US handover of Afghanistan to Taliban: Placing new puzzle on region’s table – II
by Ramtanu Maitra on 26 Jan 2022 1 Comment

Were Central Asia and Russia America’s main concerns?


That President Bush’s rebuilding of Afghanistan was an absurd concept became evident early on. The reconstruction of Afghanistan in 2002 had inherent difficulties, the most important of which is the country’s geographical location as a land-locked nation, bordering Pakistan - the principal backer and protector of the Taliban - and Iran, whose leaders have been keen to see the back of the United States at the earliest. Moreover, proposed rebuilding a la the Marshall Plan required brigades of reasonably skilled manpower that Afghanistan did not have. It also needed plentiful resources.


Beyond a handful of known untapped mineral reserves, which were difficult to access due to security concerns, Afghanistan had little to offer. It had no comparative advantage in any lawful trade. It still doesn’t. Narcotics - heroin, opium and, more recently, methamphetamine - illegal mining, and logging provide its most significant income streams. Two decades later, after spending close to a trillion dollars, Washington finally abandoned that concept without explaining to the American people what it was all about.


Washington’s failure in Afghanistan during these 20 years took many forms and shapes. It’s failure to set up an administration in Kabul that is accepted by most Afghans; its failure to prevent large-scale financial corruption within the administration that it had helped to establish; and its failure to develop an Afghan military under a leadership that would remain steadfast in protecting the administration in Kabul, and not align quickly with the Taliban, were only three of many other failures that were well-known to Washington during America’s extended stay. In 2008, the US Congress created the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), an independent agency, to provide objective oversight of Afghanistan reconstruction projects and activities. SIGAR conducted audits and investigations to: (1) promote efficiency and effectiveness of reconstruction programs and (2) detect and prevent waste, fraud and abuse.


Its latest report, What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction, published in Aug 2021, lists blatant failures carried out through three American presidents’ tenures. The report is a long one, as is its assessment of US failures in Afghanistan. The Executive Summary notes: “The US government has now spent 20 years and $145 billion trying to rebuild Afghanistan, its security forces, civilian government institutions, economy, and civil society. The Department of Defense (DOD) has also spent $837 billion on war-fighting, during which 2,443 American troops and 1,144 allied troops have been killed and 20,666 US troops injured. Afghans, meanwhile, have faced an even greater toll. At least 66,000 Afghan troops have been killed. More than 48,000 Afghan civilians have been killed, and at least 75,000 have been injured since 2001 - both likely significant underestimations.”


Twenty years is close to a generational span, and throughout this long period, being by far the largest donor and its keeper, the United States had its hands firmly on the controls in Afghanistan. It is surprising then that both the executive and the legislative branches of the United States government chose to ignore the ground realities that SIGAR clearly spelled out in its regular reports - 53 quarterly reports and 11 “lessons learned” reports, among others. Because it was clearly an absurdly wasteful concept, Washington must have considered its presence in Afghanistan essential for some broader purpose.


Could that broader objective be issuing a cautionary note to Russia - the never-to-be-forgotten enemy? The prospect of a decent US-Russia relationship was nipped in the bud by the Clinton Administration soon after the Soviet Union was dismantled in 1991. The Clinton administration insisted that NATO is the only legitimate security organization for Europe and Eurasia and that that Euro-Atlantic security architecture must be extended to the Eurasian space surrounding Russia. It is well known that the extension of NATO represented a constant threat to the Russian security and an attempt to encircle Russia in Moscow’s eyes. Nonetheless, the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was initially welcomed in Russia, and Moscow, like Tehran, had shared intelligence with Washington.


Over the years, however, Moscow became wary of Washington’s true intent. Soon after the US takeover of Kabul, upheavals in the formerly Soviet-controlled Central Asia began. A “rose revolution” in Georgia in 2003, an “orange revolution” in Ukraine in December 2004 and then a “tulip revolution” in Kyrgyzstan in early 2005 took place - all in Russia’s backyard. These revolutions were supported by Washington, and they affected other post-Soviet countries.


According to one analyst, organizing the color revolutions involved satisfying four criteria. First, the incumbent leader of the regime must be highly unpopular and isolated to the point of becoming ‘lame-duck’. Second, the anti-regime forces must secure support not only of the local media but also of some “independent” foreign media. Third, the revolution should not be ideological; it must be enacted for the sake of better national integration, freedom, democracy, and economic development, and the demand for such improvement should be widespread among the population. Lastly, the anti-regime forces should also be motivated by grievances against the corrupt government supported by a foreign state, which the locals do not like. (Explaining the Color Revolutions: Poh Phaik Thien, The Chinese University of Hong Kong: July 31, 2009). The “color revolutions” in various Central Asian countries met some of those criteria; significantly, however, the one bright, shining common thread was that the targeted regimes were not anti-Russia.


The idea that the US presence in Afghanistan was linked to Washington’s intent to have a military presence in the Eurasian space surrounding Russia is further bolstered by the recent clamor within the Biden administration to secure bases in Central Asia following its withdrawal from Afghanistan. According to a Politico news item citing “unnamed” US senators who attended classified hearings in late-September, “the US is in talks with countries that border Afghanistan about housing ‘over the horizon’ counterterrorism operations that would allow the US military to more easily surveil and strike targets in the Taliban-controlled nation.” The news item also said: “A trio of the military’s top officials briefed lawmakers behind closed doors about the discussions which are taking place with the governments of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and others, the senators said.” (US intensifies talks to use Russian bases for Afghan counterterrorism ops: Andrew Disiderio and Lara Seligman, Politico: Sept 29, 2021). In other words, the US military, which ceases to exist in Afghanistan, now needs a presence in Central Asia.


(To be concluded…)

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