For those who harbored any doubts, the Barack Obama administration’s adoption of the George W Bush framework of the “war on terror” – it does feel like a back-to-the-future “continuity” – here are two key facts on the ground.
- Obama has officially started his much-touted Afghanistan surge, authorizing the deployment of 17,000 US troops (8,000 marines, 4,000 army and 5,000 support) mostly to the Pashtun-dominated, southern Helmand province. Justification: “The situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan demands urgent attention.” The marines start arriving in Afghanistan in May. Their mission is as hazy as it is hazardous: eradication of the poppy culture, the source of heroin (which accounts for almost 40% of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product). There are already 38,000 US troops in Afghanistan, plus 18,000 as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 50,000 contingent.
- Obama administration nominees, in confirmation testimony that seemed to have disappeared in a black hole, stressed they are in favor of continuing the Central Intelligence Agency’s extraordinary rendition practices and detaining – ad infinitum – “terror” suspects without trial, even if they were captured far, far away from a war zone. (Considering the Pentagon’s elastic definition of an “arc of instability”, this means anywhere from Somalia to Xinjiang.) That has prompted New York Times writers to come up with a delightful headline: “Obama’s War on Terror May resemble Bush’s in some Areas.”
When in doubt, bomb ’em
Basically, the Obama administration’s strategy – for now – boils down to turbo-charging a war against Pashtun farmers and peasants. Poppy cultivation has been part of Afghan culture for centuries. A high-tech aerial war on destitute peasants will have only one certified result: more of them increasing their support for, or outright migration to, the multi-faceted fight against foreign occupation which the Pentagon insists on defining as an “insurgency”.
Throughout his presidential campaign, Obama defined the key goal of the “mission” in Afghanistan (promoted to “the central front in the war on terror”) as capturing Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership. There’s no evidence whatsoever that Osama is involved in the heroin trade. There’s also scant evidence the sprawling, sophisticated US surveillance system is interested in actually finding Osama. After all, that would remove the only “war on terror” rationale for the US to be semi-occupying Afghanistan.
Plus there’s no evidence these extra 17,000 troops are going after Osama in Helmand province. Assuming he has not gone to meet his 72 virgins in eternal bliss, Osama is supposed to be holed up in Parachinar, in Kurram province, at least according to the latest guess circulating among the vast legion of Osama watchers; this one is by University of California Los Angeles’ Thomas Gillespie in the magazine Foreign Policy.
Before the legion starts swamping Google Earth with frantic searches, it’s worth noting that by a quirky twist of history, Parachinar happens to be the same dusty village Osama and a few al-Qaeda operatives escaped to from a B-52-bombed Tora Bora in early December 2001 – when the neo-cons were already salivating with the prospect of bombing not empty mountains but “target-rich” Iraq.
In fact, since the fabled escape to Parachinar in late 2001 there has been absolutely no credible intelligence on Osama. Obama’s new poppy gambit does bypass Osama. So it’s fair to assume Obama has not been presented by the US national security apparatus with any new intelligence breakthrough – not to mention pure and simple on-the-ground basic intelligence, as bombing peasants and farmers to oblivion with Predator drones in Helmand is not exactly the best strategy to seduce them into collaborating with the US in finding those al-Qaeda ghosts, as it has been amply demonstrated in the Pakistani tribal areas.
Of course, in all this charade there’s never a slight mention in the US – even in passing – of why Afghanistan matters: as a transit node of Pipelineistan – that is, the key Caspian oil and gas branch of the New Great Game in Eurasia. Compared to the real game, the monochromatic Washington rhetoric of “winning Afghanistan for democracy” does not even qualify as a joke.
Moscow to the rescue
The 1,600-kilometer Karachi-Khyber-Kabul supply line envisioned by the US and NATO is for all practical purposes dead – thanks to the hit-and-run guerrilla tactics of neo-Taliban in the Pakistani tribal areas, and not Osama and his al-Qaeda ghosts.
Last week, Obama’s Afghanistan/Pakistan envoy Richard Holbrooke was duly welcomed in Kabul – the day before he arrived – with a group of suicide bombers and gunmen raising hell in the Justice and Education ministries, killing 26 and wounding 57 and paralyzing the capital. This came after Kyrgyzstan had given Washington a six-month notice to pack up and leave the Manas air base contiguous to Bishkek’s civilian airport. Yet more evidence that Central Asia now listens primarily to Moscow, not Washington.
What was not reported was how General David “Iraq surge” Petraeus – a man who calculates his each and every move in terms of ideal positioning for a 2012 presidential run – had rings run around him by those wily Russians. Petraeus told Obama in person on January 21, the day after the inauguration, that the US supply lines in Central Asia were totally secure. Obviously, he forgot to factor in a subsequent regional charm offensive by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, which established exactly the opposite.
In the end, transit salvation for the US and NATO is indeed coming from no one else but Russia – but on Moscow’s terms: this means Russia possibly using its own military planes to airlift the supplies. A deceptively charming Medvedev has been on the record identifying “very positive signs” in the new US-Russia chess match. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been on the record saying transit of US and NATO non-military supplies through Russia begins in effect only a few days after the 20th anniversary of the Soviets leaving Kabul.
Obama for his part would have little to lose by listening to the man who was in command at the time – retired Lieutenant General Boris Gromov. Gromov – speaking from personal experience – has said Obama’s surge is doomed to fail: “One can increase the forces or not – it won’t lead to anything but a negative result.”
The price for the US and NATO to have their Afghan supplies arrive via Russia is clear: no more encirclement, no more NATO extension, no more anti-missile shield in the Czech Republic and Poland for protection against non-existent Iranian missiles. All this has to be negotiated in detail. Russian media have reported Medvedev wants a summit with Obama in Moscow – with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin obviously at the table. But that still seems far-fetched; what will happen in Geneva in March is a meeting between Lavrov and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Assuming Medvedev has indeed given Obama a tremendous success story – in terms of a new transit route to Afghanistan – a pesky question remains; what is, after all, the US mission? It can’t be nation-building; successive US administrations never cared about Afghanistan except as a sideshow. It can’t be to “secure” the country and prevent it from becoming a base for attacks on the US because – as much as Russia, alongside the US, doesn’t want a Talibanized Afghanistan – if there ever was a “base” it’s now in the Pakistani tribal areas.
The best of it all – as usual – is left unsaid. Washington cannot admit that its only real interest in Afghanistan is as a transit corridor for a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India (the TAPI pipeline). Moscow cannot admit that the opportunity of helping the US to be bogged down in Afghanistan for a few more years is too good to pass.
And it gets better.
In the unlikely event Obama and Medvedev decide not to tango, the only other realistic possibility for the US/NATO to have a new supply route would be by courting Iran. Practically, that would mean a very long route from Turkey through Turkish/Iranian Kurdistan, Iran and then Kabul. A very convenient, shorter route would be from an Iranian port, say Bandar Abbas, and then into Afghanistan.
It’s obvious that to play chess with Russia is much easier for the Obama administration than to play with Iran. In this case, to get what it needs, the US would have to forcefully end once and for all the three-decades-long “wall of mistrust” between Washington and Tehran; it would have to terminate the sanctions and the embargo; it would have to renounce regime change in Tehran; and it would even have to allow Iran to develop its civilian nuclear program, to which it has a right under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to which it is a signatory.
The Obama administration also would have to face unimaginable pressure from the Israeli hard right – from Likud supremo Bibi Netanyahu to the hardline, former Moldova bouncer Avigdor Lieberman – and their minions operating in the Israel lobby in Washington.
Iran is getting closer and closer to Russia. Russia currently holds the presidency of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – the Eurasian answer to NATO not only in terms of security but also in the economic and energy spheres. The SCO unites Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, with Iran and Pakistan as observers. In an interview with RIA Novosti, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said, “Iran has officially addressed SCO members and expects its observer status to be finally upgraded to full membership during Russia’s chairmanship period.”
This is what it’s all about in Eurasia – the inexorable march of Asian integration, via the Asian Energy Security Grid and, in security terms, via the SCO. Both China and Russia are deeply connected with Iran. China has signed mega-multibillion dollar deals to be supplied by Iranian oil and gas while selling weapons and myriad goods; and Russia is bound to sell more weapons and is already selling nuclear energy technology. All this while Washington is focused on bombing Pashtun peasants and chasing the ghost of Osama bin Laden.