Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
America, don’t “leave us in the lurch” in Afghanistan
One of the first things that U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates did during his trip to India last week was to assure Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that the United States did not intend to cut and run from Afghanistan. America was committed to Afghanistan for the long-term, he said, trying to calm Indian concerns over the Obama administration’s stated plans to begin withdrawing troops from July 2011.
It struck me as quite remarkable that India, long a prickly nation opposed to superpower presence in the region, had so openly pinned its hopes on a prolonged U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Quite a change from the time it would rail against the presence of such “extra-regional” powers.
But the world has changed and India like several other countries in the region, feels more threatened by the spread of Islamist militants than the long arm of a foreign power. Indeed while nobody likes the idea of foreign troops occupying another country, the very prospect of American withdrawal, still more than 18 months away, seems to be sending jitters. Pakistan has been saying all along its not sure how long the United States will remain engaged in Afghanistan. It reminds everyone how it was left holding the can once the U.S. turned away from Afghanistan following the withdrawal of the former Soviet Union.
Come to think of it, it suits quite a few countries nicely that America invests its blood and treasure in Afghanistan while these nations focus on their own development, as some commentators are pointing out. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in a piece written from Taipei said he felt quite envious of the leaders of China, Taiwan and Hong Kong who had far more time to focus on building their countries “than my president whose agenda can be derailed at any moment by a jihadist death cult using exploding underpants.”
Indeed, as this piece titled The Spoils of War notes, while America fights Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents in Afghanistan, China is rapidly expanding investments in the country. In the Afghan province of Logar, the Chinese are mining the Aynak copper deposits, said to be one of the world’s largest, that will feed China’s voracious appetite for raw materials. The Afghan National Army is guarding the area and the roads leading to the mine but this is an army trained and funded by America. While not directly protecting the site, the U.S. army is deployed in Logar. The conclusion is inescapable: American troops have helped make Afghanistan safe for Chinese investment.
“We do the heavy lifting. And they pick the fruit,” the New York Times quotes S. Frederick Starr, the chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, an independent research organization in Washington, as saying. And the Chinese don’t particularly want to get involved in the security of the nation.
A majority of the Chinese want the government to “steer clear of the quagmire of the Afghanistan War, in which the U.S.-led Western powers have been bogged down for eight years,” writes Li Hongmei, an editor and columnist at People’s Daily Online.
And what of the Iranians? It works for them, too, that America is fighting the hardline Sunni Taliban. Iran nearly went to war with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in 1998 and Tehran had armed Afghan Northern Alliance factions against them. Trade between Iran and Afghanistan is booming along an Iranian-built road to the western Afghan city of Herat. Afghanistan has also just opened an Indian-built road from the Iranian border linking the main Afghan highway to Iranian ports.
Tehran wouldn’t want the return of the Taliban, and in that sense, its interests coincide with that of Washington. But America remains an enemy, and so analysts believe that the discovery of Iranian-made weaponry, including sophisticated roadside bombs, in Afghanistan suggests some people are trying to add to the troubles of Western troops. They might be trying to drip feed the insurgents in order to keep U.S. forces tied down and incapable of attacking Iran.
Should the United States really stay on then? This week’s conference in London, aimed at fleshing out the timetable set by Obama on troop withdrawal, will help concentrate minds.
If he had his way, Friedman writes, America would be making its way out of Afghanistan and leaving Pakistan to decide which Taliban it wants to conspire with and which it wants to fight. And let the Palestinians and the Israelis figure out on their own how to make peace.
“The “war on terrorists” has to begin by our challenging the people and leaders over there. If they’re not ready to take the lead, to speak out and fight the madness in their midst, for the future of their own societies, there is no way we can succeed. We’ll exhaust ourselves trying. We’d be better off just building a higher wall,” he writes.