2009 is going to be about four things: the Af-Pak War Theater, Global Financial Crisis, a resurging Russian Bear coming out of its 20-year hibernation and NATO Supply Routes. The Obama Administration, having brewed up Af-Pak or Afghanistan-Pakistan as the single theatre of war, is no longer using the ‘war on terror’ cliché. Af-Pak is now about a troop surge, a bloody spring offensive, an attempt to split Al Qaeda from the Taliban followed up by a negotiated–negotiated from a position of strength–exit strategy.
Some 30,000 American soldiers are already in Afghanistan, 3,000 soldiers of 10th Mountain Division arrived just last month (and have already gone into combat) while an additional 17,000 are expected in the immediate future. To be certain, Americans are here not to win a war in this ‘graveyard of empires’ but to neutralize Al Qaeda as a threat to the American mainland. Al Qaeda has extra-territorial ambitions, the Taliban do not. Al Qaeda is a threat to mainland America, the Taliban are not.
The Great Game has completely enveloped Obama; Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and Saudi Arabia are all players. The US, Russia, China and Iran do not want Kabul Talibanized. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have other plans. Biden, Petraeus, Mullen and Holbrooke have all become the most frequent of visitors to both Kabul and Afghanistan.
Petraeus has stuck deals with Kazakhstan for oil and with Latvia for 100 military containers a day (on February 19, a train loaded with supply for the US military left Riga for Afghanistan). On February 3, Kyrgyzstan, in exchange for $2 billion from Russia, put the US on notice to vacate Manas Air Base. On February 17, Petraeus was in Uzbekistan for talks on new supply routes (on 29 July 2005, Uzbekistan had told the US to vacate Karshi-Khanabad Air Base within 6 months).
Obama has now brought back Henry Kissinger, the 85-year old Cold War warrior, to try and put a lid on Russian ambitions. The US-Russian dialogue revolves around 4 issues: NATO expansion, Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) and, of course, Afghanistan. America wants to suck Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. Russia, on the other hand, wants America to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Next, START-I is scheduled to expire on 5 December 2009. Russia doesn’t have the resources to get into an arms race with America and thus wants a renewal while America wants to use the renewal issue as a bargaining chip. Next, America wants to up a radar station in the Czech Republic and at least 10 anti-missile missiles in Poland (as part of America’s Ballistic Missile Defense shield). The ‘big, brutal and clumsy’ Bear wants none of that. Looks like a compromise–in which America will not deploy BMDs (in Poland and Czech) and Russia will provide a supply route–is in the making.
The Af-Pak War theatre means Petraeus’ combat brigade teams pushing battalions and battalions of war-hardened Taliban into Pakistan while Pakistan is already on fire. Adding fuel to fire means a firestorm, an uncontrolled conflagration that threatens Pakistan and every form of life within Pakistan. The firestorm would then attain a life of its own; heated air rising in the centre inducing strong inward winds that supply further oxygen to the fire and the firestorm creates and sustains its own combustion.
Afghanistan will never be stable. No one really wants Afghanistan to stabilize. To be sure, this ‘graveyard of empires’ won’t let America win. But, remember, America isn’t here to declare victory; it’s here to bury Al Qaeda.
Pakistan has always been the next door neighbour to the ‘graveyard of empires’. In 2009, would we be able to keep it that way?
The writer is the executive director of the Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS). Email:firstname.lastname@example.org