April 15, 2009

Moscow, no doubt, delights in the U.S. military’s reenactment of the Soviet’s Afghan boondoggle. But do America’s failures in the Middle East spell a conflict between the U.S. and Russia in the near future?    

When I was a boy my Dad often would say: “€œDon”€™t ever be too confident that things cannot get worse.”€  Well, my Dad is gone, but President Obama and his Afghan policy-review team have revalidated that long-ago warning.  America’s war in Afghanistan is lost and has been since Pakistan’s conventional army was defeated by the Islamists along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in 2002-2004. As Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s number two, has written, Pakistani President Musharraf and his army were the major post-9/11 strategic threats to al-Qaeda and the Taleban, but the Islamists defeated the latter and Washington destroyed the former”€”its best ally”€”by intervening in Pakistan to force the reintroduction of the most reliably lethal weapon that can be deployed against U.S. interests in the Muslim world”€”secular democracy.  As a result, Pakistan is now ruled by the arch-thief President Asif Zadari, who is making peace with the Pakistani Taleban and Pasthun tribes and allowing the spread of Sharia law; the Afghan Taleban and its allies hold the military initiative and are interdicting the vital U.S. supply routes through Pakistan; and U.S. leaders have knowingly bet the viability of the U.S.-NATO Afghan campaign on re-supply routes completely in the hands of the Russians.  Clearly, worse is still to come. 

Under President Bush it looked as though Washington and its NATO allies would be able to end their losing campaign in Afghanistan with some decorum.  Our NATO allies were dropping away one by one and Afghan President Karzai’s government was terminally incompetent and corrupt, but U.S., UK, Canadian, and Australian forces were putting up a good enough fight to keep the enemy out of Kabul, while only slowly giving ground in the southern and southeastern provinces.  Given these factors, one could imagine that the now-unfolding Iraq scenario could be duplicated in Afghanistan:  U.S. and coalition leaders could evacuate the country saying they had given the Afghans a chance to embrace democracy but those ungrateful little brown brothers did not take advantage of the opportunity.

But the chance of covering our Afghan defeat with a soothingly noble and self-deceiving explanation has now been lost by the policy produced by Obama’s Afghan-review team of NSC Chief General James Jones, Bruce Reidel, John Brennan, Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair, and others who could do no better than to copy the cynical election-year “€œsurge success”€ in Iraq that is now unraveling amidst suicide bombs and the murder of Sunni fighters Washington armed and then abandoned.  The reviewers and our president found U.S. military forces standing in the middle of a blazing insurgent fire and came up with a set of policies that will make that fire all-consuming.  The decision to send a paltry total of 17,000 more U.S. soldiers and Marines”€”a third of which are fighters, the rest support personnel”€”will cause nothing but laughter among the initiative-holding Taleban, al-Qaeda, and their Afghan and Pakistani allies.  In looking at this military pittance, Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden may well believe that no U.S. leader or general has ever studied a topographical map of the bigger-than-Texas nation of Afghanistan.  The deployment of the new forces, however, will be seen by many Afghans who have sat on the fence between the warring parties as a sure sign of Washington’s intention to permanently occupy the country at any cost, even, as described below, that of an open alliance with Russians who tortured Afghan civilians for over a decade.  With this perception, these ferociously anti-Russian and nationalistic Afghans will come down on the side of the mujahedin, not only for religious reasons, but perhaps more so because they are unwilling to trade a Soviet occupation for a Russia-backed American occupation.

And while the meager size of fresh U.S. forces”€”even augmented by the non-fighting NATO well-diggers and election monitors”€”will make little or no military difference, their deployment will make Afghanistan a top priority issue for the Islamic world and the eighty percent of Muslims who view U.S. foreign policy as an attack on their faith. The arrival of new U.S. and NATO units arrive will be televised live by al-Jazirah and al-Arabiyah; the real-time-capable Internet production facilities run by al-Qaeda and the Taleban; and by the BBC and other largely anti-American European media outlets.  The coverage will portray for Muslims a second U.S.-led, Crusader invasion of Afghanistan and its yield will be increased monetary donations and the travel to Afghanistan of would-be mujahedin to from around the Muslim world, just as they came to Iraq and as they are now arriving in Somalia.  

After adding just enough manpower to our Afghan garrison to prolong the timeline for U.S. defeat, the Obama administration then created the potential for a self-inflicted strategic defeat by pleading with Russia to allow the overland transportation of non-lethal materiel through the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to Afghanistan for the re-supply of U.S. and NATO forces.  Heretofore, the main re-supply routes have run from the port city of Karachi through several passes on the mountainous Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Convoys staging in Pakistan’s border towns and then carrying food, fuel, and ammunition through the passes into Afghanistan are now regularly interdicted by the mujahedin, a tactic they perfected against the Red Army in the 1980s.  To date, U.S. and NATO commanders apparently have had either too much respect for Pakistan’s sovereignty or insufficient forces to protect the mostly civilian truckers.  But now Moscow has responded positively”€”nay, gleefully”€”to Washington’s request, and Russia and its Central Asian partners already have allowed supplies to enter Afghanistan across that country’s borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

So far, President Obama and his Afghan-policy reviewers have portrayed the agreement with Moscow as a sign of warming bilateral relations.  The view from Moscow, however, certainly is one of gratitude for having an American enemy who has voluntarily put his head in a vise.  The always history-challenged Obama-ites seem unfamiliar with the concept of “€œpayback.”€  For more than a decade (1979-1992), the U.S. government provided billions of dollars via a CIA covert-action program that gave Pakistan the wherewithal to train and arm the Afghan mujahedin for their ultimately successful campaign to drive the Red Army out of Afghanistan.  This effort was part of the Ronald Reagan-William Casey “€œrollback”€ doctrine vis-à-vis the USSR and an exhaustively exploited opportunity for members of the U.S. Congress to “€œpayback”€ Moscow for the assistance it rendered to the North Vietnamese.

Now, as they say, the shoe is on the other foot, and those Russian politicians, intelligence officers, and generals who are less than happy about being defeated in Afghanistan; losing the Cold War, the Soviet empire, and much of their status and creature comforts; and watching the ever-eastward expansion of NATO”€”Croatia and Albania became members this month“€”have the chance to make America, NATO and Pakistan suffer the bloody Afghan torments they experienced twenty tears ago.  Likewise, Moscow is likely to find that the Obama’s administration’s dependence on Trans-CIS supply routes will largely free Russia from Washington’s schoolmarmish hectoring about Russia’s lack of movement toward democracy, failure to pressure the North Koreans, and savage counter-insurgency measures in the North Caucasus. 

Having the whip hand, Moscow can serve its national interests by smilingly helping the United States maintain its losing Afghan campaign for as long as possible, thereby deepening the U.S. debt; unifying the Afghan insurgency; causing more U.S. casualties; increasing tensions within NATO and between the alliance and Washington; sharpening anti-U.S. sentiment in the Muslim world; and, as the Afghan picture grows bleaker, creating more division in U.S. domestic politics. (Interestingly, Moscow’s goals precisely match those that have long been al-Qaeda’s.) As important for Russia, as long as the U.S.-led occupation of Afghanistan continues, U.S.-NATO forces serve as a buffer force “€“ paid for in U.S. dollars and non-Russian blood”€”between the Islamist movement and the CIS’s Central Asian states. For Moscow, the advantages of this scenario are clear.

“€”Greater U.S. debt: The media report that the new U.S. Afghan policy will increase monthly spending in Afghanistan by about 60 percent, from $2 billion per month to about $3.2 billion. There is no indication if this estimate includes the cost of hiring Russians and their trucks, trains, aircraft, and ferries to transport large quantities of materiel from European Russia, through the Caucasus, across the Caspian Sea, through Central Asia to Afghanistan. Even if the estimated costs are included, bad weather, labor demands, insurance premiums, poor roads and Czarist-era railroad systems, and the need for timely deliveries leave ample room for extortionate increases in price of transportation. This is a win-win-win situation for Moscow; its transportation sector enjoys a massive infusion of U.S. dollars; America’s debt increases; and the flow of supplies will be inadequate to support the rising tempo of combat and reconstruction work called for by the Obama administration.

“€”More U.S. and Western alienation of Muslims:  As noted above, the flow into Afghanistan of U.S. and NATO military reinforcements will increase anti-U.S. sentiment there and across the Muslim world, as will the increased level of fighting those forces are being sent to wage.  By facilitating the supply of a larger U.S.-NATO force, Moscow will earn some condemnation from of its domestic Muslim population and the long-memoried Afghans, but because Russians will not be pulling triggers this anger is manageable.  Outweighing this downside for Russia, however, is a positive for Moscow that lies in the highly negative impact NATO’s participation in the Afghan war has had and will have on Muslim communities in NATO countries.  By helping to prolong the viability of NATO’s “€œanti-Islamic”€ role in Afghanistan, Moscow ensures that relations between NATO governments and their increasingly militant Muslim populations will continue to deteriorate.

“€”Minimal increase in the chance of U.S.-NATO success:  For several reasons Moscow knows that the volume of non-lethal supplies that traverse CIS territory will not lead to a U.S.-NATO victory in Afghanistan.  First, the tremendous length and spotty quality of the CIS supply routes limit the amount of supplies that can be delivered in a timely manner and all but precludes the build-up of large reserves in Afghanistan.  Second, even if non-lethal re-supply is adequate, it appears that all fuel and lethal materiel will continue to enter Afghanistan via the increasingly hazardous routes through Pakistan.  So, the future may find that U.S.-NATO forces are adequately stocked with burgers, Starbuck’s, and DVDs, but lack a reliable and ample inflow of fuel, bombs, and bullets.  Parenthetically, it would be interesting to hear the lessons now being taught at West Point as it seems future generals are instructed to support the deployment of a U.S. army for combat in a country devoid of indigenous sources of supply and to which reliable external re-supply routes cannot be guaranteed.  One wonders if the Canadian, Australian, and British military academies teach the same self-immolating doctrine?

“€”Helping U.S. generals hang themselves:  Being in the Great Power military business itself, Moscow and its generals know that their U.S. and NATO counterparts have vastly and knowingly underestimated the steadily escalating level of re-supply that will be required to implement the Obama plan. Today, the trans-CIS supply routes are needed because the threatened Pakistani routes are insufficient to reliably supply U.S.-NATO forces that number about 72,000. In the near term, Washington will add 21,000 troops”€”17,000 infantry and 4,000 military trainers”€”and NATO temporarily will add about 5,000 soldiers, bringing the Afghan garrison to about 98,000 troops.  U.S. commanders have asked for 10,000-plus additional troops in 2010, and the media has reported a U.S.-NATO Afghan force nearing 115,000 in 2010 is a possibility.  On top of that, Obama’s plan calls for a total Afghan military/security/police force of 216,000, all of which must be supplied, armed, paid, fed, and made mobile from logistical sources outside Afghanistan. After doing some simple math, the Russians know overland re-supply through the CIS to the crossing points at Termez, Uzbekistan, and Nizhny Panj, Tajikistan, cannot possibly accommodate the kind of non-lethal materiel flow needed to maintain up to 330,000 U.S.-NATO-Afghan troops and so they know their help will keep the U.S. and NATO bleeding but that it will not permit them success.           

In addition, the trans-CIS supply routes will become more essential to Washington and NATO over time as the Obama-promised increase in fighting, larger training classes, and intensified reconstruction activities quickly chew through ever-greater amounts of lethal and non-lethal aid.  And what happens if the Russians or their Central Asian surrogates renege on the deal?  Would that set the stage for a U.S.-Russian confrontation?  Well, given U.S. governing elite’s incompetence and love of using force as a first resort, there is always the possibility of such a clash.  Several factors militate against it, however.  First, the Russians have the U.S. military by the jugular; U.S. leaders and generals can talk tough, but Moscow knows that without the CIS routes U.S.-led Afghan operations could implode.  Second, the NATO countries would become frantic and even more anti-American if the Afghan campaign”€”which most of NATO already wants to shed“€”looks like it might lead to a U.S.-Russia clash.

Third, and most important, the Russians have left themselves an out that they can clothe in irrefutable national security interests. Routes from the CIS to Afghanistan, of course, go both ways. The roads that bring non-lethal U.S. supplies into Afghanistan can carry Islamist mujahedin and heroin back into the CIS. Islamist unrest already is significant in Central Asia”€”witness its brutal suppression by both the Tashkent and Dushanbe regimes”€”and the fact that local governments which make sure the U.S. and NATO are equipped to kill more Afghan Muslims may foment domestic disturbances, perhaps aided by Afghan fighters coming into the region to lend a hand.  Afghan-produced heroin, moreover, is already a major Russian problem; it is responsible for 90-percent of Russian addicts and kills 30,000 Russians a year.

Obviously, the growth of Islamist violence that threatens the already weak Tajik and Uzbek regimes and/or a spike in heroin imports could convincingly be portrayed by Moscow as unacceptable security, public health, and political stability risks that require terminating the trans-CIS re-supply routes.  And it is hard to see what Washington could do to prevent or reverse such a decision.  The Obama administration could offer far greater payments for the right to use the trans-CIS routes, but if such blatant bribery did not work the game would be up, neither the American people nor our NATO allies would have the slightest interest in threatening the Russians to keep cooperating.  Indeed, it may well be that not even the Neoconservatives could imagine that Afghanistan is worth a potential U.S.-Russia clash.

At day’s end, then, Obama’s new Afghan policy and Bush’s old Afghan policy are identical in at least one respect”€”they are both self-destructively ahistorical.  In late-September, 2001, according to Bob Woodward’s Bush at War, CIA Counterterrorism Chief Cofer Black and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage flew to Moscow to ask the Russians for intelligence and diplomatic help for the coming U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. With a swagger borne of ignorance, Black told his Russian hosts the United States was “€œgoing to kill them [al-Qaeda and the Taleban]. We”€™re going to put their heads on sticks. We”€™re going to rock their world.”€  Absorbing this swill, an unnamed senior Russian official “€“ clearly conversant with two millennia of Afghan history”€”politely responded: “€œWith regret, I have to say that you”€™re really going to get the hell kicked out of you.”€ That Russian was right, but neither he nor his masters in the Kremlin probably ever dreamt that a future U.S. administration”€”with the CENTCOM commander’s approval”€”would give Moscow a stout stick, and then invite Russia to use it to help the Afghan mujahedin and their Islamist allies beat America to death in Afghanistan. 


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