Friday, 3 July 2009

An own goal in Afghanistan

Posted on "The East is Green" (Tower hamlets GP blog) March 3, 2009.

The latest invasion of Afghanistan will fail. Hubris and ego prevent the latest generals and leaders from understanding that the “this time it is different” scenario will not play out as planned. The US military has persuaded President Obama to send 17,000 more troops and no doubt like all negotiations the remaining 13,000 will follow. Adding the NATO soldiers and present US presence, the total force is likely to reach 90,000. General Gromov, the ill-fated Russian Commander of the 120,000-strong Soviet Army in his country’s own disastrous war, has warned the same result will happen again. It will be a bitter-sweet moment for him, no doubt.

Unfortunately, no one in a position of power is willing to take heed. They know better. They believe they have understood the lessons of history and are convinced that for them Afghanistan will not be the graveyard of their empire.

Presumably, this is because they do not subscribe to the notion that there is anything imperial about the war. The discourse informs us that the objectives of the mission are to eradicate or at least significantly reduce the drug trade, to ‘build a viable state’ based on democratic principles and to leave the scene a few years’ hence with full faith in a well-trained and resourced Afghan army, able to fend off ‘insurgents’.

It is generally accepted that the ability of groups to use the country to wage terror campaigns in the West has been severely degraded.

Given the lawlessness and destabilisation of vast swathes of sub-saharan Africa (Congo as just one example), the ‘loss of much of Latin America and the start of an implosion in Mexico’, and the onset of a global depression, it seems awfully risky, if not foolhardy, to commit so many people and resources to this conflict.

Of course, the story has more facets than visible to satellite TV news channels and there is logic to the Western military adventure, but only if they do ’succeed’.

Resources to prize

Rarely mentioned is ‘pipeline politics’ – the ongoing struggle to transport gas from the Caucasus and Central Asia to hungry markets in China and India.

The Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline (TAP) is taboo. The efforts of Chevron and erstwhile Unocal to supply India in one of the greatest bonanzas is consistently downplayed. The pipeline is meant to skirt the western half of the country, entering from Turkmenistan and coming out at Spin Baldak and into Pakistan. Unfortunately, it also brushes Helmand province where, coincidentally, much of the heaviest fighting and ’surge’ is concentrated.

It is strange how coincidences occur so regularly in the region.

For example, the Iranians proposed an alternative pipeline to pump their gas through Pakistan and India – a far cheaper prospect for all concerned and no wars to circumvent. That is, until Baluchistan (south-western Pakistan) occasionally flares up conveniently, thus rendering the project risky.

However remote the possibility of any pipeline actually supplying gas through this war-torn neighbourhood, that has not stopped multinationals leaning on governments to pacify the region.
The public more or less saw through the spin and understood the centrality of oil in the Iraq War.

When President Obama says Afghanistan is the central front on the war on terror, this may not convince the region but it is not scrutinised by the Western public to the same degree. Afghanistan is always in the way whether to empire or to markets, which means that its proximity to gas fields or end user is enough.

Having said that, it is not well known that Afghanistan is actually rich in resources and minerals. The Chinese Metalurgy Group fought off Western multinationals and landed the rights to one of the world’s largest copper reserves, a few kilometres south east of Kabul. They seem to believe that by 2015, they will build a 400MWatt power plant to supply the project (and Kabul too) and construct a railroad to transport the copper to Pakistan and, of course, to China. Some analysts feel the Chinese were duped into becoming allies in the NATO endeavour – now they have something they need to protect.

USAID and the USGS have been busy, along with the usual suspects – the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB). Under the cloak of ‘developing’ the country, they have sniffed out gold, oil, copper, iron, mercury, lead, and rare metals (cesium, lithium and coltan). Coltan is essential for mobile phones, which also use Lithium for batteries.

Naturally, the ‘Aid agencies’ have been helping Kabul privatise its resources, such as the British Agencies Afghanistan Group with the Jawzan Gas field to the north. Gold and coal resources have also been handed over to foreign companies.

For a detailed report, one can peruse numerous studies by John Shroder on or see the report: “Preliminary non fuel mineral resources assessment of Afghanistan, 2007′ at the US Geological Survey (

The curse of geography

Even without the resources outlined above, Afghanistan is a transit hub, a form of land base, from which to influence Central and South Asia. No doubt the Iranians are not that exactly overjoyed to see the planned reduction to 50,000 US troops in Iraq to the west if many end up to its east in Afghanistan. China is acutely vulnerable in XInjiang and TIbet and would prefer the exit of its competitors.

The encirclement of China and Russia and the consequent prevention of a threat to the geo-strategic hearland of Eurasia is also largely absent from debate. From MacKinder to Brzezinski, the concept of controlling the Eurasian land mass has determined the foreign policy of the Great Powers – and it is no different in the 21st century.

While China is getting to secure Kazakhstan’s gas, it has been negotiating for years with the Iranians. You can guess which country lies in its way. It is possible China knows that the Western forces will, eventually, have to leave and so it is getting in early to invest in mines and infrastructure.

Afghanistan shares a 92 kilometre border with China.

The consequences of failure

All of this means that the stakes are enormously high and the inevitable failure of the invasion will have far-reaching consequences.

The defeat and withdrawal in 1989 was not the primary cause of the dissolution of the Soviet Union but the war weakened an already tottering economic machine.

NATO has consistently expanded eastwards on the heels of a retreating Russian empire, in Eastern Europe (with missile defences) and in the action in Afghanistan. If the war turns sour, and the alliance were forced into a Soviet style retreat, NATO’s survival would be at stake. The voices clamouring for cutting the link between the US and Europe would reach unprecedented levels, especially in Germany.

The actions in West and Central Asia (including the colour-coded regime changes) have assisted in the creation and strenghening of a rival alliance, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation which is now about to militarise. The key players, China and Russia, continue to engage with the US in a hot and cold relationship.

The embattled US economy is now depending on China to continue to purchase US treasury bonds to fund the efforts to stave off economic disaster. Hilary Clinton apparently insisted on China playing ball in her just concluded trip.

Somewhere along the line, there will be a price and the position in Kabul would seem to one such place.

The Russians and Chinese may well prefer the US to get even further bogged down for a few more years in a futile exercise. Moscow recently offered to help supply the Americans. With the supply routes from Karachi via the Khyber Pass to Kabul increasingly insecure, the only other routes are via Iran or effectively via Russian influenced regions. The US has also been asked to vacate its airbase in Kyrghistan this year.

The military campaign may well be cutting the heads of the Taliban movement but the civilian casualties are only leading to more recruits into a purposeful and decentralised guerilla force. NATO is regarded as a foreign force and while this may be termed an ‘insurgency’ in the Western media, it looks more like resistance to foreign invaders to ordinary Afghanis.
Hamid Karzai may be called a President of the state but is effectively only a Mayor of Kabul. The forthcoming elections will not confer further legitimacy or make any difference to the war. Legitimacy has been squandered amid the corruption, theft and lack of sovereignty.

The LBJ moment

The parallels with President Lyndon Johnson in April 1965 are uncanny. Against his better judgement, he agreed to the demands of General Westmoreland for a significant jump in troop numbers. Asked for 49,000 he despatched 37,000. Within a few years, several multiples of that total were to serve in the jungles of Vietnam.

The latest US President has substituted Iraqi drawdown with an escalation in Afghanistan and is proceeding down a similar path.

Western governments seem to believe they can fight simultaneously on two fronts – an economic war as well as a military war. They are displaying similar confidence to that seen six years ago before the invasion of Iraq.

In the end, they will retreat, leaving behind a devastated country, a traumatised population, a shattered Somalia-like territory.

It will also end up fracturing its alliances, its appetite for adventures in other ‘theatres of war’ and deal a body blow to a plummeting Western economy.

It will be next to impossible to build the TAP pipeline, thus removing one of the original pre-2001 causes for ‘intervention’ and engagement.

Pakistan is in the early stages of dismemberment as the “Af-Pak” war takes the borderlands of the North-West Frontier province and Baluchistan effectively out of the sway of Islamabad.
Is it really worth reducing Pakistan to a rump state, with an embittered nuclear armed military elite?

Historically the presence of US military forces seem to encourage drug production and global trafficking. The Golden triangle in South east Asia is another VIetnam era lesson. Today, friendly regimes in Colombia and Mexico are drug competitors to Afghanistan, all vying with each other to supply consumers in American and Europe. The lesson seems to be that the best way to reduce drug trafficking is for a reduction in a US presence.

Finally, you will not get good odds on any Afghan army being able to stave off Taliban or other warlord onslaughts once NATO has left the scene.

In all the aspects of ‘interests’ regarding gas pipelines, power projection into rising states and reducing the terror threat, the ‘project’ comes up short. Naturally, it makes sense for suppliers and business interests in the short term. However, in the long run, the more the war goes on, the greater the likelihood that Western power will in fact diminish, both in the immediate neighbourhood as well as globally.

Why European and British soldiers should be sacrificed in a fruitless war therefore is hard to accept. This is not a ‘smart war’, it is a futile conflict. It provides ammunition and sustenance for extreme forces and weakens social cohesion everywhere.

Even in the harsh world of real-politik, where morality and civilian death toll take a back seat, the Afghan war does not come up to scratch. WIth hindsight, the consensus is that Iraq has set Western power back years and was a monumental mistake. Yet, similar mistakes are being made to the east, in defiance of history or even geo-strategy. Today, leaders lack the foresight to see that this adventure is a spectacular own goal.

Farid Bakht
3 March 2009

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