Long-term US presence in Iraq, Afghanistan & Pakistan on anvil
by Ramtanu Maitra on 03 Jul 2009 0 Comment

On June 30, US troops began withdrawing from Iraqi cities and towns as part of the Status of Forces Agreement that was ratified by the Iraqi Parliament last November. The agreement also stipulates that all American troops must leave the country by 2011. However, it would be naïve to assume at this point of time that Washington would withdraw all its troops from Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Pakistan in foreseeable future.

Observers in Washington point out that the United States will maintain bases in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan for years to come. Meanwhile, France has set up a naval base in Abu Dhabi; the capital of United Arab Emirates will be home to 400 to 500 French personnel from the Navy, Army and Air Force and will effectively control the Strait of Hormuz, which connects the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. This is France's first permanent military base in the Persian Gulf.

French naval base in the Gulf

According to the US Energy Information Administration, an average of about 15 tankers carrying 16.5 to 17 million barrels of crude oil pass through the Strait of Hormuz every day. That represents 40% of the world’s seaborne oil shipments, and 20% of all world shipments. The French base will start receiving its first warships in the next few weeks, the officials said, and will also become one of the key support points for an international naval task force fighting piracy off the Somali coast.

In his late-May visit to the Gulf to inaugurate the Abu Dhabi base, French President Nicholas Sarkozy also made high-profile visits to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain to showcase military hardware, the Rafale multi-role combat jet in particular. Dassault Aviation has yet to find an overseas buyer for the aircraft, essential to keep the production line going so the plane maker can supply the French air force, the jet’s only customer, observers point out.

In essence, the French base will augment the US military presence in this volatile area and will act as a compliment to the US plan to maintain its military presence to secure the area. It is expected that the Obama administration in Washington will roll out ample reasons in the near future for keeping such a military base. Recent eruption of extreme violence in Iraq, prior to the US withdrawal, may act as a convenient cover to justify such long-term presence.

About 130,000 US troops are in Iraq and will still be available for combat operations if needed by their Iraqi counterparts. An unspecified number of troops are staying in cities to advise and train Iraqi forces. US troop levels are not set to decline significantly until a gradual drawdown begins this fall as part of a security agreement that calls for all US combat forces to leave Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010.

Meanwhile, the top US military commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, speaking at his base outside of Baghdad on the day the US troops moved out of urban area, pointed his finger at Iran, one of the members of Bush administration’s ‘axis of evil,’ and said Iran still supports and trains militants who carry out attacks — mostly with mortars and sophisticated roadside bombs — inside Iraq.

In Pakistan, the Obama administration is significantly expanding the US military role beyond that pursued by the Bush administration, directly employing US military force against anti-government Pakistani guerrillas involved only marginally, if at all, in attacks on US forces in neighbouring Afghanistan, according to a February  article in the New York Times. The article was based upon two separate missile attacks carried out on Feb. 14 and Feb. 16 and was attributed to Washington’s green signal to the expansion of “covert war run by the Central Intelligence Agency inside Pakistan, attacking a militant network seeking to topple the Pakistani government.”

Subsequent to the disclosure by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair, Senate Intelligence Committee,  at a Senate hearing  that the US campaign of Predator-launched CIA missile strikes against Islamic extremist targets along Pakistan’s northwestern border are carried out of a Pakistani base, a Google Earth image which was subsequently removed from the website, showed  what appear to be three Predator drones outside a hangar at the end of the runway at the Shamsi airbase in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Baluchistan. After the US intelligence committee riled against Sen. Feinstein about her statement, almost a week later, a senior US official told FOX News that the US was in fact launching Predator UAV strikes from at least one base in Pakistan, confirming the statement made by Sen. Feinstein.

Military presence inside Pakistan

The Times reported that the CIA was secretly using Shamsi to launch the Predator drones that observe and attack Al Qaeda and Taliban militants around Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. In fact, the US Special Forces used the airbase during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but the Pakistani Government said in 2006 that the Americans had left and both sides have since denied repeatedly that Washington was using Pakistani bases.

Islamabad’s denial of the continuing use of the Shamsi base by the US military raises the question: how many US bases are now in operation in Pakistan?  According to former Pakistani Army Chief, Gen. Aslam Beg, US troops are using another base in Tarbela as nerve centre, and carrying out operations in areas like Waziristan, FATA and even Afghanistan.  Gen. Beg made that claim in an article published by The Nation, a Pakistani news daily, on Feb.15. No official denial of that claim has since been recorded.

In addition to the  existence of the  Shamsi  base, denied initially by both Washington and Islamabad,  and the Tarbela base, the existence of which has neither been admitted nor denied,  the New York Times on Feb. 22, 2009, published an article by Eric Schmitt and Jane Perlez , reporting  respectively from Bara, Peshawar and Islamabad. It said more than 70 United States military advisers and technical specialists are secretly working in Pakistan to help its armed forces battle al Qaeda and the Taliban in the country’s lawless tribal areas, quoting unnamed American military officials.

The article pointed out that “the Americans are mostly Army Special Forces soldiers who are training Pakistani Army and paramilitary troops, providing them with intelligence and advising on combat tactics,” the officials said. “They do not conduct combat operations… They make up a secret task force, overseen by the United States Central Command and Special Operations Command. It started last summer, with the support of Pakistan’s government and military, in an effort to root out Qaeda and Taliban operations that threaten American troops in Afghanistan and are increasingly destabilizing Pakistan. It is a much larger and more ambitious effort than either country has acknowledged,” the officials told the Times.

Both the Obama administration and the Zardari administration have chosen to maintain complete silence over the disclosure. Blanket statements are issued from time to time by Islamabad and Washington that say the US troops were not operating within Pakistan. However, not forcing the New York Times to withdraw its claims indicates that what the article has said is known to quite a few and all the voices cannot be muted. It also makes clear that despite what the Obama administration says against expanding military actions in that area, Washington is pursuing, if not enhancing, military operations in the area unleashed initially by the previous Bush administration.

This view of the Obama administration becomes evident when one looks at the US policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan since President Obama assumed office. President Obama has sent 11,000 more troops already, and 10,000 more troops are waiting in the wings ready to join before this year is over. Beyond that, what is not widely acknowledged is that the United States is in the process of setting up eight new bases within Afghanistan. It is a foregone conclusion that most, if not all, of these bases are being set up for permanent residence of US troops.

Bases galore in Afghanistan

In fact, back in 2005, the then Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Richard Myers told reporters in Kabul that the United States enjoys good relations in Afghanistan and Central Asia. He said he will soon make a recommendation to President Bush about building permanent US bases in Afghanistan. “At this point we are in discussions with the Afghan government in terms of our long-term relationship, remembering that for the moment, the coalition has work to do here, the United States has work to do here, and that is where our focus is right now,” he said on that occasion.

He went on to add: “Pakistan, to be honest with you, I think they will not mind that because they may think that it is a good way to countervail India, provided they [Pakistan] themselves have good relations with the US.”

Also to be noted, in 2005, the then No. 2 Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and later the Republican Party presidential candidate for 2008, Arizona Sen. John McCain, during his visit to Afghanistan told reporters in Kabul and following his talks with the Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the United States needs permanent military bases in Afghanistan to protect its “vital national security interests” in the region.

Asked by Washington reporters about McCain’s comments regarding permanent US bases in Afghanistan, then-Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said, “It's premature to even consider something like that.” He said there are no such discussions under way with the Afghan government.

Despite what Di Rita said, the author documented in an article with the Asia Times, US Scatters Bases to Control Eurasia, on March 30, 2005, that the United States was already in the process of beefing up its military presence in Afghanistan, at the same time encircling Iran. Washington will set up nine new bases in Afghanistan in the provinces of Helmand, Herat, Nimroz, Balkh, Khost and Paktia, the article said.

In January 7, 2009, in an article, US Adds Eight Bases in Afghanistan, with Human Events, author and former Washington Times reporter, Rowan Scarborough reported “the US Army is building eight major operating bases in southern Afghanistan in an expansion that underscores a new, larger troop commitment to try to defeat the stubborn Taliban insurgency.”  He pointed out that “spokesman for Fluor Corp., the global construction company selected by the Army to build the new forward operating bases or FOBs, declined to comment to Human Events: ‘It has not been announced.’ The Army did not respond to questions emailed by Human Events… But two defense sources told Human Events the company will build eight of the largest FOBs in Afghanistan in the Kandahar area and other southern Afghanistan locations. This area is the birthplace of the radical Taliban movement that seized control of the country in the 1990s and was ousted from power by the US in 2001.”

It is evident that locating of these new bases in southern Afghanistan is indicative that the United States will continue to stay within a close striking distance of Iran. At the same time, the objective of setting up permanent bases in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan may have a lot to do with Central Asia – a highly strategic region bordering Russia, China and the Indian subcontinent, and comprising of a number of weak and unstable countries.

Geopolitical move, but what about Russia?

In a recent paper, Challenges and Opportunities for the Obama Administration in Central Asia, with the Strategic Studies Institute, a part of the US Army War College, Stephen Blank pointed out that “a successful strategy in regard to Afghanistan cannot stop at its borders or even at Pakistan’s borders. Rather, it must embrace the entire Central Asian world of which Afghanistan is an integral part.”

“At the same time General Bantz J. Craddock, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, and thus the Commander in Chief of NATO forces in Afghanistan, also warned that the United States and its allies will need to keep large numbers of forces there for at least a decade and maintain a military presence for decades after that. General Craddock further linked the war in Afghanistan to the second major crisis roiling Central Asia, the global economic crisis, because that will strike at the financial capability and political will of allies to continue contributing to this war,” Blank noted.

It is evident that a number of factors are at play which throws light at why the United States would like to have permanent military bases in the region, To begin with, the Central Asian nations remain highly unstable and uncertain of its medium and long-range future. Growth rates in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan have dropped steeply. In particular, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are in severe economic depression with high unemployment rates and security threats of the Islamic extremists, funded by Saudi Arabia and trained in Pakistan.

According to Blank, countries like Tajikistan that are excessively in debt to foreign lenders probably have no discernible means of paying them back. And countries like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are thus replying with “beggar thy neighbour” policies towards weaker states like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. 

“Indeed, Tajikistan has previously accused Uzbekistan of seeking to destabilize it by organizing an explosion near its supreme court. Kyrgyzstan Minister for Development and Trade Akylbek Japarov stated in November 2008, ‘Our state is effectively on the verge of the financial crisis,’ although he was reprimanded for saying so,” Blank adds.

On the other hand, permanent military bases in Afghanistan overseeing the region may pose problems to the United States in its relations with Russia, in particular. There are indications that Russia would like to keep the Central Asian nations, former members of the erstwhile Soviet Union, under its overall influence. The Russian effort to influence Kyrgyzstan to oust the United States from its base at Manas is a case in point. In addition, a part of Russia’s motivation stems from the current economic crisis as it is attempting to forge a ruble union and economic bloc among it and Central Asian states to shore up the ruble’s value.

At the same time, Russia is concerned about terrorism. It has not succeeded, at least yet, to secure its southern flank and north Caucasus remains as unstable as ever. Russia has also been seriously affected by heroin and opium that flows out of Afghanistan through Central Asia into Russia. As a result, it would be fair to state that Russia actually fears the United States and NATO losing in Afghanistan. Moscow has indicated arms supply to the Afghan President Hamid Karzai, although such an agreement cannot take place without discussions and agreements with the United States and NATO.

What could be the nature of such an agreement, one may ask. On Jan. 13, 2009, Sergei Rogov, director of the Institute for the Study of the USA and Canada in Moscow, speaking in Washington provided the audience with a formulation of such an agreement. He said on that occasion: “The only way to achieve some stabilization of the situation in Afghanistan is to invite Russia to join the IFOR (International Force - known otherwise as the International Security Assistance Forces, ISAF). Russia should accept responsibility for Regional Economic Reconstruction Teams in Northern provinces. Russian teams should be supported by security personnel. The key problem will be to include Russia in the political decision-making mechanism on Afghanistan while Russia remains a non-member of NATO. A possible solution may be giving additional functions to the NATO-Russia Council, or creation of a special body with decision-making authority. The Soviet experience in Afghanistan makes Russia very unenthusiastic about another engagement in this county. It will demand an extra effort from the new US Administration.” 

The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review News Services Inc.

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