Thursday, December 11, 2008

Just What Are They Playing At?

There's one thing you'll never hear from Harper's lips - other than the truth. I'm talking about the critical differences in NATO's and America's agenda in Afghanistan. To be blunt, America's geopolitical interests in Afghanistan are not the same as ours. Washington's interests in that region are infinitely more expansive and ambitious than our own.

The NATO/ISAF players are notionally in Afghanistan to help the country and its people. America's presence there, however, is but one of a number of regional presences that anchor a foreign policy that reaches, literally, from China to Saudi Arabia. It's an often confused, sometimes contradictory and routinely flawed policy that brings into play China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Russia, Georgia and Ukraine. In effect, America sees its policy in Afghanistan in the context of its greater hegemony in the Middle East, the Caucasus, South Asia and the Far East.

We went to Afghanistan to do a very specific (and woefully "misunderestimated") job and then leave. America's focus on leaving was always blurry and has been directly shaped by events since 2001.

How can I put this delicately? America has become accustomed to maintaining a large, permanent military establishment in the Middle East since Saddam marched into Kuwait. First it was in Saudi Arabia and then, when that began causing problems for the House of Saud, Iraq almost miraculously became available. Talk about blind luck!

America plainly has had permanent military basing in Iraq in mind for a long, long time - certainly back before they decided to build the biggest embassy on the planet in Baghdad. Until recently plans were in the works to expand America's military bases in Iraq from 40 to a very respectable 80, several airfields among them.

Why so many bases? Get out a map. Iraq borders not only Saudi Arabia but also Iran and Israel's nemesis, Syria. It's just a few hundred kilometers distant from the Black Sea and the Caspian. Iraq also lies at the head of the Persian Gulf. It just doesn't get much better than that when it comes to projecting power.

But things went wrong in Iraq thanks to al Sistani. The neo-cons were counting on installing a secular, pro-Western (can you say "puppet") government in Baghdad that would do their bidding Pahlavi-style. Before they could get that in place, the Ayatollah al Sistani forced their hand and made Washington hold early elections in which their guys were turfed before they every got in.

The current regime, al Maliki's, now sees a permanent American presence as something only the Kurds are willing to entertain. Shiites whether nationalist (Sadr) or pro-Iranian (Maliki) and the Sunnis find a prolonged American military presence unacceptable. That's led to a handshake deal on a 2011 American military departure from Iraq.

The Americans can't go back to Saudi Arabia and they've got their eviction notice from Iraq so what's left? The remaining options aren't great but the best of the lot would be Afghanistan. It sits at that critical junction of the Middle East, India-Pakistan and China. As I've mentioned before, Afghanistan is critical to a southern pipeline route to bring Caspian Basin oil and natural gas to the West via the Arabian Sea and to India via Pakistan.

Along with Pakistan (or at least the Baloch territory in the south) Afghanistan prevents the Chinese from getting their own, secure pipeline routes into Iran. Denying China a short, overland pipeline link to the Middle East would also leave it dependent on vulnerable tanker routes through the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean.

There's more to it than this, much more, but the point is to show that America's interests in Afghanistan bear little resemblance to our own. That's why the repeated American proposal to bring NATO forces into harmony with the US "Operation Enduring Freedom" forces under a unified American control raises the possibility of transforming NATO into an American Foreign Legion for the advancement of Washington's geopolitical interests.

In light of today's reports that US Defense Secretary Robert Gates would be delighted if Canada would extend its Afghan mission before the 2011 deadline, we need to really consider what's at stake - for the Afghans, for NATO and for the United States. Remember, come 2010 they'll all be at it again, talking about "cutting and running."

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