Owing to its strategic location, Afghanistan has been the chessboard of various actors for more than a century now. The United States and its NATO allies have not won the war game; in fact they do not even have a chance to win it. But the truth of the matter is that the U.S. objective is not decisively win the war in Afghanistan once and for all, because if it did, it would no longer have the pretense of war to remain in the region. Alongside the Black Sea and the Caucasus, Central Asia is an extremely vital arm of the U.S. global strategy framework in terms of maintaining its political influence and access to resources. There are indications that Pakistan, as one of the major actors in the region, and bearer of the title of the only Islamic state to have acquired nuclear weapons-a title for which it will not be forgiven by the U.S.-is becoming the next target in the game. Consequently, the ongoing war in Afghanistan and its associated complications could be used to justify a future U.S. intervention in Pakistan.
King of Chess: USA
As the dominant actor of this chess game, the U.S. wants to expand and escalate the war towards Pakistan in order to weaken and even divide it so as to control its nuclear arsenal. Consequently, there are an increasing number of reports coming from the region confirming that the U.S. has visibly increased its cross-border operations into Pakistan -with or without permission -on the grounds that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are operating in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan, and even further inside the country. Unfortunately, just like was the case in Afghanistan where the mistakes of US Allied Forces caused loss of innocent life, casualties are becoming more common in Pakistan because of U.S. operations (conducted by missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)) and it looks like this already grim picture may get even worse.
The new U.S. President Barack Obama has promised to send more troops, funding and equipment to Afghanistan. In fact one of the Obama campaign’s criticisms of the Bush administration was their failure to fully address the dangers present in Afghanistan; for underestimating the Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces; and withdrawing much needed soldiers from Afghanistan to reinforce operations in Iraq. Moreover, the Bush administration was criticized for neglecting to undertake development and reconstruction projects in Afghanistan, thus pushing a frustrated and desperate civilian population into the arms of the Taliban.
But the reality remains that most military experts agree that sending reinforcements to Afghanistan will not result in success, as Obama foresees. Historical lessons learned warn that leaving the 20-30 thousand additional reinforcements aside, even hundreds of thousands of reinforcements will not be enough to consolidate success in Afghanistan. Dating back to Alexander the Great, none of the great powers, including the British and Russians, have been able to fully gain control of this much coveted country.
The Pakistan Factor
The other significant player in the game is Pakistan, but its hand is weakened due to its volatile and fragile location. Pakistan’s already fragile structure is becoming even more so as tensions with its neighbors-India, Afghanistan and Iran-mount; the situation is exasperated by the special effort of the U.S to stir things up. The validity of U.S.-based complaints that Pakistan has been unable to control its territory and is condoning a weak security situation that has resulted in a spill-over of terrorism into Afghanistan is a debatable issue. Although the U.S. suffered severely from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it has not experienced daily acts of terrorism from cross-border incursions, unlike Pakistan which faces Afghanistan-rooted terrorism daily. Pakistani officials fault the dire security environment and U.S. and Indian backing of tribal leaders as the main causes of terrorism. Moreover, Pakistani officials complain that Pakistan has been turned into a scapegoat by the U.S. and even further, that the U.S. is trying to turn Pakistan into a war-zone. Recent U.S. Army operations where missiles fired from UAVs in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan have reported to have caused a death toll numbering 344 civilians.
In parallel, it is apparent that the shift from military to civilian rule has made the resolution of Pakistan’s problems more difficult as the influence of religion is on the rise on political and social life. Today Pakistan faces more complicated problems and is more vulnerable to foreign intervention due to the immaturity of its political structures borne of its coalition government. These vulnerabilities make it more susceptible to foreign influence and the potentially debilitating impact of the global economic crisis on an already shaky domestic economy.
The accusations towards Pakistan naming its inability to control its Afghan border hints to the makings of a prejudiced scenario initiated against Pakistan. It can hardly be expected to ask Pakistan to control 1,400 km of harsh mountainous terrain, while as global super power, the U.S., is unable to control its border with Mexico. To make things worse, Pakistan is not Afghanistan’s only neighbor; neighboring states to Afghanistan such as Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, China and Tajikistan and even non-neighbouring states like Russia and India have their share in this chess game. Since Afghanistan is a land-locked country, logistical support to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda come from not only domestic but also from foreign sources. It can easily be said that hubs of support for the Taliban exist not only in Pakistan, but in other periphery states in Central Asia.
The Russian Factor
Since 1974, Russia has wanted to become an active actor in Afghanistan and the memories of their failed bid, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan 160.000 soldiers strong in 1979, is not lost on collective memory. However, the occupation ended with defeat in 1992. Russia maintained its relations with Afghanistan during the Taliban regime via its support to the Northern Alliance, headed by Ahmet Shah Mesut and General Rasit Dostum.
Some claim that Russia, where the aspiration to become a global power once again has captured the public imagination under Putin’s watch, still has some connections -though not directly- with Afghanistan and is even fuelling the fire. Russia, which sold arms to Karzai’s regime, is claimed to be supplying arms and explosives to the Taliban, Hikmetyar and Al-Qaeda via Central Asian states. Moreover, Russia, owing to its 10 year long legacy in the country still has small pockets of influence and support in the country.
Furthermore, in case of a policy shift that would minimize a strong U.S. and European presence in Central Asia, the role of the Russian Federation in the chess game would become more easily observable. Russia has not forgiven the U.S. for organizing the jihadist resistance and supplying every type of arsenal against the Soviets, and if given the chance, it will likely take its revenge. Although purely speculative, the possibility that Russia could supply SAM systems to the Taliban, just as the U.S. supplied Stinger missiles to the Afghan Mujahedeen should not be taken off the table. In the future, a Taliban armed with SAMs, would create more problems for the Coalition forces; and the Taliban still has Stinger missiles, if they have not expired yet. Russia and Iran will be considered first should the renewal of these missiles be actively sought. Not too long ago, in September 2006, after the air accident which resulted in the crash of a British Nimrod Early Warning Plane and the death of 14 soldiers, the Taliban claimed that they shot down the plane with Stinger missiles. We could expect that Russia will seek to become more active in its foreign policy towards the region, and coupled with the expanding influence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Russia could try to permanently uproot the U.S. presence from the region; resorting perhaps to more radical moves and means of support to achieve this end.
In addition to the issue of security on the Pakistan-Afghan front, the U.S. wants to use India as a means of weakening Pakistan in order to reach its strategic goals. To take this argument a step further, it can even be argued that the recent Mumbai terrorist attacks, which Pakistan is blamed for, can be taken as part of the above strategy to ignite confrontation between these two states.
On the other hand, India, the other nuclear power, would like to resolve the Kashmir problem through political, rather than military means, thereby avoiding confrontation with Pakistan with which it has had three past wars. Consequently, India aims to politically disable Pakistan and is using Afghanistan as a tool to do so, seeking to create strife between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Moreover, there are signals that India’s policy aims include the political isolation of Pakistan by clouding its relations with China, the U.S. and Iran.
It is evident that India has a significant stake in Afghanistan and is rapidly increasing its influence in the areas of economics, culture, education and intelligence gathering. The possibility of India deploying a peace force in Afghanistan would certainly cause deep fractures in the Afghanistan-Pakistan-India triangle.
Iranian Factor and the Others
Iran, which has never had good relations with the Taliban, is also concerned about Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan. Consequently, Iran supported the Northern Alliance during its struggle with the Taliban and encouraged Afghanistan to free itself of its dependence on Pakistan as its gateway to sea access.
However, Shiite Iran, like the U.S. and India, never want the Taliban to regain power and seize control of Afghanistan. On the other hand, Iran stands to reap the benefits from Taliban activities that would preoccupy the U.S. in the bottomless Afghan pit as long as it can, so that a possible U.S. attack on its nuclear facilities would become a more difficult option.
Another regional actor that is uneasy with the U.S. pretence for its ongoing presence in Central Asia is Pakistan’s ally, China. China, which is aspiring to become the most impressive economic engine in the world, is highly concerned about the U.S. presence in Afghanistan; the nuclear cooperation agreement with its adversary India; U.S. efforts to strengthen India against China and the American and Indian provocation for recent uprisings in Tibet. When these concerns are taken into account, U.S. failure in Afghanistan is a pure necessity for China in every sense, and it could pursue covert strategies to complicate the situation even further for the U.S. This could involve China’s willingness to supply weapons and ammunitions to the Taliban.
Although they are not political actors in the region, France, Germany, Poland and Turkey, supplied troops to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF); but now outside sources indicate that they are considering withdrawal because of concern over the developments and the seemingly endless deadlock in the war. That commanders of the British and French forces have remarked that military success in the war is a distant possibility and that instead, the sole focus of efforts should be on fueling political and strategic tactics is an important indication of the reality on the ground in Afghanistan, American retired General Wesley Clark, who also worked at NATO Command, has argued that rather than conducting military operations on Pakistani territory, more military and economic aid should be channeled to Pakistan to enhance its counter-terrorism capacity, and that responsibility for the war plaguing the northwest of the country should be left to the Pakistani Army.
The players of the chess game in Afghanistan are not limited to the above states. It is known that Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are watching the game closely because of scores of their citizens that have joined the Taliban in Afghanistan. To make the situation even more complicated, if the British, Israeli, and German intelligence presence in Afghanistan are taken into account, it becomes clear that Afghanistan has become a den of intrigue and any resolution of its problems in the foreseeable future is nothing but an empty hope.