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Andrew McKillop

21st Century Wire

It’s incredible. Today’s political puppets prancing around old war grounds, posing for photos and pretending to have a handle on history – the great fight against Germany’s ‘war of aggression’.

Amid all the back-slapping and boozing though, neither of these heads-of-state will be bringing up the painful subject of their own wars of aggression in Afghanistan and in Libya, whilst indulging in their lavish cocktail receptions, dinners and petits fours…

Forgotten Wars, Everywhere

Nicknamed “Flamby” in his own country, if not outside it, France’s Francois Hollande, and alongside new drinking pal Barack Obama, worked the media for what they could get, remembering World War II and the Normandy D-Day landings.

Flamby even gave the Legion d’Honneur medal, France’s highest, to the USA’s Unknown Soldier in Arlington cemetery – and apologized for taking 70 years to do it, calling it a regrettable oversight.

In any case, the German Nazis had their expeditionary forces thrown out of France, but Flamby’s contemporary troops are dug-in deep in Mali and the Central African Republic, in two small but costly, deeply unpopular and hard-to-understand wars with no economic handle.

BOOZING IT UP FRENCH-STYLE: Celebrity politicians Obama and Hollande crack open more bottles.

Official communiques out of Washington, 11 February say the U.S. has “revised plans to withdraw troops” from Afghanistan to allow the White House to wait until Afghan president Hamid Karzai leaves office before completing a security pact with whoever succeeds him. After that, Obama will fix the post-2014 U.S. troop presence, which can range from zero – to a lot less than infinity.

According to government-friendly news outlets, like the NYT and WSJ, this wait-and-see option reflects the growing belief in Washington that there is little chance of repairing relations with Mr. Karzai and persuading him to sign the US-Afghan bilateral security agreement (BSA) before elections scheduled in Afghanistan this spring. The Obama-friendly media affirms that US-installed Karzai is “not going to be part of the solution”, and the US now has no option but to work around him, because Karzai “doesn’t represent the voice of the Afghan people.”

Senior U.S. military and administration officials still contend, despite all the facts, that the US has an “urgent and pressing need” to force Karzai, or his successor to sign the BSA pact. To quote WSJ and NYT, quoting senior US military figures, this is : “because of the implications for North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners who need more time to plan (their) deployments”, their own retreats from this failed colonial war. US military sources immediately add that if neither Mr. Karzai, nor his eventual successor signs the BSA, the US may decide the Zero Option of a “quick and dirty” total retreat from Afghanistan.

‘HAS ANYONE SEEN MY HAT?’ – Karzai was installed as a US puppet in Afghanistan but has since wandered off the reservation.

Afghanistan is Rich in Rare Earth Minerals

This may be nice to imagine as a precious support to Toyota Prius and windmill fans, but the country has already depleted its reserves of Buddha statues. The honest answer is Afghanistan has some rare earth and other deposits of possible or probable economic significance. It is likewise has some reserves of, but is not especially rich in oil, gas or other sought-after minerals, and is even running low on Talibans due to financing problems. World heroin-morphine sales and unit prices continue to retreat due to so many chemical alternatives and substitutes. NATO forces, as well as the Taliban are having problems finding “local financing offsets and counterparts” and are tiptoeing out, rather fast. Colonial wars are expensive. With no economic handle, they end abruptly.

The country’s geopolitical position on the cusp of the Russian, Chinese, Indian, Persian and “Atlantic” empires (west Europe plus USA) may have been enticing and attractive – thirty or 130 years ago – but time and History have moved on. Afghanistan is a former prize in former geopolitical gaming. Its role, weight and significance, today, is close to zero. It is one more dirt-poor underdeveloped country – like Mali or the Central African Republic – with massive adult illiteracy, no infrastructures and no prospects. Afghanistan also offers Islamic fundamentalism of the most barbaric sort as an unwanted side dish. As a result, buyers are rare. 

Hamid Karzai has “walked away” from any agreement with the US designed to save face. The current-revised drawdown plan from the Pentagon, presented to Barack Obama in January, calls for keeping 10 000 American troops in Afghanistan after 2014 at a “limited number of bases”. Relative to Afghanistan’s near-thirty-million population this is not too impressive, but can certainly handle security for several major league football matches at one time. US military commanders quoted by US government-friendly media say the force “is needed to provide a stabilizing presence”.

The Obama administration has been openly skeptical about any “long-term” troop presence which its published statements set at a maximum of 2 years or 24 months. The real comfort zone, for the Obama administration is to have about 500 troops available and on hand, by early 2015, to defend only the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and the escape route to the airport. The once-great geopolitical initiative of the US in Central Asia – Obama style – can be gauged by this “modest and pragmatic” goal.

The Expeditionary Force Tunnels for Victory

American general Joseph Dunford, supreme commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, told newswires, 11 February that the US military “will have all equipment in place in Afghanistan by July to support a post-2014 force that includes 10 000 American troops”.  Equipment is likely to include helicopters and “mine-resistant” troop transport vehicles. Its main role would be to protect a restricted number of bases around the country for training and advising Afghan command units, and also to house American spies and diplomats. The Pentagon is therefore prepared, going into the summer, to accommodate either a presidential decision to keep 10 000 troops in Afghanistan post-2014 or a presidential order to pull out all troops by December 31, 2014 except for the embassy and airport escape route protectors.

According to NBC News, the question of how will the US military exit Afghanistan sets its own major problems, which have to be settled “going into summer”. NBC says it may rely in part on a tunnel that’s been called the “world’s most treacherous,” due to it being so narrow, badly ventilated and badly maintained. Several people die each year in the Salang tunnel from the carbon monoxide that persists in it. In 1982, a fire reportedly trapped and killed almost 1 000 Soviet troops in the tunnel. This Soviet-built tunnel and US escape route built in the 1960s was an “engineering marvel” of its time. Neglected for decades, it has potholes so deep cars and trucks get stuck in them, exhaust fumes are so thick drivers have problems seeing other vehicles – and that is the Salang tunnel’s state today – after the USA spent $19.5 million of American public money “improving it”.

US troops are forbidden to use Pakistan’s main border checkpoints – for reasons which feature toll fees and who will pay them. Withdrawing through Pakistan, to be sure, also has security problems but the costs are judged much too high, making the Salang tunnel escape through Uzbekistan and Tadjikistan preferable and feasible, with lower passage fees to pay. Current estimates by US military planners, cited by American media, is the US will need to  remove about 28 000 vehicles and 40 000 shipping containers from Afghanistan in the period from July to end-December, with more needed if the “zero option” of total retreat is decided.

Who Wants the Shatterbelts?

Modern geopolitics, at least since the 1970s, defines shatterbelts as the geopolitical equivalent of tectonic plate subduction and emergence zones. They exist and are powerful – but their emergence and evolution is complex and unpredictable. Chaos theory applies to the shatterbelts which have also spread across Sahel Africa, as “Flamby” and the French taxpayer have found to their cost.

Older or ‘traditional’ geopolitics and its theories call the shatterbelts “disputed zones” where the Great Powers have no theoretical option but stake a place, due to the rich Heartlands behind each belt.

Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which we can note and underline was the root cause of modern djihadi terror or Islamic irredentism and the al-Qaeda phenomenon, it is impossible not to recognize that the “Western or Atlantic” powers, and the Russians see the regional situation in Central Asia as ultimately hinging on the kind of role that India and China may play. The reason is the Western great powers including Russia, have disengaged.

Excited talk of a few years back in time, in US Think Tanks of “the New Silk Road Strategy” has disappeared from the policy briefings and gone down the memory hole. Both Russia, in the 1980s, and Pakistan since 2001 have been destabilized by this never-avowed, never-described Strategy. Importantly, neither Beijing nor New Delhi will ever get militarily entangled in Afghanistan. China has to find and fund a smart strategy to turn Afghanistan into an economic engine and develop whatever Rare Earths it can find on, and under the ground – for example copper, iron ore, gold, lithium. Afghanistan’s geographical role as a transport corridor and platform could also in theory interest the Chinese if not Indians, but at massive infrastructure cost and with a multi-decade timeframe.

Taliban hostility towards both Chinese communists and Indian hindus is as extreme as its hostility to the West.  China has to date made only the slightest moves towards staking a symbolic claim. When President Xi Jinping visited SE Asia in October 2013, he outlined a “Maritime Silk Road” plan based on expanding sea-lane connectivity in Asia, to large regional approval and support. While the Americans failed to gain control over Central Asian resources by pursuing a colonial expeditionary strategy, China is achieving them by pursuing capital markets and trade expansion strategy. China’s trade is already far greater than Russia’s role, and dwarf’s America’s trade role, in Central Asia.

In all cases however, Central Asia’s economic attractiveness is only slightly higher than the extreme-low attraction of the wider Sahel African region, from Senegal to Sudan. The low economic roles of these regions dictates a low-intensity military and security strategy, in the absence of special factors, either economic or security. Both China and India recognize these realities, in both regions, but understanding this new (and old) geopolitical reality is difficult – so it seems –  for the US and France.

 As the Afghan war rapidly winds down, and the low-intensity French colonial war in Sahel Africa fitfully heats up – and eats about 4 million euros of French public money, per day – these new geopolitical truths are set to have a major role deciding what happens next. Moves by China and India to stake a claim in Central Asia are of course likely – but will be slow and modest to start.  As the West and Russia disengage, the power vacuum and shatterbelts opening up, in Sahel Africa and Central Asia, will throw up new and unexpected economic and political opportunities – for new players including any local power factions able to organize and structure the economy.

READ MORE FROM THIS AUTHOR AT: 21st Century Wire McKillop Files



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