Despite the insistence by Washington that the Kandahar killings a week ago were a “rampage” by an “apparently deranged” or “probably deranged” American sergeant, Afghan people believe in the finding by their parliamentarians that up to 15 to 20 US troops were involved. The Afghan president Hamid Karzai also agreed the US version is “not convincing.”

Even within the Afghan military establishment, the opinion publicly aired by the Afghan army chief of staff Sher Mohammad Karimi’s condemnation of the US troops will prevail. Lieutenant General Karimi who visited the scene of the crime called it a pre-meditated massacre carried out by a number of US troops.

This is going to make the signing of a strategic agreement between Washington and Kabul before the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) summit in Chicago in May highly problematic. Washington expects Karzai to put his signature on the dotted line before May and Karzai knows his political future depends on his performance.

In an extraordinary commentary last week, the influential French troubleshooter Bernard Henri-Levy threatened that the international community should never have “blindly depended upon the corrupt government of Hamid Karzai”.

Echoing the views of many US commanders, he lambasted the planned 2014 pullout date as “an admission of failure and impotence”, but said that prolonging the military presence beyond 2014 is also difficult “considering the human cost”. So, the only course available is to “go and stay” - ie, withdraw combat troops “but leave the military bases and instructors”.

Levy has the answer: “Admit that Afghanistan cannot be reduced ... to a desperate confrontation between the Taliban killers and the corrupt members of Karzai’s regime ... In Kabul ... there are, then, the heirs of [late Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah] Massoud. And perhaps before we pull up the ladder, it would be advisable to try to turn to them, in an ultimate attempt, a last-chance operation.”

Karzai is once again being threatened that his potential successor is all dressed up and waiting in the green room. The point is, through all the watershed events of the past six to eight weeks - US troops urinating on Taliban corpses, burning the Quran or massacring civilians - the constant has been the signing of a strategic pact with Kabul that ensures long-term military presence.

The US President Barack Obama repeated last Tuesday during his joint press conference with the visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron that Karzai has been left in no doubt. But post-Panjwayi, this can no longer be reduced to a battle of wits between Obama and Karzai alone. Moscow enters. In the course of an exclusive 30-minute interview telecast over an Afghan channel last night, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov repeated not fewer than four times that Russia expects a “neutral” Afghanistan - code word for the vacation of foreign military presence.

Russian policy is moving on two tracks. One, Moscow hopes to work closely with Karzai. “Unlike some others [read Washington], we do not dictate to the [Kabul] government how it should build the process of national reconciliation. We know that a part of Pashtuns, there are Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras. [sic] They all must find their way in the political system so they all feel being part of the process, not isolated. This is the general principle; how to apply them in practice, it’s not for us to tell the Afghan authorities.”

On the other hand, Lavrov questioned how the Obama administration or the North Atlantic Treaty Organisatoin (NATO) could unilaterally decide on matters such as “transition” or ending the “combat mission”. He demanded that the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) should first confirm to the United Nations Security Council that its mandate has been fulfilled before jumping the gun and proposing the withdrawal of the NATO and US contingents.

Lavrov pointed out that there is a fundamental contradiction in the US stance. On the one hand, Washington is assuming that the ISAF mandate has been fulfilled and is withdrawing the troops from Afghanistan, while on the other hand it is discussing with Kabul “very purposefully the establishment of four or five military bases for the post-2014 period”. In forceful language, he drew Moscow’s bottom line:

    “I don’t think why this should be done this way because if you need the military presence, then you continue to implement the mandate of the Security Council. If you don’t want to implement the mandate of the Security Council or you believe that you have implemented the mandate already, but still want to establish and keep the military bases, I don’t think it is logical. I also believe that Afghan territory should not be used to create some military sites, which would cause concern by third parties.

    “I don’t think it is logical that by 2014 the job would be over but we will stay for a much longer period inside military bases. I don’t understand the purpose of the military bases, and, besides, the United States is talking to Central Asian countries asking for long-term military presence. WE want to understand the reason for it and why this is needed. We don’t think it would be helpful for the stability of the region.”

Lavrov then asserted that Moscow is a stakeholder:

One, terrorism hasn’t abated in Afghanistan;

Two, terrorists are being “pushed” into the northern regions from where they are infiltrating into the “Central Asian neighbors of the Russian Federation and they don’t add stability in this region”;

Three, the ISAF is using the so-called Northern Distribution Network and “we [Russia] believe this is our contribution to fulfill the mandate which the international forces received from the Security Council”, and, therefore, “we have the right to demand” that the mandate should be implemented before the ISAF deems its”combat mission” over. In essence, Moscow served notice that Obama administration can no longer dictate the trajectory of this war. Lavrov’s interview was carefully timed, since the ISAF’s mandate will be reviewed this week in the Security Council.

Moscow is adding Afghanistan to the litany of issues on which will take a “muscular” approach - alongside the planned US missile defence system, Syria and Iran. Last week, Moscow disclosed that it might offer a military base in Ulyanovsk on the Volga for NATO as transportation hub for ferrying supplies for the war.

The characteristic Russian offer puts the Pentagon and NATO in a dilemma. From a logistical point of view, it is a vital lifeline, but from the geopolitical point of view, Washington may think twice. The alternative is to go back to Pakistan and get the two transit routes reopened. The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey has done just that.

Dempsey even played the “India card”, underscoring that the main challenge for the US was to get the Pakistani military to shift from its rooted belief that “India poses their greatest existential threat”. (He didn’t disclose how Washington proposes to assuage the Pakistani fears.)

Quite obviously, several templates are overlapping this week. Russia intends to throw down the gauntlet on Washington’s Afghan strategy when the renewal of ISAF’s mandate comes up before the Security Council this week. The US, in turn,anxiously awaits a positive outcome of the parliamentary processes in Islamabad that may lead to a resumption of the two countries’ partnership.

Meanwhile, a third vector is hanging in the air - Afghan anger over the Panjwayi killings. The best hope is that Afghans accept the Sergeant Bales version. But Bales himself is locked up in solitary confinement in Kansas at Fort Leavenworth, where by a curious twist of irony, Dempsey and Kayani were once classmates at the School of Advanced Military Studies - studying Theatre Operations.

–Asia Times Online