US ‘ACHILLES’ HEEL IN THE AFGHAN WAR
By Brig Imran Malik
The Massacre at Salala left a lot of political debris in its wake. It caused a major breakdown in the US-Pak ‘non-alliance’ and also forced Pakistan to take some long overdue independent decisions. It also kicked to life the dormant Pakistani nationalism that had thus far been snuffed out by a corrupt, weak, pliant, and beholden to its masters pro-US Government. It also brought to the fore a number of “wars within” that had been effectively sabotaging progress in the Afghan War.
These Wars Within, at all levels, have the potential to become the Achilles’ Heel for the overall US war effort in the Af-Pak Region (APR) and South-Central Asian Region (SCAR) with extreme implications for the overall Great Game III.
The Wars Within – One ; US Departments of State, Defence and CIA:
1.The weak Obama Administration has not been able to come out with a unified whole-of-Government approach to the Afghan imbroglio.
2.The State and Defence Departments and the CIA, the main operative organs of US policies have consistently acted at cross purposes.
3.The State Department has taken a number of diplomatic initiatives but has ruefully seen them nullified because of the arrogance and incompetence of the Military-Intelligence Combine (MIC)/Pentagon-CIA Combine.
4.The lack of direction and control by their President seems to have exacerbated the situation too.
5.The Raymond Davis episode, the OBL saga, and now the Massacre at Salala are proofs of such confused decision making.
Now just when the US State Department had organized the Bonn Conference and was at the verge of carving out a successful start to the next phase of US policy in Afghanistan (From Transition to Transformation, 2014-2024) it had the rug pulled out from beneath its feet! And at just about the worst time possible the Pentagon-CIA Combine committed the Massacre at Salala – thus effectively sabotaging the Conference and sending the US-Pak relationship into a deathly tailspin! They erred in their assessments that Pakistan would not react so ferociously nor take other extreme retaliatory measures including boycotting the Bonn Conference alongwith the Taliban. This glaring incompetence on their part ensured an unqualified failure of the Bonn Conference, for the State Department and thus for President Obama’s policies in Afghanistan.
The timing of the tragic Massacre at Salala by the Pentagon-CIA Combine is intriguing. Was it part of some greater operational/strategic design or was it simply incompetence personified? Was it to spite the State Department or were they complicit in an act of sheer disloyalty to President Obama? So what is then the actual casus belli of this war within that is ruining President Obama’s policies in Afghanistan? Is it an attempt to gain decisive influence with the President? Is it simply poor statecraft or is it a selfish desire to claim the glories of “success” in the Afghan campaign as it draws towards its endgame? Or is it something more sinister, like the hugely effective Military-Industry Complex at work again to prolong the war with the ensuing mutual benefits?!
Whatever it is, these conflicting centrifugal pulls and centripetal pushes are taking Obama’s Afghan War and Afghan policy nowhere. Instead they are only prolonging the agony of the war, increasing its costs and casualties exponentially and threatening to scuttle President Obamas re-election campaign.
To succeed in Afghanistan all elements of power in the US will have to bury their bones of contention and work in a genuinely unified manner. Else these Wars Within the Afghan War may turn it into the next One Hundred Years War!
The Wars Within -Two; Pakistan and Afghanistan:
Pakistan and Afghanistan should have been natural allies. Pakistan provides the only viable avenue of trade to this landlocked country. They have a common border, same religion, common languages (Pashtu, Persian, Urdu), similar tribal culture and values, and a very large common Pakhtun population straddling the Durand Line. Pakistan played a cardinal strategic and operational role in defeating the erstwhile Soviet Union which should have translated into a great spirit of brotherhood between them. But that was not to be. Issues of transit trade and the Durand Line remain.
Later, after the defeat of the Taliban and the introduction of the US/NATO/ISAF in Afghanistan, affairs between them soured very quickly. Presently we have an unnatural democratic system in Afghanistan. The minority Northern Alliance is in power and the majority Pakhtun population is being denied their democratic right of forming or being a major part of the Government. Further the minority Karzai Government is clearly India-centric and anti-Pakistan while the latter has excellent relations and influence with the majority Pakhtuns. The Karzai and Pakistan Governments mutually blame one another for harbouring terrorists on their territories who ostensibly go cross border to carry out terrorist attacks against the other side. The US and Afghanistan seek a formal role for India in Afghanistan. Pakistan sees it as a strategic envelopment by India – who would thus occupy both her eastern and western borders much to her peril!
As long as these bones of contention remain between the majority Pakhtuns and the minority Northern Alliance peace will not return to this unfortunate land. Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan will remain testy if India is given a major role in the post-US Afghanistan. The US will need to resolve all these issues if it wants to attain its goals and objectives in the APR and the SCAR.
The Wars Within -Three; US and Pakistan:
Although Pakistan is a major non-NATO ally of the US yet they have a number of wars within, specially in the geopolitical and geostrategic domains. This emanates from the lack of any confluence of vital/important national interests in the APR and the SCAR between them.
The US occupies this very central position (that is Afghanistan) in the APR-SCAR radiating influence and projecting power in all directions – over Pakistan, Iran, CARs, containing China and sitting at the extended southern under-belly of Russia!
The first bone of contention is that Pakistan will never be part of any US design that is patently or even by implication anti-China or anti-Iran! The other is the formal role that the US would like to give to India in post 2014 Afghanistan. And that is strategically and operationally anathema to Pakistan. They will never countenance India sitting in their backyard and threatening them with a two front war on a regular basis. These conflicting vital national interests of the US and Pakistan are the two major causes of dissent between the two. As long as the US does not agree to keep India out of Afghanistan there will be no peace in the APR and no progress on the US grand strategic design to emplace a trade and security regime in the APR-SCAR.Period.
Additionally, at the operational levels we have the Drone attacks and cross border air and ground violations by US/NATO/ISAF, et al. The Massacre at Salala has resulted in the eviction of the Americans from the Shamsi Air Base, a complete blockade of their logistics supplies, a Pakistani refusal to attend the Bonn Conference and a complete cessation of all cooperation in military, intelligence, technical, administration and other fields. The Russians too have threatened to close the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) unless the US stops deploying the Anti – Ballistic Missile Shield in Europe. This multiplies exponentially the effect of Pakistan’s blockades and catches the US in a painful nutcracker! On the other hand the US insists on Pakistan to go after the Haqqani Network in the North Waziristan Agency which Pakistan refuses to do for her own operational/strategic reasons. Of even more importance is Pakistan’s nuclear programme that just does not fit in with the US view of the world and the region. The US has adopted a very biased and discriminatory nuclear policy in South Asia. India – a fellow non-signatory of the NPT and CTBT – has been gifted nuclear legitimacy through the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Deal thus tilting the nuclear balance in South Asia alarmingly in her favour. Predictably Pakistan has undertaken the necessary remedial steps to bring the nuclear balance back on even keel.
Irrespective of how the US wants to attain her objectives it will still have to factor in Pakistani interests in all equations in the Afghan imbroglio. The US will have to adopt different ways and means to attain her policy ends and objectives in the APR-SCAR. And the US must understand that to do so the road passes through Islamabad and not New Delhi.
The Wars Within – Four; The Regional Dimension:
The Vision: The assessed US vision for the Europe-APR-SCAR complex appears to be a very fascinating one. The US would like to impose upon a pacified APR-SCAR complex a unified trade and security mechanism geared to serve its vital national interests deep into the future. This APR-SCAR complex would then be connected to Europe through the New Silk Road Project (NSRP), thus turning this whole Europe-APR-SCAR mass into a unified humungous trade and security complex – all under her tutelage, and control.
The Geo-Economic Domain:
By virtue of occupying the Central Position of Afghanistan the US gets to dominate the APR-SCAR and control their riches and destinies to her abiding benefit. It enables the US to sit atop the mineral riches of Afghanistan, overlook the mineral riches in Pakistan (Balochistan), exercise oversight on the fossil fuels of CARs and Iran and control the flow and price of fossil fuels across the APR-SCAR and the rest of the world.
The US could further visualize its multinationals investing in a series of refineries, factories and manufacturing industries to be built in India where the mineral resources of Afghanistan and Pakistan could be refined and re-exported. However establishing these refineries, factories and manufacturing industries on the Mekran Coast of Pakistan will be more profitable -a shorter route to and through the Arabian Sea to the Middle East, Africa, Europe and to the Americas. We could also service the enormous economies of China (through the Karakoram Highway) and India easily. Japan, South Korea and other nations in the Far East could be reached by sea. Pakistan must never allow this opportunity to go by her.
Were the US to choose India over the Mekran Coast, Pakistan, it will not find any avenue of taking the mineral ores out of Afghanistan – either through Pakistan or Iran much less through the CARs, China or Russia! Hobson’s Choice for the US, if there ever was one!
The GeoStrategic Domain
The geography of the region has bestowed a unique geostrategic gift to Pakistan. The Hindu Kush, Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges create the biggest natural barriers to all sorts of movement imaginable across the swathe of regions quoted above. Therefore all trade routes and fossil fuel pipelines must of necessity flow from West to East and South to North or from the CARs across Afghanistan and Pakistan to the colossal economies of China, India and beyond. Pakistan thus becomes the unavoidable crossroads for all trade routes. To ensure security of such large scale economic investments and trade a compatible regional security mechanism has to be emplaced – something that the US has rather unsuccessfully tried to initiate at the Istanbul and Bonn Conferences. However to have any realistic chance of turning this grandiose idea into reality the US must consider the various bones of contention between the two major players in the region – India and Pakistan. Unless and until overall regional balance is created and maintained and the historical issues of Kashmir and the rivers that flow out of it, Siachen, Sir Creek et al are resolved there can be no peace between the two. Further both India and the US will have to forego the option of enunciating any formal or major role for India in Afghanistan.
It will be imperative for the US to help resolve these regional and bilateral issues between these two antagonists before embarking upon any such ambitious projects.
The Geopolitical Domain
India seems to have thrown in her lot with the US. Together they seem determined to become the most dominating force in the APR-SCAR. However they seem to be ignoring the concerns of the other major power in the region – the emerging SCO, comprising Russia, China, Iran, CARs and Pakistan. The Indo-US combine is trying to outflank both Russia and China keeping them away from this mineral rich region. The Indo-US combine and the SCO may well turn out to be the two poles that emerge to contest dominance in the APR-SCAR. And that will make for a very fascinating struggle for the “Heart of Asia”.
The Way Ahead
President Obama needs to bring sanity into his administration. He must sack Leon Pannetta the one man most responsible for most of his woes abroad and censure General Petraeus! Thereafter the US should usher in peace in the APR-SCAR first starting with India-Pakistan and Pakistan-Afghanistan. Then it should come to a reasonable accommodation with the SCO and agree to a practical plan to exploit the riches of the APR-SCAR for everyone’s benefit. If the US were to go it alone with only India in tow, the project will not even take off. How on earth are they going to get the metals, minerals, rare earth materials etc out of landlocked Afghanistan in such an eventuality? All avenues out of Afghanistan go through either of the following – Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, and Pakistan!! None in the US camp. Therefore the US will have to come up with a win-win solution for the whole APR-SCAR including the SCO. Only then it can proceed further.
To sum up one can easily say that the US has maneouvered itself into one hell of a hole. It is fighting an unwinnable war in which it is dependent upon the generosity of others to ensure that its men are fed, its weapons have ammunition and that its vehicles have fuel. Further it needs military, operational, intelligence and many other types of support. Yet it is prone to fighting those very nations it is so dependent upon! Unless it resolves all these contradictions in its policies and works through all these minor and major wars within it will continue to falter at all levels – geopolitical, geostrategic and geoeconomic.
And the NSRP and victory in the Great Game III will remain as elusive as ever!