A lesson in Riga

The Baltimore Sun

As the leaders of the NATO countries talk today and tomorrow about the worsening problems of Afghanistan, we hope they take a moment to look around them. This year's summit is in Riga, Latvia, an atmospheric old Baltic seaport - and a place that should serve to remind the assembled presidents and prime ministers that Afghanistan has a long and painful history as a wrecking ground of international ambitions.

Plenty of Latvians have experience fighting in Afghanistan - as Soviet soldiers in the 1980s, when Moscow tried and ultimately failed to subdue the mujahedeen there. That failure, more than any other single factor, led to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. Now it's NATO's turn in Afghanistan, and once again the stakes are larger than they might appear.

The military alliance has 32,000 troops there. But the member nations are of different minds about the mission, and this year's upsurge in violence has sharpened the divisions. Some countries have troops there but won't let them be used except in certain situations. Others haven't sent any at all. The Belgian defense minister thinks it's time to talk about leaving.

But Afghanistan is not yet a lost cause. With winter coming on, the fighting is likely to die down. This is the time for the Western nations to get serious about providing the kind of assistance that some would ridicule as "nation-building"; Afghans need to see that benefits flow from the foreign presence. Their difficult country does not offer the opportunity for a purely military victory, as the Soviets discovered. It does still hold out the possibility of a political victory, if the leaders of the NATO countries are smart enough to fashion one.

The alternative is failure - and failure in Afghanistan would have tremendous repercussions for NATO, up to and including rupture or even dissolution. The downfall of the Soviet Union 15 years ago following its debacle in Afghanistan had many positive consequences (among them the re-emergence of Latvia as a sovereign nation). The world would not be so lucky if the same should happen to NATO - because of the dangerous currents that would be set loose not only in Asia but in Europe as well.

It's no accident that the second most important item on the NATO summit agenda has to do with Russia, right next door. Awash in oil money, selling billions of dollars of arms around the world, interfering in the affairs of its neighbors, virtually controlling the supply of natural gas to Europe, Russia is clearly reclaiming a place for itself on the global stage. It is a country where reporters are silenced by bullets; the death by radioactive poison of a former KGB agent living in London is a bizarre and troubling incident.

Over the past decade NATO expanded right up to Russia's border. It was an effective and smart move. We hope the leaders assembled in Riga have the sense to understand how much is now at stake; to let their alliance come to grief over Afghanistan would be to invite untold trouble in the years to come.

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