WASHINGTON, D.C.—Whether or not the U.S. knocks off Osama bin Laden, the attack on New York and the capital provides Washington with an extraordinary opportunity to project power for the long term in Central Asia by setting up a pro-Western government in Afghanistan. The U.S. could then oversee a pipeline across that nation from the rich Caspian oil fields to ports in Pakistan, and would be perched to react to political changes in volatile Iran. An outpost in Afghanistan would also give America added leverage with Europe and with Russia, which has always had a heavy hand in the region.
In one fell swoop, the attacks and the American response realign the politics of the world on a scale not seen since the height of the Cold War.
The wild card is Pakistan, a veritable university for fundamentalist terrorists. Early in the week it denied the U.S. rights to base ground troops there, but permitted air rights for planes and perhaps will end up letting some of its territory be used as a staging area for commando raids.
But Pakistan is far from trustworthy. As Ahmed Rashid of the Far Eastern Economic Review reported on the Web site EurasiaNet.org early this week, “After having spent the past seven years providing every conceivable form of military, political, and financial support to the Taliban, Pakistan is essentially now being asked by Washington to help the U.S. bomb the Taliban leadership and their guest Osama bin Laden and topple the Taliban regime.” [See sidebar.]
Almost unnoticed amid the rumors of war was what looked to be a real, if temporary, ceasefire in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
All this comes at a time when the U.S. is waking from decades of having no policy in Central Asia. We ignored Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew. Meanwhile, Bin Laden-run camps and hundreds of other fundamentalist schools in northwest Pakistan transformed the poor, war-torn dregs of Afghan and Pakistani societies into Muslim holy warriors who are now on the loose.
An attack on Afghanistan at this point may drive the Taliban into the mountains, but it won’t touch their power base in Pakistan. Even if we were to pressure Pakistan to shut down the schools, President Pervez Musharaf might not be able to do so, and the entire country could break out in civil war—leaving America smack in the middle of an uncontrollable mess. Our best bet would be to mend fences with Iran, which hates the Taliban, but whose isolation we have been committed to since the days of Jimmy Carter’s botched hostage mission.
Meanwhile, within the U.S. military, there’s already a debate over what to do. The prospect of war in Central Asia revives the internecine political battles of the Reagan era, with the proponents of low-intensity (read: guerrilla) warfare pitting themselves against those who advocate conventional military forces, including planes, missiles, and airborne troops. Guerrilla backers want to take out Muslim extremists with pinpoint operations using commando units such as the Special Forces, Navy Seals, and Rangers, who could be dropped close to their targets from great heights, then settle down and wait for the opportune moment to strike. They would aim to kill someone like Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein with a 50-caliber sniper rifle (a weapon fine-tuned by the IRA against the British). There would be no raping of women, killing of civilians, or long-term engagement. Just in and out. Most important politically, since there are so few commandos involved, American casualties would be small in number. The main brunt of this sort of effort would be placed on the Special Operations section of the military, and especially the elite but small Delta Force, whose size is classified.
Already, though, military sources are salivating over Bush’s decision to pour tens of billions into an antiterrorist effort, which they say would prime the economic pump. It would also lead to more of the same for the military, with cruise missiles, high-level bombing by B2s, and drop-ins by units such as the 82nd Airborne, all grinding on in a protracted and inconclusive military campaign that could last a decade.
By bombing Afghanistan, the U.S. stands to alienate the war-weary destitute who hate the Taliban and might otherwise support an American overthrow of the government. What’s likely to happen is that we’ll try a heavy bombing campaign, attempt to drive out the Taliban, and work to set up a replacement regime. The country could then be ruled by a combo of the U.S., NATO, and local Western-minded Afghans.
That would require the landing of substantial numbers of ground troops. Afghanistan undoubtedly would be hard hit to make it an example, but the real goal would be to project American military power in the region. Afghanistan could be our Fire Base Charlie amid the quarreling warlords of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Such a campaign might see NATO troops in Azerbaijan on the western side of the Caspian Sea. Uzbekistan, which runs across the top of the Caspian, has also indicated it would accept U.S. troops.
This might look like victory, but it’s really a trap. Far from strengthening NATO, a large U.S. presence would drive a wedge between Central Asia and Europe, probably the main reason European nations like Germany and Italy were backing away from the U.S. early this week. By the same token, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan will try to use U.S. support as a lever against Russia.
It’s always possible that this sort of makeshift intervention would benefit U.S. oil interests in the Caspian Sea. While oil reserves there are probably not as large as originally projected, they nonetheless are of considerable size, with the natural gas especially important because western Europe has become so dependent on it. U.S. control of Afghanistan might encourage the building of a pipeline from there to Pakistan and the Indian subcontinent. The problem would be that fundamentalists in Pakistan could just blow it up from time to time.
The lasting effect of trying to transform Afghanistan into a Western proxy is probably counterproductive. Last week, a Moscow paper, Komosomolskaya Pravda, published this interesting take on the situation: “Possibly, the [terrorists’] leadership is deliberately ‘exposing’ certain Islamic countries, such as Libya, Iran, or Iraq, which are suspected of sympathizing with, or supporting, Muslim extremists, but which nevertheless are inclined to have normal relations with the West. The probable acts of retribution against such countries by the Americans will destabilize the situation in them and lead to a change of the regimes there in favor of more radical ones.”
The only bright spot on the horizon is the very dim prospect of a rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran. People there wore black in mourning for the New York attack, signed books of condolences, and left flowers at makeshift shrines. The mood was grim and sorrowful. Religious police unsuccessfully tried to break up a vigil for New York victims. Soccer fans at a stadium for a major game in World Cup competition stopped for a moment of silence. A government official close to President Khatami told the Voice over the weekend, “There is a unique consensus in the world because of this tragedy. Islamic and non-Islamic countries have found an unprecedented will to fight terrorism. The official position of the Iranian government is that it welcomes NATO’s call for collective action on this problem.”
With research and translation by Ed Korasani and Ariston-Lizabeth Anderson.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 18, 2001