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Foreign Interests in Afghanistan.

Byline: Guenter Knabe

Just to recall why and how it all started, it was on Oct. 7, 2001 that the first bombs were dropped by US planes in Afghanistan, supporting mainly the anti-Taliban Tajik Northern Alliance. With this part of 'Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF)' in retaliation for 9/11, the Americans, together with their NATO allies, wanted to get Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" as President George W. Bush demanded, to wipe out Al Qaeda, and to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Two months later, Mullah Omar and his men lost their stronghold Kandahar and finally Kabul. Parallel to the fighting, an international conference on Afghanistan, commonly known as Bonn Conference, at Petersberg (close to Bonn/Germany) outlined the country`s political future. As a result, a provisionary government under Hamid Karzai was installed on Dec. 22, 2001. One aim of OEF had been achieved: victory over the Taliban in Afghanistan, However, Osama bin Laden slipped away reportedly into the Tribal Areas on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and vanished into the 'unknown', up to now while the Taliban had not been defeated forever, as the world came to realize later.

One other major aim of the United States concerning Afghanistan was not even mentioned any more: opening Afghanistan as a gateway to the enormous gas resources in Turkmenistan, though US companies had dealt with the Taliban leadership about construction of a pipeline through Western Afghanistan until summer 2001.

As early as Dec. 21, 2001, the stationing of foreign troops in Afghanistan was put on a much broader legal base by UN Security Council Resolution 1386, mandating an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to support the newly established Karzai government. The aims and objectives of foreign, predominantly Western, engagement in Afghanistan beyond the on-going military OEF actions and ISAF activities instantly became much broader, larger and bigger: introducing (Western style) democracy based on a new constitution, parliamentary elections, reforming and or re-establishing the administration, judiciary, police and armed forces, education, health etc. and of course economic reconstruction.

It sounded more like creating a completely new more or less Westernized Afghanistan, including women's emancipation. The latter, a highly sensitive issue, was asking particularly for trouble in a tribal society with customs and laws based on Pushtoonwali-the code of life followed by Pushtoon people. The Germans put the liberalization of women and schools for girls to the forefront of Germany's substantial development aid for Afghanistan.

Strangely enough, the very serious problem of poppy growing, drug production and trafficking was left rather un-tackled. Now, after ten years of battles and fights, with 150,000 foreign soldiers stationed on Afghan soil, so many Afghan civilians and soldiers, foreign troops and Taliban killed, billions of Dollars and Euros spent or wasted through corruption, what did the US, NATO, and the European countries achieve in Afghanistan? What are they aiming at in the present situation? What are they striving for in future? What does all that mean for two other big players in world politics and in the region: Russia and China?

The grand scheme of creating a new Afghanistan has shrunk to a miniature issue and the big aims and objectives have been scaled down considerably for the time being. If they are ever to be reached in Afghanistan at all, it will take much more time than the Western politicians and military thought in the beginning. At least they have learned this.

President Obama stated publicly in July 2009 that victory was not the necessary goal for the United States in Afghanistan. In October 2010, Richard Holbrooke, the then US Special Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, said very clearly in a CNN Interview: "We are not trying to win this war militarily...Military victory is not possible." Since then, NATO, governments and military of all countries that contributed soldiers to ISAF are occupied with one aim regarding their Afghanistan engagement: Exit.

They are searching for and working on face-saving strategies to withdraw their contingents as soon as possible. NATO's future hinges on how the war in Afghanistan will end. They seem convinced of the simple logic: if you can't defeat the enemy, you need to talk to with them. This is exactly what Hamid Karzai has been trying for quite some time. He got green light for these steps from NATO, but the question arises: why should the Taliban talk about any political solution or compromise 'now' that their foreign foes announced that they will eventually leave?

ISAF-Commander in Chief, General David Petraeus, wants to shatter this attitude. His strategy is to weaken the enemy thoroughly before any talks and for this reason, he asked President Obama for 30,000 more troops. This surge looks like a copy of the General's strategy in Iraq, but Afghanistan is different from Iraq and not a copy of that country at all. General Petraeus did agree in an interview with "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" of Germany that military actions are necessary but not sufficient and that politics must go along with them.

The General is well aware that ultimately it is not the military but the politicians and parliaments in Washington and elsewhere who would decide about how to proceed in Afghanistan. The politicians in Western countries take other aspects into their account as well than just the military necessities. They want to be elected and therefore have to listen to their people. The war in Afghanistan is growingly unpopular in the USA. In Germany too, a majority of the people (60-70 %) is against the military engagement of the Bundeswehr (German Federal Defense Force) in Afghanistan. This is precisely why the dates of elections (presidential in US and parliamentary in Germany) will have a decisive impact upon the dates of any recalling of troops from Afghanistan, not the real military or political situation there or any backlash or success of ISAF.

In Germany, 2011 is the year of elections of "Laender-Parlamente" (state-parliaments). There are reasons enough for the government in Berlin to announce that German Bundeswehr will begin to withdraw by end of this year. President Obama is talking about a similar schedule-starting withdrawal in the summer of 2011 and finishing it in 2014-as polls in USA show how unpopular the war in Afghanistan is among Americans. The huge amounts of money spent on it are an extra heavy burden to be carried by the American taxpayers in a time when money is bitterly scarce. That is another reason to get rid of this war in Asia.

The traditional bonds between the British and the Americans are still strong enough that UK's ISAF-contingent is the second largest with roughly 10,000 troops (followed by Germany with 4,500 soldiers plus 850 reserve). Great Britain's solidarity out of tradition as well as the solidarity of NATO countries is an asset for Washington, even if some of them may have been squeezed into that solidarity.

It is an essential part of ISAF's exit strategy that the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan Police are to be trained and equipped in such numbers and to such an extent that they can take over security step by step from the foreigners (150,000 soldiers and 120,000 police presently). When completed, ANA will number 260,000 men, according to plans. That looks good on paper and sounds good in public in USA and European countries, but what about the level of training given that 65% (officers) - 90% (ordinary men) of the police are illiterate? What about loyalty of ANA soldiers and the police, once the ISAF has gone, in a society like the Afghan where loyalty belongs primarily to one's family, clan and tribe, and then maybe to a government?

A great impediment to any positive development is mentioned again and again: the immense level of corruption which is spread throughout the country and in all governmental and other official institutions and private companies. President Karzai was urged by the international community to diminish it, seemingly to no avail yet. Hamid Karzai in some of his recent statements about NATO and US forces in Afghanistan sounded more like 'Ami - go home', but keep sending me money.

Talking about military exit, the coalition partners are reassuring the Afghan people that they will not leave them alone afterwards and that they will continue and strengthen their assistance to reconstruct Afghanistan. Germans have generally been considered as friends by the Afghans: this is not totally forgotten on either side. German government has pledged 430 million Euros civilian aid yearly from 2010 to 2013 for reconstruction. The number of aid personnel will be doubled to 2500 persons. Washington is obviously eager to stay in Afghanistan after 2014. The huge new building of the American embassy in Kabul is reflective of this very aspiration. Most Afghans and their neighbors in the region may also have second thoughts about America's strong commitment and its desire to keep a limited number of military personnel in Afghanistan even after the war.

Such a base close to Iran, in neighborhood of the warily observed ally, Pakistan, and straddled right on the road to Central Asia with its vast resources would be of great strategic advantages.

Afghanistan is a gateway to the Silk Route of present times, promising fat bounty. The Americans want to keep open that gateway for them. The pipeline scheme is still ready in the drawers of US's oil and gas companies. That opens another scenario: If, some time from now, the Taliban become part of a future Afghan government or even finally govern the country alone; if they rule more moderately than first time, and if they are confined to Afghanistan, who guarantees that American oil and gas entrepreneurs would not deal with them again? That would be 'back to square one' in the 'Great Game' in Central Asia.

However, the "ifs" are very crucial. Two other big players in that game-Russia and China-will act anyway, possibly to prevent a permanent US and NATO presence in their neighborhood.

China s priority seems to be further economic expansion. It is looking for raw material and energy resources. Therefore, it will avoid any armed conflict and will favor a stable neighborhood. Parallel to its growing economic power, Beijing is getting stronger militarily and politically. Nevertheless, it is not involved in the war in Afghanistan at all. Verily, it is suspicious of the Muslim extremists there because of the unrest among the Muslim population in its Western province Xinjiang, and it is afraid that the extremists in Afghanistan might instigate or encourage the Muslim resistance within its own borders or provide training for guerilla fighters.

However, with its typical pragmatic policy, China has left the fighting against the extremists in Afghanistan to ISAF and the Afghans themselves. It, instead, acquired from the Karzai government the world's second largest yet to be explored copper mine, which is located West of Kabul. The Chinese are developing it now, protected by NATO and Afghan forces. Due to the long standing friendly and close relations between Beijing and Islamabad, the Chinese may consider Pakistan as a cordon sanitaire between them and Afghanistan.

For actions against terrorism or Muslim extremists (often only allegedly) as well as for fighting drugs, there is another mechanism at China's disposal: The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), in which Afghanistan has now got the observer status. Moreover SCO is quite undisguisedly opposing military presence of the USA in Central Asia or any kind of permanent American political influence over the region. This was stated back in 2006 jointly by both leading members of the Organization, China and Russia. It is not to forget that both the countries are rather often competing with each other within SCO regarding influence, resources and security in Central Asia.

Probably one of the reasons of this rivalry is Russia's phantom pain caused by 'the Empire lost' in Central Asia. Moscow considers the former Central Asian Soviet Republics as an area of its special interest. Indeed, they have many things in common: Russian as lingua franca (still), decades of history, and joint experiences in various forms-education and training of generations. On the other hand, the young Central Asian Republics (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan) are eagerly guarding their newly won independence, balancing relations and cooperation carefully with Russia and China and, in several instances, with Washington and EU countries.

Afghanistan is a trouble-spot for all them. It causes direct threats and dangers for bordering Uzbekistan and Tajikistan through terrorism and drug-trafficking. Both countries and Russia have these problems in common. Moscow is afraid that extremism in the name of Islam could spill over from Afghanistan into its own territory and is suspicious of alleged connections between Taliban and Chechens.

Russian people are also suffering immensely from the drug smuggled from Afghanistan. The bulk of heroin is consumed in Russia; the other portion goes on to west European countries. Two million Russians are addicted to opium and heroin. Every year around 30,000 of them are dying from heroin. This is why Kremlin has been urging NATO and ISAF for a long time to act seriously and effectively against poppy-growing and drug-trafficking in Afghanistan, apparently to no avail. A joint NATO-Russian raid near the Pakistani border in October 2010 resulted in destruction of heroin that Russia said was worth 250 million dollars, a move criticized by Karzai for having not been informed. According to Victor Ivanov, Chairman of the Russian State Anti-Narcotics Committee, 200 Afghans were trained by his organization as counternarcotics agents.

A stable state of Afghanistan, preferably an independent and a neutral one, without extremists and terrorists and with no poppy-growing on its soil, is of vital interest for Moscow and there are reasons enough for Putin and Medvedev to support ISAF-operations in Afghanistan on a limited scale by providing transit routes for NATO's non-military goods.

The Russians know very well that pacifying Afghanistan is something like a 'mission impossible'. After all, they encountered them under various circumstances from the Tsarist era on to the invasion and occupation of the country in the time of Soviet Union (1979-89). With regard to politics, strategy, economy and global rivalry, Afghanistan is as important for Russia today as ever before. It is maneuvering to get a foothold again at the Hindukush.

Consequently, Moscow is courting Hamid Karzai. During his visit, second in six months, to Kremlin in January 2011, he was offered help with reconstruction and all the experience and knowledge Russian technicians and engineers gained in civil projects that were started during Soviet times in the early sixties. As to the costs of such projects, which are not yet calculated, the Russians shrewdly set the condition that the 'international community' pays for it.

The trip to Moscow was only one of Hamid Karzai's many travels and meetings to foster old connections and establish new ones with the obvious purpose to secure his own position for an eventual lack of the ISAF shield. Karzai's future aside,there is probably a long time of darkness, war and bloodshed, misery and hardship for his countrymen ahead.

Pakistan's stakes and the importance of the role it can play in Afghanistan can not be over-emphasized. Having wide ranging linkages and interests of its own, Pakistan can contribute more than all other neighbors of Afghanistan. However,as the Pakistani people have themselves suffered heavily from the lingering conflict next door in Afghanistan, that is a very heavy burden Pakistan has to carry. In this scenario, it would be a daunting test of Pakistan's leadership as to how it addresses its own stakes and the concerns of international community.
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Publication:Policy Perspectives
Geographic Code:9AFGH
Date:Jun 30, 2011
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