|Andrey Avetisyan, left, says Afghanistan and the government of Hamid Karzai, right, should not be pressured to quickly adopt Western-style democratic institutions [Courtesy: Russian Embassy]
For the first time since the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989, and the subsequent fall of the Najibullah government in 1996, Russia says it is ready to play a greater political and economic role in the country it formerly occupied.
It has co-operated with Nato and other western deployments, opening up transit routes for international forces and initiating bilateral co-operation with Kabul.
Andrey Avetisyan, the Russian ambassador to Afghanistan, says Moscow supports the continuing presence of international troops in Afghanistan. However he worries that the international community, especially the US, are committing the same mistakes made during the Soviet occupation.
Al Jazeera interviewed the Russian envoy at his country's new embassy in Kabul.
Al Jazeera: Russia has maintained a low-key presence in Afghanistan for the past few years. Is it preparing to change that approach and move toward a new role in this country?
Andrey Avetisyan: Indeed, we have been playing it kind of low-profile for the past eight years possibly because Russia was looking for its place in the modern Afghan situation. Our firm resolution was, and still is, that Russia is never going to be involved in Afghanistan militarily. We have been waiting for a moment, a good chance to come back to do other things.
This moment seems to have come because in Afghanistan we see, at last, not only fighting but efforts to revive this country, to rebuild its economy ... to do something for education.
These are positive developments because we have been telling our Western friends you cannot win in Afghanistan by fighting terrorism alone. Of course, we support this fight against terrorism and drug-trafficking because the flow of drugs affects Russia a lot. It affects us more than any other country because a lot of it goes through Russia and stays there.
How has Russia supported the so-called war on terror and what changes would you like to see in that effort?
We support the international forces in Afghanistan. We are not interested in their defeat because otherwise we will have to deal with this problem in the future and I think it is in our common interest to join forces.
We have opened transit routes through Russia for example; we train some Afghan police and we are thinking of increasing that number. We are ready to provide Afghanistan with all possible assistance here.
I don't think military victory is possible in Afghanistan in the sense of a conventional war or traditional war, like the Second World War and such. In the end, international forces will leave Afghanistan but the war or the fighting will not stop immediately. Our common responsibility and common goal is to prepare Afghanistan and Afghan security forces to stand and fight alone and to complete this task without an international presence.
The time has not yet come for this because the Afghan army and police are yet to be increased in numbers and should be trained.
Why has Russia has been critical of the attempts to impose Western-style democratic institutions and of the pressures exerted on the Karzai government during the elections?
|Moscow says democracy should not be rushed in Afghanistan [EPA]
The democratic institutions need to be supported more than ever and more so in Afghanistan than in any other place because it is a young democracy.
We provide such support for example in increasing relations between parliaments.
But you are right - we were quite critical during the election period because we are sure that the Afghans must not be pushed too hard. It must be done step-by-step. Slowly. You can't have elections in Afghanistan as neatly as in Finland, for example, because the situation is different. But some people wanted to have it in a classic Western style.
Afghan society is so different from elsewhere that one must understand or at least try to understand this before trying to go too far in imposing democratic principles immediately.
Was this one of the things Russia learnt during its invasion years – trying to impose too much without understanding local conditions?
That was one of the mistakes. Unfortunately, as we say to our American partners, they are repeating the same mistake. Which is a pity, because they have an advantage to learn from our mistakes. But many mistakes are repeated. We are not very happy about it because we are now partners.
They are more or less applying the same approach as the Soviet army in the 1980s - holding towns and some bases without widening the influence. We are not talking only of military but political influence as well to the countryside and provinces. They have provincial centres in all Afghan provinces, but unfortunately little else.
But the new Western approach of protecting civilians is, I think, a step in the right direction.
International forces have also been talking of withdrawing to urban areas and protecting ten population centres.
The idea to withdraw comes inevitably because nobody can stay here forever but another mistake that must be avoided is to leave Afghanistan without preparing and establishing effective and functioning power structures. Otherwise, this war can be fought for another 10 or 20 years and when international forces leave, the problems will remain.
|Avetisyan says Afghan police and the army must be strengthened to stand alone
Building institutions, effective power structures, effective government, which is representative of all political forces in Afghanistan - that is what is needed. Without these in place, the international community cannot leave.
So is Russia comfortable with an open-ended international presence?
I would not say it is open-ended. The moment will come when we all feel that the government is quite capable to do without the international military presence.
Should there be a date for withdrawal as some people have suggested?
I am afraid dates and deadlines spoil the whole thing. When you have a date you relax and just wait for the date to arrive.
Are you comfortable with the anticipated increase in Nato and Isaf troops?
I think, and this is my personal opinion, that some increase is needed to improve the situation now, in the short term. If in the short-term period the international presence manages to improve the military and political situation, then it will be easier to build the power structure, economy and other important things. So strategically before withdrawal some tactical increase is needed.
Is Russia uneasy about a US military presence in Central Asian countries which have traditionally fallen under Moscow's sphere of strategic influence?
We do not divide the world into spheres of influence. We are all engaged in this counter-terrorism effort together. So we don't see this presence as a threat to us because we are contributing to a common effort. I don't think it is a problem.
Are you worried about the military situation in northern Afghanistan?
That is why I said we are not interested in international forces being defeated here because we understand that this threat is a threat to our security as well. Maybe even more than other countries far away because we feel ourselves as neighbours of Afghanistan even though we do not share a common border.
We are very interested in stabilising Afghanistan and ready to help in that endeavour.
There is now a lot of talk about reconciliation and reintegration of the Taliban and other anti-government forces.
Reconciliation and reintegration are two different things. Reintegration is when we speak about soldiers and field commanders and such who possibly fight for money or because they don't have other things to do; for example, someone whose house was destroyed by mistake by the army or someone else and is now seeking revenge.
|There have been suggestions that the Taliban be reintegrated into the political process [AFP]
If these people see prospects for themselves, for their families to live normal lives, they can be reintegrated and this must be encouraged by the government.
Reconciliation is a possibility. If we take the Taliban, for example, there is a possibility for the leadership to enter the political stream. Well, in the future it is possible. But it is a very delicate and slow process. It should be a slow process. We must not rush it.
It cannot happen next year. Because it is difficult to come to an agreement right after fighting. Some time has to pass. But they are all Afghans and in the end they have to find ways to reconcile.
It is a difficult process, however. What Russia is clearly opposed to is removing some people from the UN sanctions list and bringing them here. We must have serious reasons for de-listing and it is a very difficult process.
The UN Security Council's al-Qaeda and Taliban sanctions committee - set up in 1999 - has a list of names of people considered to be linked to either organisation. Reviewing this list and taking some names off the list is now being considered as one important initial step toward reconciliation with members of the Taliban.
This proposal has been mooted earlier by those encouraging these reconciliation talks including the go-betweens. Taking any names off the list requires consensus of all 15 committee members, including Russia. What is Moscow's take on this?
We do not see a very serious effort yet. If in the future everybody agrees this is going to be positive device and that it will help Afghanistan and its people to return to normality without killing each other, then we could support it.
This is obviously not the time to do de-listing; but as I have pointed out, the process is step-by-step and must be first started by the Afghans themselves, not by New York or Moscow or Washington.
And [President Hamid] Karzai openly invited them to reconcile and called them 'brothers'. This is a good step forward.