Friday, September 18, 2009

For Obama, Afghanistan Is More Important Than A Missile Shield

President Obama's decision to abandon US plans for a missile defence shield in eastern Europe has made big news around the world over the last couple of days. The shield would have involved putting facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic from where any missiles heading towards western Europe or the US could have been shot down. The official reason for getting rid of the scheme is that Iran, purportedly the likeliest place from which those missiles might have been launched at the west, isn't as far ahead in its weapons development as had been thought.

As is usually the case in international diplomacy though, that's not the real reason for Mr Obama's decision. In fact, there are plenty of reasons, and the decision has all sorts of consequences which may not be immediately obvious. But the main theme is the sense that Afghanistan is now by far the most important international challenge facing the US, and all its foreign policy decisions are made in that context. In weighing up whether to go ahead with the shield or not, Mr Obama will have thought hard about the impact the decision would have on Afghanistan.

It's been widely said that the decision to scrap the scheme will ease tensions between the US and Russia. This is important because the US needs Russia's help in Afghanistan, and will do for years and probably decades to come. In the short-term, Moscow can allow NATO forces to use both the land and airspace of Russia and some nearby former Soviet republics, which will help their fight against the Taliban. But more significantly, in the long-term, once the Americans, British and the rest have gone, Russia will have a more important role in Afghanistan. The Kremlin likes to have control of countries in its 'backyard' and in future it'll be deals between Russia and local Afghan tribal leaders, rather than guns and air strikes, that keeps Afghanistan stable.

So President Obama's decision will have an impact far into the future. But there are lots of people who aren't happy about it, and those people are mostly in eastern Europe. Countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic want to avoid slipping back into Moscow's 'backyard' and wanted the missile shield as an extra guarantee of their independence from Russia. Not because the Kremlin was about to fire missiles at Warsaw or Prague, but to emphasise that they have American backing and that Moscow shouldn't try any funny business, like shutting off power supplies. That fear is multiplied many times over for Ukraine and especially Georgia, which are desperately trying to resist being sucked back into the Kremlin's orbit. If Russia's price for helping out in Afghanistan is the withdrawal of the missile shield, don't be surprised if they also manage to thwart those two countries' hopes of joining NATO.

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