The Israeli attack on the humanitarian aid flotilla that resulted in the death of 9 people has strained relations within an already tense environment in the NATO alliance.
The alliance has been especially strained by the rapidly shifting international scene following the fall of the Soviet Union, and more so following the US invasion of Iraq and continued NATO-backed war in Afghanistan. NATO was created as a response to Soviet power. With the USSR gone, it’s had to redefine its mission, a job that is not yet complete. Some complaints have been that the US has been pushing for NATO to reach and expand outside its traditional zone of influence to fill in the vacuum left behind by the Soviet collapse, moving into Eastern Europe, becoming active in the Caucasus and even Central Asia through Afghanistan. This has put stress on the alliance, with some questioning its role as an entity that is perhaps crossing the boundary from a defensive alliance to a proactive and expansionist one.
NATO is undergoing an existential crisis in trying to redefine itself following the Cold War and in the face of multiple international powers to challenge the short span of time in which the US was an uncontested superpower.
After talking to people in NATO headquarters, former British ambassador Craig Murray has said that the recent Israeli attack of the aid ships in international waters has further strained relations between NATO members:
But what kind of mutual support organisation is NATO when members must make decades long commitments, at huge expense and some loss of life, to support the United States [in Afghanistan], but cannot make even a gesture to support Turkey when Turkey is attacked by a non-member?
Even the Eastern Europeans have not been backing the US line on the Israeli attack. The atmosphere in NATO on the issue has been very much the US against the rest, with the US attitude inside NATO described to me by a senior NATO officer as “amazingly arrogant – they don’t seem to think it matters what anybody else thinks”.
Therefore what is troubling the hearts and souls of non-Americans in NATO HQ is this fundamental question. Is NATO genuinely a mutual defence organisation, or is it just an instrument to carry out US foreign policy? With its unthinking defence of Israel and military occupation of Afghanistan, is US foreign policy really defending Europe, or is it making the World less safe by causing Islamic militancy?
I leave the last word to one of the senior NATO officers – who incidentally is not British:
“Nobody but the Americans doubts the US position on the Gaza attack is wrong and insensitve. But everyone already quietly thought the same about wider American policy. This incident has allowed people to start saying that now privately to each other.”
The US-NATO war in Afghanistan has dragged on for nearly eight long years. It has failed to bring sustainability or security from violence, and Afghans continue to suffer from an economy that has fallen on its knees after three decades of continuous warfare.
The national government cannot far project its authority past the capital city, Kabul. Beyond this area, the seal of state power must be delivered at gun point, not by the Afghan National Army or Police, but by foreign forces. A 2008 US government report concluded that, out of a total force of 80,000, not a single national police unit is “fully capable of performing its mission and over three-fourths of units… are assessed at the lowest capability rating.” The Afghan National Army is not much better.
So you have an Afghan security force that is embedded with handlers, and trainers from NATO countries, dependent on the military power and the logistical capacity of Western troops. Not exactly the perfect picture of self-sufficiency.
The local government is also permeated by foreign observers and advisers, through foreign government experts, and the UN. These informal power blocs dole out money to an otherwise financially unsustainable Afghan state. The total cost of the national army and police, an estimated US$3.5 billion annually, is many times greater than the entire revenue of the government, even before the planned expansion of an already bloated local security forces.
The continued spiral of violence and chaos has justified the long presence of foreign troops in an already war ravaged country that sits between three of the US’s geopolitical rivals: Russia, China, and Iran.
The irony of the failure to bring peace to the region by waging a US-led war in the pursuit of justice against Al Qaeda and in the name of a feckless militarized humanitarian mission has given the US and NATO justification to seek out military bases and maintain a military presence in Central Asia. The war can justify the appropriation of large sums of government budgets to reshape not just Afghanistan, but the region, through military action as well as by vigorous diplomatic maneuvering.
“It is imperative that no Eurasian challenger emerges, capable of dominating Eurasia and thus of also challenging America,” writes Zbigniew Brzezinski in his book, the ‘Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives.’ Brzezinski was the national security adviser to former US president Jimmy Carter.
Brzezinski adds that, “in that context, how America ‘manages’ Eurasia is critical… A power that dominates Eurasia would control two of the world’s three most advanced and economically productive regions. A mere glance at the map also suggests that control over Eurasia would almost automatically entail Africa’s subordination, rendering the Western Hemisphere and Oceania geopolitically peripheral to the world’s central continent. About 75 percent of the world’s people live in Eurasia, and most of the world’s physical wealth is there as well, both in its enterprises and underneath its soil. Eurasia accounts for about three-fourths of the world’s known energy resources.”
This continent-spanning contest, termed the Great Game, pivots around Central Asia, a region that happens to be instrumental to the emergence of the New Silk Road: an energy superhighway of oil and gas pipelines that is growing increasingly important.
Meanwhile, the UN estimates that the number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan has risen sharply, 40% higher in 2008 than in the previous year. The number of civilian dead rose to 2,118 last year. The report claims that 39% of these deaths were caused by coalition and Afghan forces, in great part as a result of air strikes.
The commitment of more US troops, trainers, and resources as well as the policy to expand the war into north western Pakistan implies that we should not expect a turn away from war in the short term. The emphasis has shifted within Eurasia, from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
(First published at Rabble.ca)
The relationship between US instructors embedded within the Afghan army and police is not good. The US and NATO instructors seem more like petulant handlers that have failed to form strong ties of trust and common cause with the Afghans under them. And that’s part of the problem, the Afghans are under them.
The cost of the Afghan army and police is greater than the entire government revenue of Afghanistan, and the US government has OKed doubling of this already too expensive and sadly incapable army. The US and Europe pays for most salaries, siphoned through UN agencies, they call most of the shots and seem to stifle any sense of independent pride, independent decision-making, independent responsibility, and collective identity regarding defence of a country they have had little to no hand in creating.
This video seems to suggest some sort of cultural deficiency on the part of Afghan soldiers: as lazy, lacking discipline, and drug addled. Afghanistan, however, has had centuries history of fighting and pushing back major armies: the Soviets once, the British Empire twice. The Northern Alliance’s disparate groups of fighters under regional warlords were more effective despite lacking a coherent overall strategy. The Taliban and Mujahideen were able to continue fighting the Soviet army of 100,000 soldiers for a decade until that world power was forced to retreat. The Taliban and insurgents of today continue to conduct effective irregular warfare and have been retaking ground they lost in the 2001 invasion.
The problem then cannot be as presented in the video as what is at best a cultural slur against Afghans in the current army being inherently incompetent and in need of Western tutelage to learn basic tactics of fighting. It seems more that they don’t want to fight. They have next to no opportunity to establish their own principles of combat; many oppose the Taliban but do not support their government which is domestically seen as hamstrung by and often fully dependent on foreign powers, and they have no clear notion of what they are fighting for.
It’s not enough to fight against something, like the Taliban. What’s to come next? What do these Afghan soldier wish to see realized in their country? It seems they feel they don’t have a say in this, nor does it seem clear what sort of state Afghanistan will be after the US mission in Afghanistan is completed (or defeated).
In the video, one of the US handlers tells the Afghans that they should fight in disciplined fashion and realize that they could be a global player. A global player? Is this what Afghans want? It seems to me that the handler was rather expressing the importance of Afghanistan in US global geostrategic plans. Afghanistan needs healthcare, a sustainable economy. People need jobs, education, clean water, and food.
The same handler tells the Afghan soldiers that they need to be independent so they can stand up to countries like Iran. Again, this is an expression of US desire thrust on the locals. Many of the Afghans in the army, especially in the north, have close ties to Iran. Local markets in the west are tied to Iranian ones sometimes even more so than central Afghan ones. Many of the people speak the same language as Iranians and share a common culture and history. They don’t necessarily see Iran as a hated enemy nor can they afford to have a cold or hot war with their neighbours on whom they depend for access to international markets (Afghanistan is land-locked).
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The war in Afghanistan has become the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, sometimes termed the Afpak war by the US administration. This expansion into Pakistan reveals much about the nature of the war in the region, is a response to the origin story of the Taliban, and reflects the practice of the rights of the dominant international subjects to intervene throughout the world in the name of global order.
The current US administration, under president Barack Obama, has refocused its attention on Central and South Asia after its predecessor had shifted the greater part of its international policy resources to the war in Iraq. President Obama has increasingly articulated a US and NATO policy that has been a growing reality since the tail end of the US presidential election campaign: de-emphasis on Iraq and emphasis and resurgence of international political-military activity in and around Afghanistan.
In this regard, the US will in the short term be sending some 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and it will be sending a great number more civilian experts to train and handle Afghan bureaucrats and politicians.
Taliban Sans Frontiere
The Taliban’s presence is today strongest in southern Afghanistan and north western Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the North-West Frontier Province (read my article on the Taliban presence in FATA for more information). These areas constitute the majority of the Pashtun people’s territories. The Taliban has its roots in Pashtun culture. Almost all Taliban leaders are of Pashtun origin, and they are currently the primary power bloc within these highly tribal influenced people. In fact the Taliban’s rules and codes, as they enforce them in territories they effectively govern, are a synthesis of a particular Sunni school of religious conduct (originally from India’s Deobandi school) and the Pashtun tribal rules known as Pashtunwali.
According to an article by Marc Ambinder, published by the Atlantic, US president Barack Obama will likely support a senate bill to provide funds to Pakistan tied to that country’s efforts against Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgents.
These reports are coming from US government insiders prior to president Obama’s formal release of his Afghanistan and Pakistan policy.
Such aid will likely be used to pressure Pakistan’s government to reduce it’s long-standing and often covert cooperation with the Taliban. This method is not new, and was carried out quite under both presidents Bush and Clinton. The Pakistani government, at that time under the leadership of Pervez Musharraf, proved adept at playing both sides, receiving money from the U.S. and using its military and secret intelligence to support Taliban assets it had cultivated over many years.
Pakistan had previously used its ties to the Taliban to exert influence within Afghanistan, such as undermining the Northern Alliance (which had greater understanding with Iran), establishing trade routes and smuggling rings, keeping Indian influence to a minimum in Afghanistan, and using Taliban allied training grounds and people as fighters against India in Kashmir in order to avoid the full fallout from a formal government directed attack.
According to the Atlantic article, president Obama plans to send “4,000 additional troops … tasked with training Afghan soldiers and the national police; the administration hopes to have more than 130,000 [Afghan] soldiers and 82,000 [Afghan] police officers trained by 2011.”
The Nation has an informative article on the use of Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, by Israel in the latest major assault on the Gaza Strip. Israel is a leader in the development of drone technology, modifying U.S. designs as it has done with many of its other military hardware.
The AFP reports that Iran has attended a meeting at NATO headquarters, the first time direct talks were held between these two groups since the Iranian revolution some 30 years ago. According to a chief NATO spokesman, “the Iranians are interested in possible cooperation on Afghanistan.” AFP reports that Iran is interested in mitigating the smuggling of drugs from Afghanistan into Iran.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that between 1.5 and 2 million Afghan refugees reside in Iran. Iran is keen on reducing the numbers of these refugees and reducing the flow of new refugees. Also, Iran has had quite bad relations with the Taliban. The Sunni Taliban sees Iran’s Shia government as apostate and relations between the two are anywhere between strained to hostile.
In 2001, Iran proved supportive of the US invasion of Afghanistan and, importantly, was instrumental in convincing its allies in the Northern Alliance to work with the US.
Juan Cole reports on an Al-Zaman article claiming “that Iranian speaker of the House Ali Larijani is on a secret mission in Iraq to mediate between the Islamic Mission (Da’wa) Party of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his sometime coalition partner, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). The two parties are seeking to form coalitions in several southern Shiite provincial councils, and Iran is said impatient for the deal to be concluded.”
The lead-up to Iran’s June presidential elections has been somewhat tumultuous for all candidates involved, including current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He faced stiff resistance, and finally parliamentary defeat of his budget plans in March. Despite this body blow, EurasiaNet reports that president Ahmadinejad remains the front runner in the race. Ahmadinejad’s power base is heavily tied to his alliance with the military, counter to traditional politics in the Islamic Republic of Iran. His past and current election campaigns indicate greater military influence over Iranian politics, undermining some of the power of clerics and their financiers (the bazaaris).
An inconclusive war between Azerbaijan and Armenia threatens to rear its head yet again as the underlying issues of the conflict remain unresolved. Al Jazeera’s People & Power has an excellent report on the current situation and warns of the possibility of war being declared by Azerbaijan sometimes in the next four or five years when that country reaches its peak oil output, thus believing itself at a position of economic advantage. If war was to break out, there is risk of the conflict becoming more widespread. Russia is allies with Armenia while Turkey, a NATO member, is allies with Turkic Azerbaijan.
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NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has again stressed the importance of regional coordination in order to help with their efforts in Afghanistan. Pakistan is mainly focused on, though India, the Central Asian countries, and Russia are included in this. De Hoop Scheffer has also said that Iran could be included in a broader regional approach at some point.
In 2001, Iran was very helpful in getting its allies in the Northern Alliance to work with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Iran is no friend to the Taliban, and even threatened war against them in 1998. Risk of war was sparked after seven Iranian diplomats were killed in Afghanistan after Taliban takeover of a city.
However, I don’t see how Iran could directly be involved in a U.S.-led plan for Afghanistan without an about turn in relations between those two countries. This may well be mainly rhetoric, a flourish to present NATO as open-minded while no effort to actually realize a political solution to NATO-Iran relations will be sought by the alliance. There is likely to be a continuation of a containment policy toward Iran, supported by covert operations and economic erosion. However, there has been some talk that the U.S., under President Obama, may well try to strike some level of cooperation with Iran in order to help stabilize Afghanistan.
From Jim Lobe’s article at IPS (republished in the Asia Times):
”It is absolutely clear that Iran plays an important role in Afghanistan,” Obama’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, said in Kabul earlier this week in an interview during which he pointedly declined to repeat Bush administration charges that Tehran was aiding the Taliban. “[Iran has] a legitimate role to play in this region, as do all of Afghanistan’s neighbors,” he insisted.
Most regional specialists, including Bruce Riedel, who co-chairs the White House’s “AfPak” policy review, and John Brennan, Obama’s top counter-terrorism adviser, have long argued that Iran’s cooperation would make Washington’s effort to stabilize the region and ultimately defeat al-Qaeda markedly easier while, conversely, its active opposition, as in Iraq, is likely to make the task considerably more difficult.
That assessment has, if anything, gained strength in just the past few weeks as Washington has scrambled to secure new supply lines into land-locked Afghanistan after a key bridge in Pakistan’s Khyber Pass was destroyed by Taliban militants there and Kyrgyzstan threatened to end Washington’s access to its Manas air base.
Meanwhile, the Telegraph has published an article claiming that Israel has launched a covert war against Iran:
It is using hitmen, sabotage, front companies and double agents to disrupt the regime’s illicit weapons project, the experts say.
The most dramatic element of the “decapitation” programme is the planned assassination of top figures involved in Iran’s atomic operations.
…A former CIA officer on Iran told The Daily Telegraph: “Disruption is designed to slow progress on the programme, done in such a way that they don’t realise what’s happening. You are never going to stop it.”
…Reva Bhalla, a senior analyst with Stratfor, the US private intelligence company with strong government security connections, said the strategy was to take out key people.
“With co-operation from the United States, Israeli covert operations have focused both on eliminating key human assets involved in the nuclear programme and in sabotaging the Iranian nuclear supply chain,” she said.
Israel’s intelligence organization, Mossad, is also suspected of having been behind the death of a leading Iranian nuclear scientist in 2007. Ardeshire Hassanpour, who worked at the Isfahan nuclear plant, was officially reported to have died of “gas poisoning.”
First published at Rabble.ca:
In December, the UN Security Council concluded that “almost 40 per cent of Afghanistan is either permanently or temporarily inaccessible to governmental and non-governmental aid.”
The Security Council has also reported that there were 6,792 security incidents in November 2008 versus 508 for the same month in 2003.
These and other grim facts were presented by the Senior Vice President of the International Crisis Group to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs.
In June, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that that “only 2 of 105 army units are assessed as being fully capable of conducting their primary mission. The Afghan National Police is doing just as poorly. The GAO, the International Crisis Group, and the Pentagon have all found the police to be arbitrary, corrupt, and can actually be a source of fear for local populations. They are not capable, and many may not be willing, to enforce the law.
The U.S. and NATO’s solution to these and many more problems in Afghanistan seems so far to be to send more foreign troops, double the size of the Afghan National Army and Police, and spend more money. But local populations are increasingly hostile to foreign presence as the economic and security situations slide to ruin, the existing Afghan security forces are mostly unfit for action, and international efforts between funders are uncoordinated to the point of incoherence.
Meanwhile, much of the country is hostile or indifferent to the central government; the President of Afghanistan is sometimes mocked as the “mayor of Kabul.” The government appears to be one faction among several that have power and rule, and has not been successful in forging a national consensus. The Taliban, warlords, and tribal leaders are the other factions, with their own quasi-governments, territories, and private armies.
The International Crisis Group’s already quoted testimony includes the following: “Strategic incoherence and inadequate coordination here in Washington and in Kabul within the U.S. military, between the military and civilian government agencies and between the U.S. and its international partners in Kabul are fatal to success in confronting the Taliban insurgency. The results of that strategic chaos have played out across Afghanistan over the past seven years.”
I’m not convinced that the framework of effort in Afghanistan is sound. Before committing to more — more troops, more money, more lives lost — the focus may need to shift to how. How can Afghans be assisted to become self-reliant, how should international efforts be coordinated, and how can government impotence be transformed by a national consensus?
US and NATO supply lines to Afghanistan are becoming increasingly untenable. In Pakistan, through which the vast majority of military supplies pass, the fighting has grown even more pitched. Militants, on Tuesday, blew up a key bridge that lead to the Khyber Pass. This left a number of supply convoys stranded. Following this 10 trucks carrying material for NATO troops were attacked, after they were stranded due to the damaged bridge. “Militants sprinkled oil and then fired rockets at a terminal in the border town of Landi Kotal” late on Tuesday, said local government official Rahat Gul. “The attack triggered a blaze that gutted eight containers mounted on lorries and badly damaged two others,” he said.
The main alternative routes that the US has been investigating run down north of Afghanistan. This would require that they pass through the Central Asian countries, where Russian influence is significant. The focus has been on Kyrgyzstan, the only Central Asian state that has a US military base left on its soil. In 2005, Uzbekistan expelled US troops from its territory.
Kyrgyzstan has for years now threatened to do what it’s neighbour Uzbekistan did and shut down the US base on its soil. For weeks now rumours and unofficial Kyrgyz government announcements have suggested a growing move to threaten the base’s closure. The latest threat comes from Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
President Bakiyev was visiting Russia at the time, meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev. The Washington Post reports that, following the meeting, “Russia agreed to provide Kyrgyzstan with $2 billion in loans and $150 million in financial aid, and also to write off $180 million in debt and build a $1.7 billion hydropower plant.”
U.S. payments to Kyrgyzstan currently total $150 million a year, of which about $63 million is rent for the Manas base. “We hope to continue those discussions because Manas is vitally important to our operations in Afghanistan,” said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. Morrell added, however, that “we can continue without it, obviously.”
…The Manas base is “pretty inexpensive from the U.S. point of view when you consider what it gives us in terms of access in the region,” the official said. “I don’t know what price the United States is willing to pay . . . but at the same time I don’t know whether we’re willing to be held hostage.”
President Bakiyev states that the political cost of keeping the Manas base has increased, especially following an incident in which a Kyrgyz civilian was shot by a base guard at its entrance. Kyrgyzstan’s government has requested to try the US soldier and been refused. The President and other politicians have, in the face of public anger, expressed concern for what this means for Kyrgyztan’s sovereignty. This has been forwarded as the main reason for considering the US base closure unless the pact is renegotiated.
You can learn more about Russian involvement and have a little more background on the supply routes by reading an earlier post titled Military Supply Routes to Afghanistan Reflect US and Russian Regional Competition.
The focus on what the US and NATO could and should do in Afghanistan seems stuck on military options. ZP Heller writes a little on this, discussing, first, what a 30,000 or so US troop ‘surge’ would hope to accomplish. Heller wonders why an increased commitment to nation building, such as development, wouldn’t be more effective. Here’s a clip from the article:
And is committing tens of thousands more troops really the best way to help a war-torn nation with 40 percent unemployment and some 5 million people living below the poverty line? Proponents of escalation like Karin von Hippel, an Afghanistan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggest that 30,000 more troops will make a psychological impact. But wouldn’t a more profound psychological impact come from to sending humanitarian aid, creating jobs, and getting Afghanistan away from what Secretary of State Clinton recently called a “narco state?”
Perhaps the question needs to be reformulated, not in terms of how much but rather in terms of how. A little money can go a very long way in Afghanistan, a country whose government had a meager $685 million revenue in 2007. I think the question needs to be how to let Afghans most effectively reconstruct their country and to “bring into existence something that looks like a modern cohesive Afghan state,” as Helene Cooper describes in a recent New York Times article. I don’t know how an outside authority can impose self-reliance and good governance on a people. I believe that at best only assistance can be provided. Under the current circumstance of full military and political intervention, I don’t find it surprising that the US Government Accountability Office finds that that “only 2 of 105 army units are assessed as being fully capable of conducting their primary mission.” The Afghan central government, in its current form, is dependent on the US and its NATO allies as its key source of funding, delivered to them with prescriptive formulas that preclude self-determination. Effectively, Afghanistan’s central government sees outside powers and funders as one of its most important constituents, and is incentivised to become what leading Afghan expert Barnett R. Rubin calls a “weak rentier or allocation state.”
The Taliban, without Western funds or training, seems to be able to grow and fight against a modern army just fine. It shouldn’t take a heavily supported central government this long to become at least militarily effective. There must be something wrong in the form of assistance itself.