November 28, 2011

How to Lose in Afghanistan

 NATO military moves near Afghanistan recently backfired when NATO airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Western diplomats apologized, saying the strikes were “tragic” and “unintentional.” But the Pakistani’s remain angry. For several years the Islamist forces in Afghanistan have been using the wild and mountainous regions of Pakistan as a sanctuary. Reacting to this, NATO aircraft mistakenly pounded Pakistani troops while attempting to strike the enemy. Mistakes of this type are common to military operations, and should have been prevented by commanders tasked with a broader view of operations.

America’s alliance with Pakistan has always been problematic, yet this alliance is essential. Every measure should have been taken to assure the safety of Pakistan’s troops. After all, Pakistan is theologically closer to the Taliban than to us. This is something of a military paradox, and a diplomatic paradox. The modern view suggests that pragmatists – of whatever religious persuasion – should work for peace; that violent radicals need to be contained. So the Americans seek help from Muslim Pakistan to win a battle against Muslim Afghans. At the same time, Pakistani’s crave American friendship, American economic assistance. Pakistan has need of development, and money, and technology. But a alliance of convenience is not always convenient.

A further deterioration of relations between the United States and Pakistan is now inevitable. Popular anger demands satisfaction. The United States does not appear – and has not been, in fact – sufficiently sensitive to Pakistan’s situation. India is not the hated enemy of America, as it is for Pakistan. China is not the military ally, which it is for Pakistan. There are forces at work in this relationship which tend to guarantee conflict and trouble. When Pakistan turns from NATO in disgust, once and finally, the U.S. position in Afghanistan will become strategically untenable. The supply line through Pakistan will be cut off, and the Russians will have the final say (since they control the alternate supply route). We should not suppose that Russia will remain friendly to the NATO presence in Afghanistan when Russian leaders have publicly complained of NATO encirclement and NATO bad faith in Eastern Europe.

The position of NATO forces in Afghanistan is bound to become precarious. These forces are deployed in a landlocked country, surrounded by Iran, Russian-dominated Central Asia, and Pakistan. Without the good will of Pakistan, how can NATO forces continue to fight on Afghan soil? It seems obvious that Pakistani troops should never have been attacked, and NATO forces should never have been used in ways that made such “accidental attacks” possible.  If the goal of NATO is to defeat Islamic terrorism by winning Muslim hearts and minds, the West has bungled badly.

Without Pakistan there is no winning strategy in Afghanistan. The only alternative would be Russian support, as noted above. But that is unlikely to prove viable, especially when we consider recent statements by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, who spoke last week to the Russian people about placing Russia’s Kaliningrad radar station on combat alert because of NATO’s defensive missile plans. Medvedev says Russia has been snubbed by NATO, and Russian concerns are not treated seriously.

Medvedev made it clear that Russia is prepared to “take out any part of the U.S. missile defense system in Europe” if necessary, and to forgo key disarmament measures. “We are not closing the door to negotiations,” Medvedev added. But NATO must change course. While Russian paranoia may be sincere (or maybe not), Medvedev’s speech has implications for NATO’s policy in Afghanistan.  Now that Russia is aligned with China in Central Asia, and China is aligned with Pakistan, it seems that NATO’s position in Afghanistan is about to become hopeless.

Undoubtedly, Washington hopes to resolve all these difficulties through diplomacy. But all disagreements cannot be resolved in this way, especially when the actual intentions of the state actors are taken into account. The governments of Pakistan and Russia do not want NATO to dominate Central Asia.  They do not prefer the triumph of Western values. Russia and Pakistan are nuclear powers with regional interests of their own.

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