Vice President Joe Biden offered a new approach at last weekend's annual international security conference in Munich. He met separately with top Russian officials.
In a very positive sign for the US effort in Afghanistan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that transit of US and NATO non-military supplies through Russia to troops in Afghanistan will begin within days.
Ironically, this comes on the 20th anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Kabul. And the man who commanded those Soviet forces, retired Lieutenant General Boris Gromov, warned the US today that a military surge in Afghanistan will not solve its problems there.
With our putative ally Pakistan increasingly unstable and jihadists carrying out many successful attacks on supply lines and convoys there -- they seem to blow up the route over the legendary Khyber Pass every other week -- alternative means of supply are increasingly necessary to sustain the US and NATO effort in Afghanistan.
Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said today that he sees "very positive signs" in the relationship with the Obama administration.
That means, one way or another, Moscow, which can provide transit through its own territory and guarantee transit through Central Asian nations formerly part of the Soviet Union. There's been a major dance underway for weeks on this, unreported by the conventional media, naturally.
Politics in Kyrgyzstan are quite turbulent.
For example, the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan had decided to kick the US out of its remaining base in Central Asia, the Manas air base outside the capital city of Bishkek which has been key to the Afghan war effort. But now the Kyrgyz parliament has delayed a final vote on the move. Other Central Asian countries, all former Soviet republics, seem amenable to providing supply lines into Afghanistan.
General David Petraeus thought he'd secured those Central Asian supply lines, as he reported in person to Obama on the day after the Inauguration. But Petraeus's tour of the region was followed quickly by visits from Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. And those commitments Petraeus thought he'd won evaporated in the sands.
Medvedev, who has just told Russian media that there are "very positive signs" in relations with the new Obama administration, didn't want those Central Asian supply lines granted without benefits for Russia.
Russia has offered to use its own military aircraft to airlift supplies to American troops fighting in Afghanistan.
So, after the collapse of Petraeus's deals, Vice President Joe Biden conferred with Russian officials at the annual Munich security conference last weekend and a State Department emissary was dispatched to Moscow at the beginning of this week. The talks are bearing fruit. Russia is agreeing to allow supplies to US and NATO forces in deeply troubled Afghanistan to transit not only its former Soviet republics in Central Asia, but also Russia itself.
Moscow has even offered the use of Russian military aircraft for the US supply effort into Afghanistan.
Medvedev also wants a summit with Obama, presumably in Moscow, which his mentor Vladimir Putin, now the prime minister, would also presumably participate in. But for now, the only high-level meeting scheduled is between Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- who, embarrassingly, couldn't pronounce Medvedev's name during a debate with Obama last year -- next month in Geneva.
As seen in this Al Jazeera report, US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke's visit a few days ago to Pakistan came at a very critical moment.
The agreement comes at an opportune moment, with Pakistan increasingly untenable.
Of course, there will be a political price for Russia's assistance to American forces in Afghanistan. Russia wants the US to back off from its longstanding encirclement strategy, dating back to Bill Clinton's administration, which has included the extension of NATO membership to former Soviet allies near Russia itself and -- the cherry on top added by the Bush/Cheney Administration -- a proposed anti-missile shield project in the Czech Republic and Poland supposedly to protect against Iranian missiles which do not yet exist. But NATO is in no position to do much to help some of those countries, as prospective NATO member Georgia found out the hard way last summer after it foolishly launched an offensive in the breakaway province of South Ossetia. And recent polling shows the Czechs don't really want the missile shield project.
"We quickly confirmed that we are ready to do this as it fully conforms with the agreements that have been made with NATO, and literally within days such a transit will take place," Lavrov said, according to RIA news agency.
Pakistan is so unstable that the Taliban were able to take control of the Swat Valley, a resort area once called "the Switzerland of Pakistan."
Russia, which sees a common enemy in jihadism, helped the US quickly oust the Taliban regime and disrupt Al Qaeda in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but parted ways with the US over the invasion of Iraq.
Russia has an additional motive in helping again beyond stopping the US from encroaching in its traditional neighborhood and beyond its dislike of Islamic radicalism. That motive is drugs. Afghanistan supplies 90% of the world's heroin, but it was only last year that US and NATO forces began to carry out strikes against drug traffickers.
Yesterday, the head of Russia's drug control agency, Viktor Ivanov, blamed NATO for rampant drug use in Russia.
Russia can certainly help the US greatly in Afghanistan. And the price -- ending the NATO encroachment strategy -- may be an inevitable one anyway, and thus perhaps easily paid.
So this looks like a success for Obama provided by Moscow.
But the deeper question remains. What are the real US aims in Afghanistan? What can be realistically achieved?
Nation-building? Probably beyond us. Making sure the country can't be used as a base for terrorist attacks against the US? More do-able, certainly. But how much more must be done to achieve that?
General Gromov, who led the remaining Soviet forces out of the Afghan capital of Kabul 20 years ago today, doesn't think military force is the answer.
"Afghanistan taught us an invaluable lesson ... It has been and always will be impossible to solve political problems using force," said Gromov, whose troops were ultimately defeated by the mujahedeen backed by a massive covert American intervention.
"One can increase the forces or not -- it won't lead to anything but a negative result."
Gromov, of course, a top general of the Soviet era who nonetheless lost the war that broke the back of the Soviet Union, may have a jaundiced view. The goal of his government, having assassinated Afghanistan's president and invaded it with the aim of totally controlling it, is different from what any realistic American goal would be.