Daily Archives: February 26, 2007

Choosing to Lose in Afghanistan?

Posted by Cutler on February 26, 2007
Afghanistan, Great Power Rivalry, Russia / No Comments

Vice President Cheney has made unannounced visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan. According to the New York Times, Cheney’s visit to Pakistan was intended to deliver “an unusually tough message” to President Pervez Musharraf.

The decision to send Mr. Cheney secretly to Pakistan came after the White House concluded that General Musharraf is failing to live up to commitments he made to Mr. Bush during a visit here in September. General Musharraf insisted then, both in private and public, that a peace deal he struck with tribal leaders in one of the country’s most lawless border areas would not diminish the hunt for the leaders of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Nobody is going to question the idea that Cheney can deliver a tough message when he wants to (see his latest warnings to Iran).

The real question is whether Cheney actually wants a fight with Musharraf. He might. I’m just not sure.

The “tough” message in Pakistan is being delivered by the House Democrats, not the Bush administration. Indeed, the Bush administration opposed the Pelosi bill that threatened to link Pakistani aid to a crackdown on the Taliban.

For Cheney, however, the problem with a tough message to Pakistan and a crackdown on the Taliban is that such initiatives may ultimately undermine Cheney’s anti-Russian goals in Central Asia.

In an August 5, 1999 article in the Financial Times (“Contest For Regional Supremacy Replaces Cold War Conflict in Afghanistan”), Charles Clover put the post-Cold War history of the Afghan factionalism in the context of geopolitical rivalries:

[T]he war in Afghanistan is not just a tribal or an ethnic conflict but a geopolitical one; that the superpower conflict between the USSR and the US in the 1980s has been replaced by a contest for regional supremacy, pitting Pakistan against Iran and Russia

“The Taliban are not Pakistani mercenaries but they are facilitated and trained by Pakistan. They are permitted to recruit in Pakistan. They are really a transnational, Afghan-Pakistani phenomenon,” said Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan expert at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations…

Jamiat-i-Islami… [is] the main faction opposed to the Taliban… Burnahiddin Rabbani, who is still recognised internationally as the president of Afghanistan, is the political head of Jamiat…

Funds for the Taliban appear to come mainly from the Gulf states or individuals, according to Mr Rubin. The movement is recognised by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in addition to Pakistan, as the legitimate government of Afghanistan…

[T]he prospect of Pakistani dominantion over Afghanistan proved too threatening for other countries in the region, and an unlikely alliance between Iran and Russia formed to support an anti-Taliban force made up primarily of… Jamiat-i-Islami.

“There is a big Russian and Iranian role with [anti-Taliban] forces, but it is not as extensive as Pakistan’s role with the Taliban,” said Mr Rubin…

Several times a week [anti-Taliban forces fly] an old MI-17 helicopter to Tajikistan, which has signed defence co-operation agreements with Russia and Iran. Tajik airbases such as the town of Kulyab have become centres for Russian and Iranian supplies…

In other words, the Afghani civil war of the 1990s was a proxy battle between US-backed forces–the Saudis, the Pakistanis, and the Taliban–and Russian-backed forces–Iran, India, Tajikistan, and the so-called “Northern Alliance.”

In a recent Washington Post Op-Ed (“Discarding An Afghan Opportunity”), Selig Harrison of the Center for International Policy argues that after 9/11, some elements of the Bush administration supported what amounted to a Russian- and Iranian-aligned “Tajik clique” in Afghanistan:

In 2001 the United States lined up with the Tajik ethnic minority, whose small military force, the Northern Alliance, helped dislodge the Pashtun-based Taliban and has subsequently dominated the Karzai government. Tajik generals and their proxies still control the army as well as key secret police and intelligence agencies hated by the Pashtuns. Karzai, a Pashtun, has attempted to soften Tajik domination with Pashtun appointments to top security jobs, but the real power remains in the hands of a U.S.-backed Tajik clique.

Does Cheney support this “Tajik clique”? Or does he accept NATO’s failure to defeat the Taliban as the price of blocking Russian and Iranian political dominance in Afghanistan?

In a recent Foreign Affairs essay–“Saving Afghanistan“–Barnett Rubin suggests that the US continues to send mixed messages about its geopolitical aims in Afghanistan.

The rushed negotiations between the United States and Pakistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 changed Pakistan’s behavior but not its interests. Supporting the Taliban was so important to Pakistan that Musharraf even considered going to war with the United States rather than abandon his allies in Afghanistan. Instead, he tried to persuade Washington to allow him to install a “moderate Taliban” government or, failing that, at least to prevent the Northern Alliance, which Pakistanis see as allied with India, from entering Kabul and forming a government. The agreement by Washington to dilute Northern Alliance control with remnants of Afghanistan’s royal regime did little to mollify the generals in Islamabad, to say nothing of the majors and colonels who had spent years supporting the Taliban in the border areas. Nonetheless, in order to prevent the United States from allying with India, Islamabad acquiesced in reining in its use of asymmetrical warfare, in return for the safe evacuation of hundreds of Pakistani officers and intelligence agents from Afghanistan, where they had overseen the Taliban’s military operations.

The United States tolerated the quiet reconstitution of the Taliban in Pakistan as long as Islamabad granted basing rights to U.S. troops, pursued the hunt for al Qaeda leaders, and shut down A. Q. Khan’s nuclear-technology proliferation network. But five years later, the safe haven Pakistan has provided, along with continued support from donors in the Persian Gulf, has allowed the Taliban to broaden and deepen their presence both in the Pakistani border regions and in Afghanistan. Even as Afghan and international forces have defeated insurgents in engagement after engagement, the weakness of the government and the reconstruction effort — and the continued sanctuary provided to Taliban leaders in Pakistan — has prevented real victory…

[F]ailing to address Pakistan’s support of the Taliban amounts to an acceptance of NATO’s failure.

Nobody is likely to accuse Cheney of accepting failure easily. Cheney is, however, willing make awkward alliances with unsavory forces in order gain advantage over a strategic rival.

The US and Russia seemed to get on well in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 because any move to unseat the Taliban aided Russian and Iranian allies in Afghanistan.

Perhaps Cheney harbors doubts about the wisdom of this idea.

If Cheney shies away from a direct US confrontation with the Taliban, it is not only because he has been distracted by the “diversion” in Iraq. It is because his attention is focused on Russia.

[UPDATE: The Taliban, on the other hand, is not shying away from a direct confrontation with Cheney.  I guess they didn’t read my blog post.]