Afghanistan: Colony or Outpost?

Source: Massoud Hossaini (AFP/Getty Images)

Regardless of what the public opinion is about the (still) ongoing war in Afghanistan, the United States is here to stay. Whether the Taliban stay or not. And they are most likely to because the NATO forces have still not been able to curb their insurgency and the situation pretty much seems like a stalemate. The issue with Afghanistan is that it offers key strategic territory in South Central Asia where the United States has not enjoyed significant political influence since the very early days of Cold War, or in other words, ever before, except for the Soviet Afghan War of the 1980s which was followed by the disintegration of the only challenger to the strongest power in the world.

Now the Americans have a choice, let’s drop the NATO part for a moment. They could either run Afghanistan as a functional colony (sorry the vassal state term hardly applies here), which they would probably plan to do, choosing a democratically elected local leader like Hamid Karzai for sugarcoating and keeping a US military viceroy to control the actual political interests. Or they could either use Afghanistan as an isolated outpost for the region leaving the internal affair of the rest of the country to its fate, constantly engaging in the conflict with the resistance and establishing military bases that are used for far greater interests of the United States in the region. The FP Magazine published an article about the Israeli military presence in Azerbaijan, but the US bases in Afghanistan are probably an even better option for war with Iran. Among many other advantages.

However, Iran is just one dimension of the episode. The campaign could even be broader than that and it is not necessarily about war. War just happened but it is actually about political influence and if that political influence is threatened, military force will of course be used. The dual US policies in Western Asia has created duplicitous allies such as Pakistan which is now offering them a taste of their own medicine by allegedly keeping a check on the US interests in Afghanistan, particularly apprehensive due to their own insecurities of growing Indian influence in Afghanistan. Whether that is true or not, it is true that India is more aligned with the larger US interest right now than Pakistan is. Furthermore, the US may not need Pakistan in the bigger picture as much as it used to do in the Cold War decades.

The US presence in Afghanistan has a great deal to do with the changed perspective of the United States towards Pakistan. It is seen as a problem area. Pakistan has been serving the US interest for decades and the utility of the state reached its zenith during the Soviet Afghan War from 1979 to 1989. However, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, which for some odd but obvious reasons coincided with a sudden monstrous increase in religious extremism in Pakistan, all that has been changing gradually. This was pretty convenient for the future and thinking from the perspective that Pakistan has actually fulfilled its utility in the geostrategic targets of the West in the region, it is worth noting by all means.

It is an open secret that the Taliban were created by the Pakistani forces under the guidance of the American CIA as the more respected Mujahideen to fight against the Soviets and you hardly need any references to verify that. You know, one of those loosely declassified things of which there is no great evidence available perhaps. Call it a conspiracy theory, if you will. While there is no doubt that Osama Bin Laden was the man the US forces were after and that he was thought to be in hiding in Afghanistan in 2001, of which no one can be completely sure, but assuming that the United States attacked Afghanistan for that very reason is pretty naïve. At least that was not the only reason, if one at all. Actually it is pretty ridiculous to assume that in my books but I am sure the viewpoint I am offering is widely seen the same way as well. On a serious note, it seems that there were larger plans at hand.

However, things are not as simple as they seem, as is always the case with such affairs. Many among the US people are not even bothered about any advantages that the United States may be enjoying by occupying Afghanistan and want the government to call the troops back home. Others are too concerned about a terrorist threat rising from Afghanistan and would not mind if the military maintains its presence there but the fact remains that life is tough for the US soldiers in Afghanistan and the Taliban don’t seem to be giving up. You would think that they should have by now. It has been ten long years. More than that. The greatest problem that the United States is going to encounter in the future are the Afghan people, who could become out of control of the neocolonial power. They have a history of doing that at least.

Recently, two very unpleasant incidents occurred. A few American soldiers allegedly burned a copy of the Muslim Holy Book Koran and another opened fire on unarmed Afghan civilians including women and children in Kandahar. Both these events caused an outrage in Afghanistan with widespread protests for the former, given the religious fervor of the Afghan nation. The protests even resulted in the death of 2 US soldiers. Of course, it is hard for many in the West to understand the violent protests over the mere burning of a book but unfortunately that phenomenon is a reality in Afghanistan and the rest of the Middle East. These two incidents were purely individual acts, as much as you disapprove of them or not, but what they have done is that they have created tension between the common Afghan people and their US masters. Reminding them that America is a foreign power after all.

In my opinion, the greatest challenge for the US strategists right now is this cultural shock and lack of trust in the long run. The longer the US military stays in Afghanistan, the more these incidents will appear. While no one needs to doubt the competence of the US military, you do not need to be a defense analyst to know that they don’t particularly enjoy their stay in Afghanistan, that too, under the constant threat of the attacks from the Taliban. In my opinion, a complete American pull out from Afghanistan will never occur in the short run, actually for a considerable period of time, and if it is made, it would be pretty embarrassing. Because quite frankly, they have achieved nothing in Afghanistan except for toppling over the Taliban regime and that was not the real objective after all. Removing their regime was never really a problem for the strongest country in the world anyway, though completely eliminating them is.

The US Presidential elections will be held later this year, that is, 2012. The candidates are on the campaign trail and there is some antiwar sentiment in the air with no less than 69% of the people disapproving of the US military campaign in Afghanistan, let alone the presence. This will certainly push President Obama to announce the withdrawal of the US troops from Afghan soil. The latest date is 2013 perhaps. But hey, wasn’t he supposed to pull them out in 2008? He actually increased the number of troops by 30,000 the very next year. Well that fits a person’s understanding from the perspective of the account presented above but perhaps not for the antiwar voter. Nevertheless, regardless of the outcome of the US elections, the US presence in Afghanistan will certainly not diminish after 2013 and as long as there are Taliban, there will be war. Actually some reports do point out that the military stay could even last up to 2024. Who knows.

Pakistan’s presence may only make the delay excruciatingly long or maybe not and maybe that is the new plan of stimulating the world economy. That’s just a joke, not a conspiracy theory. However, as much Pakistan would like to have a say in the political affairs of Afghanistan, they will not be given as much control as they were in the 1990s. Regardless of the Pakistani perspective and strategy, the US needs to see how it should run Afghanistan in the immediate future. Whether they want to run it as a colony, or a periphery if you want to be more euphemistic, or as a military base in a large and hostile battlefield. All that depends on how they engage with the Afghan people, making me think if only the word colony fitted that relationship. It seems something worse. An occupation maybe. Whether they want to appoint diplomats there or deploy generals with units prepared for battle. It is a bumpy ride ahead for the United States but not one that they can pull out of by choice.

This war is not over yet.

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