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Prioritizing Pakistan at the Expense of Afghanistan
Posted: Thursday, September 4, 2003

by Matthew Riemer

Following September 11, the United States' reasons for invading Afghanistan and its goals there were quite clear and little challenged; indeed, Operation Enduring Freedom -- as the U.S. dubbed its efforts in Central Asia -- was portrayed as a spontaneous retaliation to the attacks on Washington and New York. The goal of the military effort was to eliminate Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network -- or at least strike a blow to their power and potential -- and to remove the Taliban and some of their top figures such as Mullah Mohammad Omar from positions of power and influence. Nearly two years later, this assessment of the war seems terribly oversimplified and no longer that useful.

Iraq has taken over center stage in the "war on terrorism," as officials from President George W. Bush to civil administrator for Iraq, Paul Bremer, continue to plug Iraq as just that: the new battlefield in Washington's nebulous war. Afghanistan has literally fallen off the radar screen. Of course, the country still exists and progress is not going terribly well there. Oodles of money promised to Afghanistan amidst much pomp and pride in Tokyo last year has yet to materialize. The government of Hamid Karzai appears to be not only an interim one but an impotent one, as the Western-educated Pashtun essentially has no control beyond Kabul. Infrastructure rebuilding is moving at a snail's pace with the Iranians involved as much as the Americans. Warlords, many of them undeniable war criminals, seem to hold as much sway and wield as much influence as they did in 1993 or in 1983. And now over the past several months, the Taliban has been regrouping and re-solidifying its base amongst the southern and eastern Pashtuns along the Pakistani border as well as with those disaffected with the ineffective two year U.S. occupation.

However, this current situation may be more or less what Washington wants. Afghanistan is a key state in a large region -- Central and South Asia -- that is quickly becoming the more important hub of international terrorism. No longer is it the Middle East per se but instead the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and even India. It is within this context that Afghanistan's situation can be best understood.

Pakistan is undeniably the most important country in the region, and Washington's relationship with Islamabad is the chief determining factor in what happens to Afghanistan. The country currently led by President General Pervez Musharraf is the second most populous Muslim country in the world, is a nuclear power that has come dangerously close to conflict with India on more than one occasion, shares an extensive and ethnically concentrated border -- probably one of the most porous in the entire region -- whose population is a natural training ground for future Taliban, is one whose intelligence apparatus -- the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) -- has been intimate with the CIA for decades, and is one of the most likely locations of Osama bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda members.

For these reasons, it is in the United States' interests to have as much influence as possible in the Pakistani leadership, both within the Musharraf camp and in the ISI. But such a relationship will not always bode well for Afghanistan -- and it hasn't -- especially when it comes to that country's rebuilding process -- both infrastructural and political. Pakistan and Afghanistan are regional rivals, and the new Afghan nation envisioned by war advocates and idealists two years ago is one distinctly counter to the interests of its large neighbor to the east and south. Essentially, this causes the greatest impediment to the United States being able to do exactly what it wants in the region and is the reason that U.S. strategy may be to keep Afghanistan destabilized under a weak government at its behest rather than developing it into an economically and militarily strong state -- one that would inevitably clash with Pakistan.

The greatest appeal of a continually destabilized Afghanistan for the United States is ease of navigation. The U.S. may be fairly reluctant to put its troops in harms way -- frequently using proxy armies and security forces they've trained -- but Washington has no problem remaining in the area militarily with airbases in range of Russia, Iran, China, and North Korea.

A weak and unstable Afghanistan is also more beholden to Washington, at least with Hamid Karzai leading the government in Kabul. One of the reasons for this is that the stronger Afghanistan becomes the more independent of the U.S. it becomes, which would facilitate more intimate relationships -- ranging from economic to military to infrastructural arrangements --with many of its neighbors and regional powers such as Russia, Iran, and India. Washington tried for years to build pipelines in Afghanistan and heavily lobbied the first incarnation of the Taliban, so it's unlikely that the U.S. will allow future projects to go to foreign investors in the context of a modernized and independent Afghanistan.

Specifically, a reemerging Taliban alongside reports of al-Qaeda activity also gives the United States the perfect pretext to remain active in the region. This affords the U.S. the luxury of being able to closely watch the Pakistan-India conflict and to follow the political destinies of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan.

So the United States has many reasons to maintain a significant and long-term presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia, and the instability that the former has displayed for the last two years and seems likely to display for some time to come cannot be seen as a wholly undesirable situation by policymakers in Washington.

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