The more things change, the more they stay the same. All throughout the 1980’s, the CIA funded the Mujahideen, predecessors to the Taliban, through Operation Cyclone. In the mid 90’s, the roles reversed leading up to 9/11 and the Taliban became the enemy. Now the Taliban have plans for retaking control of Afghanistan once the NATO pullout is complete by 2014. Low and behold, we are once again negotiating with the Taliban. The catch is this is being negotiated with the backing of Pakistan. For that to happen, the U.S. needs to get out-of-the-way, thus the accelerated timeline for our withdrawal. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the new 2013 objective to the surprise of our allies including Kabul. What he didn’t say is what is becoming obvious. Karzai is going to be ousted. Absent NATO and the U.S., the Taliban will eventually retake control of the country and with the blessing of Pakistan. Iran isn’t at all comfortable with this. Somewhat ironic since they were complicit with the U.S. in installing Karzai as President. Will Karzai be allowed to stay on as a figurehead leader with the Taliban in control? No one knows how it plays out once ISAF withdraws, but that isn’t the point of this post anyway.
This is not to say the rules won’t be different this time. The Taliban provide the desired stability in the region that Afghanistan’s neighbors prefer. They will have to make a deal with the U.S. to swear off on Al-Qaeda and to enact reforms on things like the abuse of women. But the key for all parties is stability of the region and despite the obvious distaste for the Taliban, they are best suited to develop the next stage in the Great Game, which is to expand the infrastructure of the country to market the natural resources of the entire Caspian Sea region. There are volumes of evidence to support it.
For instance, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher made this statement in a 2007 speech.
So, one of our goals in trying to work in Afghanistan is to stabilize Afghanistan, so it can become a conduit and a hub between South and Central Asia so that energy can flow to the south. Ideas and goods can flow to the north. People can move back and forth. Intellectual influences can move back and forth. And so that the countries of Central Asia are no longer bottled up between two enormous powers of China and Russia, but rather they have outlets to the south as well as to the north and the east and the west.
I think as we look at this region strategically we are trying to change the outlook, the ways of doing business, the opportunities for every country in the region.
He mentioned the two key points. Stability and energy. The U.S. has embarked upon a “New Silk Road” strategy. This strategy seeks to capitalize upon Afghanistan becoming a major trade hub. Under Secretary for Economic, Energy and Agricultural Affairs Robert Hormats said this.
The basis for the “New Silk Road” vision is that if Afghanistan is firmly embedded in the economic life of the region, it will be better able to attract new investment, benefit from its resource potential, and provide increasing economic opportunity and hope for its people
I’ve stated over and over that we have stayed in Afghanistan for a decade, far longer than necessary, to develop access to the entire Caspian Sea region and bring its resources to market. It is landlocked and at the center of the Great Game, a centuries long strategic battle over natural resources. The U.S. is a relative newcomer to the game, but energy access is a pivotal point in our strategic defense initiatives. This doesn’t mean we are entering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to secure their energy resources just for us. What we want is for them to be on the global market. We don’t want our superpower opposition to strengthen their hands by controlling the flow of energy. China is virtually the sole source provider of rare earth minerals globally with over 90% of the market reserves. Afghanistan alone can alleviate that monopoly. A trillion dollars in untapped mineral reserves will do that.
I also mentioned the TAPI pipeline as a major goal. Hormats did so as well.
Other initiatives seek to match energy from Central Asia with Pakistan and India — two markets with significant electricity needs. The TAPI pipeline project would bring on-shore natural gas from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan to markets in Pakistan and India. Other efforts would facilitate the transmission of electricity from Central Asia to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India
Pipelines crisscrossing Afghanistan, as well as railroads, have been a vision of its neighboring countries for years. The government is now selling extraction rights for mining at a breakneck pace to coincide with the NATO withdrawal. Fact is that all of the major players including Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Iran and the U.S. are investing in infrastructure for business development. The people of Afghanistan have resisted this development for literally centuries. They have greatly feared what detrimental effects would result from becoming the center of the south central Asian trade hub. The U.S. has invested a decade of blood and money into breaking down that wall of resistance and convincing Afghanistan that it would beneficial for all to develop itself as that hub of commerce.
Make no mistake, unleashing the natural resources of the region is considered a U.S. strategic defense initiative. The Great Game has evolved from a regional affair into a global strategic game of tactics. Everyone is making deals and positioning themselves for the future. The U.S. cannot come clean and admit to an agenda that included trading soldiers blood for economic strategy. When you examine the options for any other rational explanation as to why we’ve spent a decade, half a trillion dollars, thousands of deaths and injuries, etc., etc., do you have a better reason? After all, one of the stated goals of Operation Enduring Freedom was to remove the Taliban, whom we are now bargaining with. Bin Laden was years removed from the country. Al-Qaeda scattered just months into the conflict. They have evolved and now are in bed with the Iranians in Syria. The Afghan security forces will be in no position to be self-sufficient by 2014. Certainly you didn’t think it was our war on drugs and stifling the opium trade, did you? It’s increased from 185 tons annually to 5,800 tons annually!
What to take away from a decade of war in Afghanistan? The administration is now content to claim victory in the form of weakening Al-Qaeda sufficiently as to prevent any more mass casuality events. They can also claim a larger footprint in Central Asia going forward as we now have military bases in several former Soviet Republics. Russia doesn’t hide the fact that it doesn’t look forward to the coalition pullout as radical Islamists will undoubtedly move north in the vacuum created right to the Russian border. Iran shares the same concerns sharing the western border of Afghanistan. But any lasting positive has to come in the form of commerce and getting all of resources of the Caspian Sea region on the market. China has already secured a copper mine, but that isn’t really a U.S. priority. Natural gas, oil and rare earth minerals are in our interests.
Will that be an adequate cause for those lives affected by war? I guess it will have to be since we lost to the Taliban just as so many before us and Al-Qaeda has not been defeated either.