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Yossef Bodansky

Yossef Bodansky

Yossef Bodansky, the Director of Research at the International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA) and Senior Editor of Defense & Foreign Affairs publications (including the Global…

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Interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan Set to Collide, With Global Implications

The coming year: 2010, will see a growing clash of conflicting mega-trends in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater; trends which will ultimately have long-term impact not only on the region, but on all of Eurasia and global energy and political arenas.
These main mega-trends are:

1. Obama’s Needs: The desperate efforts of the US White House of Pres. Barack Obama to appease and negotiate with any element of the “Taliban” — and the label “Taliban” is used with great looseness by most observers of the Afghanistan and Pakistan scene — willing to in order to expedite a US withdrawal and legitimize a “modern” Afghan state. The Obama White House is determined to start an irreversible disengagement by mid-2011 and to complete the bulk of the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan a year later, just before Obama runs for re-election. Since a US military victory is inconceivable, the White House argues, a negotiated settlement with the “Taliban” would provide the sole key to bringing the war to a “closure”. Toward this end, the US is empowering, and handsomely paying, a rapidly expanding cottage industry of mediators and go-betweens of dubious reach and reliability. This undertaking further disrupts the delicate tapestry of the region tribal populace and the competing indigenous leaderships because these mediators throw around huge sums of money and empower the crooks and criminals.

2. Pakistan’s Needs: The need for Pakistan to regain its influence over the “Taliban” in order to ensure Pakistani dominance over its own territory and much of Afghanistan has to be a priority for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) organization. Islamabad has little option but to strive to regain such control in order to reverse the growing Indian influence in Afghanistan and to improve Pakistani ability to withstand a forthcoming crisis, even war, with India . There is evidence that many in  Islamabad are convinced that such a war is imminent. The strategic ascent of the PRC and the ensuing effective encirclement of India by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its allies (east to west: Myanmar-Bangladesh-PRC-Nepal-Pakistan) will ultimately compel India to attempt a strategic breakout. In an effort to contain India , the PRC is increasing pressure by supporting Maoist and secessionist movements in northeastern India , as well as empowering Pakistan to intensify the ISI’s support for the jihadist insurgency in Kashmir . For its part, India is intensifying support for Pushtun and Baluchi insurgencies inside Pakistan from facilities in Afghanistan . A vicious cycle of wars-by-proxy is rapidly escalating. The PRC is thus instigating crises which might possibly lead to a wider war in which Pakistan will inevitably be involved. Under such conditions, it is vital for the ISI to ensure Islamabad ’s control over the strategically crucial terrain and pertinent population.

3. The PRC’s Energy Transit Priorities: The PRC’s drive to control the pipeline routes across Afghanistan with Pakistan — the PRC’s closest ally — as the implementer mean that the Chinese-sponsored undertakings in Pakistan and quest for control over Afghanistan are an integral part of the PRC’s drive to consolidate long-term strategic posture in Central Asia. Beijing must secure privileged access to the region’s energy resources because these reserves are crucial for the sustenance of the PRC’s economic growth and modernization. Beijing is committed to a rejuvenated Silk Road built around a web of hydrocarbon pipelines and railroads. Running pipelines from Central Asia to Arabian Sea seaports via Afghanistan and Pakistan is a critical component of the PRC’s grand design. Ultimately, the Chinese intend to encircle India , challenge Russia ’s hegemony in Central Asia , and, to a lesser extent, undermine the EU’s economic presence. Beijing is cognizant that this grand-strategic ascent will not go unnoticed or without resistance. However, the PRC considers this surge the sole undertaking capable of facilitating and sustaining the historic ascent of China as a global  “hegemon” (a recently revived Imperial-era term), and the PRC is willing to take the risks and pay the price.

4. The Reinvigoration of Pushtun and Baluch Tribalism: The transformation of the Pushtun and Baluchi tribal population, and the ensuing impact on the jihadist movement in their midst, is assuming significant proportions. There are about 42- to 45-million Pushtuns (in an estimated 60 major tribes and more than 400 sub-clans) and about 20-million Baluchis (in two distinct sub-nations and a convoluted system of tribes and sub-tribes), and all are determined to return to Pushtunwali-based tribalism as the quintessence of society and beliefs. This grassroots determination is the outcome of more than a half-century of ceaseless conflicts with modernity and governance which cost both Pushtuns and Baluchis a lot of blood. There is now a discernable grassroots conviction that an historic watershed has been crossed; a conviction which manifests itself in a profound rejection of both the centralized state-government and its localized governance authorities (be it “ Pakistan ” or “ Afghanistan ”) to the point of launching armed uprising. But this revival of Pushtunwali-based tribalism is also the cause of profound rejection of the neo-salafites’ monolithic Arabization of Islam in the name of jihad, and consequently, the harbinger of schism with the jihadist movement (commonly called al-Qaida).

This pattern of Pushtunwali-based tribal revivalism goes back some 2,500 years. This is a recurring phenomenon throughout history; always an indigenous reaction to outside pressure and coercion with which the grassroots population has refused to compromise. However, since the Pushtunwali-driven tribal society is the grassroots level — with which everybody must deal and contend — the dynamic within the multifaceted tribal society will continue to have a singular impact on the bigger mega-trends. Simply put, in their pursuit of their world-changing grand-strategic future interests, the dominant powers will have to come to terms with the 2,500 year old Pushtunwali-driven tribal society. All efforts to coerce or cajole the Pushtunwali-driven tribal society into modernity — especially Westernization — will come to naught.

Hence, although the PRC and Pakistan are committed in principle to a centralized state and governance by institutions (albeit mainly security/intelligence dominated rather than civil-democratic), consolidating and sustaining control over the strategically crucial territories without resistance and disruption from the indigenous population is of far greater importance. The ISI — the principal on-the-ground implementer of this grand design — knows this better than anybody else. Hence, the ISI will reach compromises on coexistence and cohabitation with the human tapestry which makes up the Pushtunwali-based tribal society. Pakistan has a long record of doing this quite effectively, until Islamabad was coerced by the Obama Administration into launching offensives into the Pushtun areas against all advice from Pakistan ’s own experts and senior officials. It won’t be long before Islamabad and Beijing can move away from the Washington demands, and revive this proven pattern of compromise and cooperation if only because these arrangements will also result in the grassroots suppression and rejection of jihadist networks as they increase their anti-Pakistan surge.

The sole explosive and disruptive ingredient is the Obama policy in Afghanistan . The US seeks to break indigenous population patterns and alliances through its support for a viable Kabul . This approach disturbs all other key players particularly because this US policy is being implemented through the COIN (Counter-Insurgency) strategy. These efforts to build Kabul’s power on the coat-tails of the US and NATO COIN operations needlessly alienate wide segments of indigenous population and drive the grassroots to not only take-up arms against the US/NATO forces, but also shield and shelter jihadists in the name of solidarity and hospitality code. The locals know that the US is leaving soon and are therefore ready for interim compromises in order to ascertain and expedite the US withdrawal. What is still uncertain is just how much will they — the locals — be willing to suffer and risk before the withdrawal happens.

Islamabad wants to see the US leaving as quickly as possible, and is therefore willing to endure interim setbacks as the US attempts to consolidate a government in Kabul and to coerce Pakistan to continue its offensives in the Pushtun lands. But the US reaching out to the “Taliban” for negotiations is too destabilizing, and thus threatening for the ISI’s necessary and proven tapestry of protégés. And this tapestry is so crucial to the success of the grand designs of the PRC and Pakistan that Islamabad cannot compromise or sacrifice it. Therefore, the ISI is increasingly manipulating and truncating existing “negotiations” via US-empowered emissaries. Meanwhile, the ISI is also encouraging and assisting the so-called “good Taliban” of Pakistan to deploy their forces to help the so-called “bad Taliban” of Afghanistan in escalating the war against the US/NATO and so-called Afghan forces, thus failing ongoing “negotiations” which are not under the ISI control and reversing whatever progress made in the empowerment of Kabul.

Thus, the recent US initiatives, while essentially futile, have nevertheless increased the fear in Beijing and Islamabad of US conspiracies, as well as engendered their apprehension of a possible US challenge to their long-term vital interests. Both Beijing and Islamabad will not take a chance and wait for the US to fail and disengage on its own. Instead, it is probable that they will opt for a war-by-proxy; that is, sponsoring a marked escalation of anti-US/NATO insurgency and even cooperation with foreign neo-salafite jihadists despite repeated calls by radical Islamist leaders such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri for the jihadists to take on Islamabad. Even with the forthcoming “surge” in mind, US and NATO forces are woefully insufficient and under-equipped to meet the current level of fighting, let alone the anticipated escalation. The restrictive ROE (rules of engagement) in the name of pro-people COIN further diminish the effectiveness, and undermine the deterrence, of the US/NATO military forces without any tangible contribution to building bridges to the frustrated and increasingly hostile population.

But the West cannot just drop everything and walk away from Afghanistan and Pakistan as the Obama White House yearns to do.

The West has vital interests in the energy resources and strategic stability in Central Asia . Simply put, Europe’s ability to rely on “the Persian Gulf of the 21st Century” — Central Asia — for its long-term secure energy supplies depends on containing the PRC’s strategic ascent and quest for the same energy resources and the southwards transportation routes (there is a limit to the quantities of hydrocarbons which can be piped westwards through Russia). These interests can be secured through the Russian political-security hegemony in Central Asia , which, in turn, is facilitating the Western economic outreach. The European Union-Russian Federation (EU-RF) “Eurasian Home” grand strategy codifies such cooperation. The PRC’s containment can also be achieved in part by ensuring a strategic balance between India and the PRC, a policy supported by Russia . As well, Western interests would be furthered by the stifling of the continued spread of jihadism, a key objective of Russia as well. Moscow is most apprehensive about the jihadist attrition of socio-political stability in Central and South Asia and the ensuing spread into Russia ’s sizeable Muslim population.

Ultimately, however, there is no substitute for the West’s long-term direct presence and military involvement at the Heart of Asia. A US withdrawal would abandon the Heart of Asia to a Russian-Chinese condominium with the EU — being dependent on the region’s energy resources — playing a pliant supportive rôle. Apprehensive as it is of China ’s strategic ascent, Russia does not have the means to singlehandedly block the PRC. To remain in Central Asia, Russia will have to compromise with China against its own better judgment. Russia would rather have the West in the area to jointly contain China .

It is therefore crucial for Russia and the West to demonstrate US-led Western commitment through long-term military presence and continued fighting against the primary foes. Afghanistan and Pakistan are the crux of such presence for they are outside Russia ’s strategic domain in Central Asia, and they constitute both the vital corridor for independent Western access to Central Asia and the primary route of pipelines transporting the region’s hydrocarbons to the West (or China ). Moreover, Western military presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan would calm down India ’s warranted anxieties of strategic encirclement and the imperative of an audacious breakout, thus significantly reducing the threat of Indo-Pakistani crisis and war.


The Obama White House, however, is going to undermine these vital interests of the entire West and abandon everything.

The Obama White House is focusing on instant-gratification steps — an inexplicable mix of near-term “defeat” of, and negotiated “compromise” with, the “Taliban” — in order to provide domestic political fig-leaf for the withdrawal. Although several major NATO and EU governments are cognizant of the strategic significance of Afghanistan , Pakistan and the road to Central Asia, Europe is too weak and lacking military resources to do anything without US leadership and dominance.

Nevertheless, the PRC-led contenders remain apprehensive that the US might realize the real stakes at hand, and, at the last minute, decide to stay. Therefore, it is in the vital interest of Beijing and Islamabad to expedite the US/NATO withdrawal by facilitating a combination of pressure — “Taliban” escalation — and political enticement — “Taliban” negotiations — under their tight control. Adamant on bringing the war to a swift “closure” at all cost, the Obama White House is walking straight into this “Taliban” trap.

Analysis. By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, GIS.
Extract from Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis
© 2009 Global Information System, ISSA

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