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originally enacted by president Ronald Reagan and General Zia ul-Haq.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
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.