PART 1: Welcome to Pashtunistan
PARIS – “The horror … the horror.” General Stanley McChrystal, the Pentagon supremo in Afghanistan, is being massively sold in the US as a Zen warrior – a 21st-century stalwart incarnation of the “best and the brightest”. But he may be a warrior intellectual more like Colonel Kurz than Captain Willard in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. He led an elite death squad in Iraq and, for all of his Confucius-meets-counter-insurgency social engineering schemes, still appears not to understand what Pashtuns are really all about.
McChrystal remains bemused about why, in Afghanistan, most young Pashtuns decide to become Taliban. Because Kabul is immensely corrupt; because the Americans have bombed their houses or killed their families and friends; because they can improve their social status. They simply won’t sell out for (devalued) American dollars. Their infinite drive is geared towards throwing the occupiers out – and re-establishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, governed by sharia law. In this sense, McChrystal’s soldiers are the new Soviets, no different from the Red Army that waged war in Afghanistan during the 1980s.
McChrystal – with all his “secure the population” talk – cannot possibly level with the American public about the Taliban. Afghans know that if you don’t mess with the Taliban, the Taliban don’t mess with you. If you’re an opium poppy grower, the Taliban just collect a little bit of tax on it.
Conquering Pashtun hearts and minds Westmoreland, sorry, McChrystal-style is a no-win proposition. There’s nothing McChrystal’s non-Pashto speaking soldiers can say or do to counteract a simple Taliban-to-villager one-liner “we’re in a jihad to throw out the foreigners”.
As for the Taliban/al-Qaeda nexus, the Taliban nowadays simply don’t need al-Qaeda, and vice-versa. Al-Qaeda is closely linked with Pakistani outfits, not Afghan, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba. If McChrystal wants to find al-Qaeda jihadis, he should set up shop in Karachi, not in the Hindu Kush.
Over the summer of 2009 alone, 20,000 US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops, practicing the iron dogma of “clear, hold and build”, were able to secure only a third of desert Helmand province. The Taliban control at least 11 provinces in Afghanistan. It’s easy to do the math on what it would take to “secure” the other 10 provinces, not to mention the whole country until, well, 2050, as the British high command has been speculating. No wonder Washington is drowning in numbers – rife with speculation that McChrystal wants 500,000 boots on the ground before 2015. If Confucian McChrystal doesn’t get them, goodbye counter-insurgency; it’s back to a devastating hell from above drone missile war.
If you break it, you control it
The Pentagon as well as NATO will never be cheerleaders for a strong, stable and really independent Pakistan. Washington pressure over Islamabad will never be less than relentless. And then there’s the return of the repressed: the chilling Pentagon fear that Islamabad might one day become a full Chinese client state.
Think-tankers in their comfy leather chairs do entertain the dream of the Pakistani state unraveling for good – victim of a clash within the military of Punjabis against Pashtuns. So what’s in it for the US in terms of balkanization of AfPak? Quite some juicy prospects – chief of all neutralizing the also relentless Chinese drive for direct land access, from Xinjiang and across Pakistan, to the Arabian Sea (via the port of Gwadar, in Balochistan province).
Washington’s rationale for occupying Afghanistan – never spelled out behind the cover story of “fighting Islamic extremism” – is pure Pentagon full spectrum dominance: to better spy on both China and Russia with forward outposts of the empire of bases; to engage in Pipelineistan, via the Trans-Afghan (TAPI) pipeline, if it ever gets built; and to have a controlling hand in the Afghan narco-trade via assorted warlords. Cheap heroin is literally flooding Russia, Iran and Eastern Europe. Not by accident, Moscow regards opium/heroin as the key issue to be tackled in Afghanistan, not Islamic fundamentalism.
As for those think-tankers, they do remain incorrigible. Last week at a Rand-sponsored Afghanistan bash in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, former president Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the man who gave the Soviets their Vietnam in Afghanistan, announced that he had advised the George W Bush administration to invade Afghanistan in 2001; but he also told then Pentagon supremo, Donald Rumsfeld, that the Pentagon should not stay on “as an alien force”. That’s exactly what the Pentagon is right now.
And yet, Zbigniew believes the US should not leave Afghanistan; it should “use all our leverage” to force NATO to fulfill the mission – whatever that is. Not surprisingly, Zbigniew couldn’t help revealing what the heart of the “mission” really is: Pipelineistan, that is, to build TAPI by any means necessary.
China, India and Russia may agree that a regional – and not an American – solution to Afghanistan may be the only way to go, but still can’t agree on how to formalize a proposal which would be offered in the cadre of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Li Qinggong, the number two at the China Council for National Security Policy Studies, has been a key voice of this proposal. Washington, not surprisingly, wants to remain unilateral.
It all harks back to a 1997 Brookings Institution publication by Geoffrey Kemp and Robert Harkavy, Strategic Geography and the Changing Middle East, in which they identify an “energy strategic ellipse” with a key node in the Caspian and another in the Persian Gulf, concentrating over 70% of global oil reserves and over 40% of natural gas reserves. The study stressed that the resources in these zones of “low demographic pressure” would be “threatened” by the pressure of billions living in the poor regions of South Asia. Thus the control of the Muslim Central Asian “stans” as well as Afghanistan would be essential as a wall against both China and India.
So all along the watchtower, the princes of war keep their view. That spells balkanization all along. It’s full spectrum dominance against the Asian energy security grid. The Pentagon well knows that AfPak is the key land bridge between Iran to the west and China and India to the east; and that Iran has all the energy that both China and India need. The last thing full spectrum dominance wants is to have the AfPak theater subjected to more influence from Russia, China and Iran.
There could not be a more graphic illustration of empire of chaos logic in action than the AfPak theater. While the McChrystal show amuses the galleries, what’s really at stake for Washington is how to orchestrate a progressive encirclement of Russia, China and Iran. And the name of the game is not really AfPak – even with all the breaking up and balkanization it may entail. It’s all about the New Great Game for the control of Eurasia.