: We do not know exactly but there‘ll be about twenty  helicopters or something like this.

Perhaps the only constant in modern life is the Afghan presence of Russian helicopters. The only surprise may be in who is paying for them. As Lenin asked, Who-whom? Another official Kremlin news outlet, Voice of Russia, almost had a gloating wink in its “voice” with its account today:

Russia and the United States have agreed the terms of a contract for the delivery to Afghanistan of 21 Russian-made Mi-17 military helicopters.

Moscow and Washington are due to sign the contract shortly. According to the Moscow-based Kommersant daily, Moscow will thus earn 367.5 million dollars.

The issue was originally negotiated by Moscow and NATO, with the alliance trying to persuade Russia to supply the choppers free and thus contribute to stability in Afghanistan.

But Russia never took the proposal seriously, so the United States joined the talks and suggested paying for the delivery of the entire consignment.

By the way, the “related story” highlighted next to that one on Voice of Russia? “NATO Kills 3 Civilians in Kabul.” Chalk that placement up as serendipitously strategic communications.

If I were writing this just a few days ago on April Fool’s Day, I would conclude: “It is obvious that the Obama Administration has embarked on a brilliant maneuver combining Bismarckian diplomacy with international deception on an impressive scale. The United States is suckering the Russians into providing a fat new target for the Afghan mujahedeen, and we will slowly but surely sneak out of the country, leaving several years’ worth of anti-helicopter weapons for whichever stripe of Afghan combatant gets to them first.”  Worthy of a Gogol comedy.

Libya through a Cracked Mirror

What does any of this have to do with Libya? Nothing. That’s a completely different situation. And as my Pentagon friend said, Libya is much more complex than anything before. This may help a simpleton like me: using a separate sheet of paper for Libya, I will simply begin keeping lists of “government forces,” “international coalitions,” “U.S.-backed rebels” and so on.  Oh, and I’ll down a stiff shot of vodka at the first mention of Russian helicopters….

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  1. Update one day after writing the above:
    “CBS News: US General says U.S. may consider troops in Libya …. Army Gen. Carter Ham says ground forces wouldn’t be ideal, but may be a possible way to aid rebels. Says current operation largely stalemated…”

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