Russia Loves NATO – in Afghanistan

An article in Thursday’s Christian Science Monitor reported that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is urging NATO to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond the current 2014 withdrawal date in order to maintain some semblance of stability there. Even though Russia is very concerned about NATO expansion elsewhere, this Russian move makes good sense. Instability in Afghanistan would not only risk another terrorist attack on the US, but similar attacks within Russia. Lavrov is smart to put aside doctrinaire views that see any American presence near Russia as unacceptable. He is better off encouraging us to expend our treasure and blood to reduce risks to both our nations, instead of Russia bearing the burden – something it would be very unlikely to do after we helped bloody them so badly in the 1980’s.

If we had been as far sighted back then as Lavrov is being today, al-Qaeda and the Taliban might never have come to power. (Many of those fighters, including Osama bin Laden, were trained by the CIA during the 80’s.) The Twin Towers might still stand, and human rights in Afghanistan might be better than they are today. While the Soviet supported Afghan regime was far from a paragon of virtue, women were better off then than now, and I doubt it was a capital crime to convert from Islam, as it is now under the government we support.

America learned a hard lesson in 1941, when the isolationism of the previous two decades bit us at Pearl Harbor and brought us into war with Hitler. Unfortunately, we came to believe that if isolationism is bad, interventionism is good, and more interventionism is better. That mistaken thinking played a major role in drawing us into needless wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Was it really in our interests to kick the Soviets out of Afghanistan, or like Lavrov today, should we have been less doctrinaire?

Martin Hellman

For further reading

To get a better picture of the history of women’s rights in Afghanistan, compare a 1987 New York Times article about women under the Soviet-supported government, versus a 2011 article about the status of women under “our” government.

People have been sentenced to death for converting to Christianity under the American-supported government, though in this case the man was released on a technicality after the Bush administration strongly objected. At least one the two men sentenced to death on similar charges more recently was also spared, but I do not know the fate of the other.

Surprisingly, the last Soviet-supported president of Afghanistan is revered by some Afghans.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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3 Responses to Russia Loves NATO – in Afghanistan

  1. Arthur Edelstein says:

    Hi Martin,

    While it’s certainly interesting to see Lavrov promoting the continuation of an American armed presence in Afghanistan, I think the statement that “Instability in Afghanistan would not only risk another terrorist attack on the US, but similar attacks within Russia” is a dangerous misreading of the situation. Of course, the 9/11 attacks did not originate from Afghanistan — they were perpetrated by Arabs, from Arab countries with “stable” regimes allied with the United States (some of which have now been partially overthrown by democratic uprisings). While Osama bin Laden was hiding in Afghanistan, he left and turned out to be hiding in Pakistan, another “stable” client state of the United States.

    I think we can be more rigorous about understanding the risk of terrorism. A question one could try to answer is: What is the risk that an Afghan carries out a terrorist attack on the American homeland? Is it higher if American troops continue to occupy Afghanistan, or if they withdraw? When, in the name of stability, the United States props up an Afghan government that rigs national elections and engages in mass corruption, does that increase or decrease the incentive for Afghans to attack Americans? One’s strategy must take into account the reactions of other players in the game.

    A similar logic can be applied to the nuclear danger. It is true that nuclear weapons can deter a foreign attack. Should we then conclude that the United States needs more nuclear weapons, to further deter the risk of a nuclear war between the United States and Russia? Probably not, because Russia would likely react by producing even more nuclear weapons, thereby increasing the risk of nuclear war.

  2. Nuclear Risk says:


    Good points! You’re right that, even though conventional wisdom blames Afghanistan for 9/11, the majority of the hijackers were Saudis. So why didn’t we invade Saudi Arabia instead? 😉 Much of the blame also could fall on Germany, where a number of the hijackers met. But we didn’t invade Germany either. Going further, Osama bin Laden violated the terms of his hospitality agreement with the Taliban when he executed the 9/11 attacks, and the Taliban had offered to turn him over for trial even before 9/11 — but not in the US (see

    And then there’s the case of Luis Posada Carriles, a confessed terrorist who has either been harbored by the US, or at least tolerated — but the target of his attacks was Castro’s Cuba, which somehow makes things different. See


  3. Nuclear Risk says:

    I hit REPLY too early, since I meant to also respond to your last paragraph. Again, you’re right. This is another example of dangerous, bipolar thinking. In my blog, I noted that people seem to think that if isolationism is bad, then interventionism is good, and more is better. You point out similar wrong thinking: “If some nuclear weapons help deter aggression, then more nuclear weapons are better.” And, of course, that thinking leaves out the risk of even some nuclear weapons being used if deterrence fails.

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