“Afghanistan and Pakistan are the central front in America’s war against terrorism. The deteriorating situation in the region poses a grave threat to global security. It’s an international challenge of the highest order. That’s why we are pursuing a careful review of our policy.”
President Barak Obama
Three-fourths of NATO supplies are transited to Afghanistan through Pakistan’s Khyber Pass, located west of the NWFP capital of Peshawar. The Taliban has destroyed hundreds of NATO provision trucks, unleashed deadly attacks against NATO convoys and raided key supply depots. Emboldened by its success, the Taliban is now attempting to choke off the vital port city of Karachi, where the NATA logistics hub begins. The Pakistani military’s inability to drive the Taliban from the Northwest Territory combined with ISI support for the Taliban has made maintaining Pakistani supply routes too risky a proposition to sustain NATO growing operations in Afghanistan. The new Obama administration has continued its devastating Drone aerial attacks against Taliban strongholds on the Afghan-Pakistani border. But civilian deaths associated with the Drone attacks are fueling anger and anti-American sentiment on both sides of the border, while weakening the legitimacy of President Kharzai and President Zardari’s governments. For all these reasons opening a second supply front for U.S. and NATO operations emerged as “mission critical” to push forward President Obama’s Afghanistan surge campaign.
Pakistan’s deepening turmoil and U.S. reliance on a revanchist Russia to ensure its supply lines in Afghanistan are unsettling realities. But dragging the unstable nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan into the equation represents a dangerous expansion of the “Long War” in Central Asia. U.S. negotiations with these countries over transit routes, access to air bases and foreign aid packages started before the 2001 Afghanistan invasion. The regional maneuvering has ebbed and flowed with the intensifying U.S.- Russian rivalry over Central Asian oil exploration, pipeline rights and the volatile internal politics of each country. Given the contention between the U.S. and Russia in Central Asia’s renewed “Great Game” a valid question arises; why has Russia come to the aid of its nemesis, the United States?
Moscow has a strategic interest in preventing the Taliban from toppling the government in Kabul, either directly or by leading a coalition of forces. The Taliban’s return to power would virtually eliminate Russian influence inside Afghanistan, whereas today Moscow has significant ties with Northern Alliance forces, President Kharzai and pro-Iranian forces inside Afghanistan. Furthermore, America’s aggressive efforts in Central Asia have led to the establishment of U.S. military installations in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Moscow and China are deeply troubled by America’s expanded military profile in Central Asia. President Putin moved to facilitate the transit agreements, rather than risking the U.S. cutting deals with Central Asia regimes without Russian input. For his services to the United States, the Obama administration reciprocated by hitting the mute button regarding Putin’s shut down of natural gas flows to European countries in mid-winter; a manufactured crisis that allowed Russia to blame the Ukraine for the shortages while extorting higher gas transit prices from Kiev.
Beyond blocking U.S. encroachment in its security perimeter, Russia has a long-term security imperative of preventing the spread of radical Islam to its neighboring former Soviet Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. These countries on Russia’s southern border have large Muslim populations and indigenous radical Islamists organizations that threaten Moscow’s national security and hinder its efforts to keep the former Soviet republics within its sphere of influence. Inside Russia, the transformation of Chechnya’s nationalist movement into a jihadist juggernaut supported by its majority Muslim population led to a bloody 12-year succession struggle bordering on ethnic cleansing. There are 20 million self-identified Muslims in Russia, a number that has risen by 40% in the last 15 years. Russian sensitivity to its potential Islamic threat is real, and the destabilization of any of its Central Asian neighbors could be a lightning rod that ignites the fuse.
Obama’s new Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke will undoubtedly tout the benefits of U.S. anti-narcotics initiatives in Afghanistan to curtail the flow of heroin that is devastating Central Asia and Russia. Construction projects, infrastructure development, U.S. dollars and other accoutrements showered on the Central Asian republics will ease the regional economic crisis and revive the failed “Silk Road” strategy of applying American soft power in Central Asia. Of particular concern to Obama’s foreign policy team will be buttressing Tajikistan; the poorest Central Asian country, rife with weapons and narcotics smuggling, and tense ethnic divisions with its Uzbek neighbors that could collapse the nation into a failed state. Such a development would increase the difficulties of stabilizing Afghanistan and heighten US-Russian regional geo-political rivalry.
For the United States and Russia, expanding the War in Afghanistan to the Central Asian steppes, even with a benign act of securing transit routes is a risk they are willing to take to prevent the Taliban from taking power in Kabul. What becomes problematic is the possibility that Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar is not to contending for state power, but destabilizing the Kharzai government to the point where the Taliban can maintain control of a limited number of provinces while expanding its sphere of influence. Indeed, what seems more likely is that the Afghan Taliban is working in concert with the newly emerging Pakistan Taliban and al Queda in an effort to establish a rump confederation that consolidates their joint control of Southeastern Afghanistan, Pakistan ’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Provinces. In short, these forces are carving out a failed state of Pushtanistan in the ungoverned territories along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region.
On January 22, President Obama called Pakistan and Afghanistan “the central front of terrorism,” and spoke of the necessity of eliminating this global threat starting in Afghanistan. By securing Russia’s aid to open new supply lines for NATO and U.S. forces, he just might be falling deeper into al Queda’s deadly trap of extending U.S. forces across Afghanistan, expanding unpopular bombing missions, increasing cross border excursions into Pakistan’s Northwest Territories and exposing more American forces to attack on the Central Asian steppes. The battlefield in Central Asia is being stretched. No one is sure where it will end.