Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    South Asia
     Jan 8, 2009

A high cost for more feet on the ground
By Sreeram Chaulia

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States has grown highly dependent on Pakistan for the prosecution of its interests in Central Asia. The second American war in Afghanistan in two decades warranted a reunion of Washington and Islamabad, as if an old film was being remade with new faces. President George W Bush and president General Pervez Musharraf played the roles originally enacted by president Ronald Reagan and General Zia ul-Haq.

The twist in the remake's storyline, however, was that the colloquial American tag - "bad guys" - was assigned not to alien Russians but to a section of the Afghans themselves - the fundamentalist Taliban and their international comrades-in-arms, al-Qaeda. So, while the original movie ended on a happy note for Washington with the final scene depicting the humiliating withdrawal of Russian tanks in 1989, the new one is turning into a dragging script that is unlikely to earn profits for the producers.

If the informal peace talks with the Taliban initiated by the beleaguered Hamid Karzai government in Kabul and facilitated by Saudi authorities yield fruit, the picture may have to end with the supposed heroes - American GIs - beating a retreat after declaring a pyrrhic "victory" of some semblance of restored Afghan stability for nation building.

For the moment though, the American stomach to fight on in Afghanistan is intact and set to receive an injection of fresh troops a la Iraq's "surge". The liberals' labeling of the intervention in Afghanistan as a "good war" in contrast to the "bad war" in Iraq ensures enough political capital in Washington for redoubling the force levels in the former theater.

The shocking aspect of the proposed American surge in Afghanistan - an influx of up to 30,000 more American soldiers to add to the already to 30,000 there - is that it runs counter to the laments of the United Nations that civilian deaths at the hands of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces are worsening day by day and antagonizing locals. The UN is quoted by the Associated Press as reflecting the "growing uneasiness that an increase in US troops next year could bring more civilian deaths".

However that be, the impending Barack Obama administration's resolve to dilate force levels in Afghanistan remains unshaken. With the arrival of more US troops in early 2009, their logistical backups will have to be expanded. Here, Pakistan makes a re-entry as a geographically ideal storage and supply base that has its own version of the "bad guys" - the Tehreek-i-Taliban, and an out-of-control intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Despite these formidable obstacles, Pakistan currently accounts for 80% of all supplies, which come truck-laden through the Khyber and Khojak passes to Western forces in Afghanistan.

Does the forthcoming surge imply ever-greater US dependence on Pakistan? To the contrary, recent daring raids by the Taliban on Afghanistan-bound carrier trucks in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province have awoken NATO to the perils of over-reliance on Islamabad. On December 13, the London Times quoted an anonymous NATO official as saying that a new "northern supply route" would be opened in the next eight weeks.

For a multilateral conduit to work, Washington will have to muster agreements with Central Asian states that are firmly in the Russian sphere of influence. The new American surge could therefore restart the tug-of-war between the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and NATO. American confidence that Moscow and Beijing will not object to US commercial transit agreements in Central Asia are misplaced because a supply line traversing through countries will involve security arrangements and possible return of mini-bases, Pentagon sleuths and "military advisers" to the region.

Analysts are divided about the chances of Tehran being roped in as part of the new alternative route. Former diplomat M K Bhadrakumar wrote in Asia Times Online that "Iran is a no-go area" for Washington and that this option is practically ruled out. (See All roads lead out of Afghanistan December 20, 2008).

However, Syed Saleem Shahzad, ATol's Pakistan Bureau chief, disclosed that NATO "might have found assistance from Iran" for non-military supplies like food and oil to be transported overland to Afghanistan. (See Pakistan's spies reined in December 25, 2008.) If his sources are accurate, then it could mean that Obama's promise to negotiate and engage with Iran is being factored into the makings of this potential cooperation between erstwhile foes.

Should alternative logistical routes open up to bookend the surge, what will be their effect on American dependence on Pakistan? The unreliability of Pakistan as an ally has gathered consensus in Washington, but thus far the argument went that Islamabad was a necessary evil due to the expedience of geography and the local knowledge of the ISI.

This line could alter drastically if alternative transit routes become functional. Already, the ISI's record in sharing intelligence with NATO in Afghanistan is badly tarnished. If new supply lines materialize, the US-Pakistan special relationship could be in jeopardy.

The implications of the US breaking free from dependence on Pakistan are multiple. It will magnify American pressure on Islamabad to rein in jihadi terrorism against India. The infamous "restraining hand" of Washington on New Delhi every time a cross-border terrorist attack occurs on Indian soil will be history since the Afghan war effort will not require Pakistani cooperation to the same extent as today. Within Pakistan, the loss of the American "thy hand, great monarch" will weaken the hold of the security establishment on domestic and foreign policies and possibly strengthen civil society.

The surge in Afghanistan is thus pregnant with possibilities. It is guaranteed to exacerbate the sufferings of Afghan civilians and unlikely to succeed militarily in comparison to its Iraqi counterpart. At the same time, it presages more hopeful tidings of an India-Pakistan relationship that is devoid of subversion, terrorism and animosity.

One must not lose the temporal perspective on the surge. In the long run, everyone believes that a political settlement between the elected government in Kabul and so-called "moderate" Taliban will be the final act of the Afghan war. The surge and a major US military presence would end once the will for sacrifices of treasure and blood saps in the American political class. A Western military exit from Central and South Asia is conceivable due to the prospects of lasting economic recession and financial unsustainability of costly wars. At present, however, the surge show goes on.

Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in Syracuse, New York.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Pakistan's spies reined in (Dec 25,'08)

All roads lead out of Afghanistan
(Dec 20,'08)


1. In China, Bush nostalgia

2. Al-Qaeda sniffs opportunity in Gaza

3. Bush plan beat obstacle to Gaza assault

4. Overcoming ethnicity

5. Tigers take to the jungle

6. When the pawnshop has it all

7. Monetarism enters bankruptcy

8. Silver lining to garbage

9. Hamas looks to Hezbollah's inspiration

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Jan 6, 2009)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110