Monday, 9 June 2014

The Strategic Value of Afghanistan to the US in the New Great Game.

With the prisoner exchange of a US soldier for five top Taliban commanders, there has been a lot of talk about whether Bergdahl was a deserter, if trading him for five seasoned 'terrorists' could be worth it and whether they could possibly pose a threat to the US and US citzens.

One thing that remains uncontested is the claim that Obama is committed to withdrawal of  the US military presence by 2016. This is quite clearly not the case.

Obama is only winding down the conventional US military forces in Afghanistan. But many US contracted mercenaries are set to stay. in 2013 it was estimated that out of 110,404 contractors still working in Afghanistan, some 33,444 are American. Hence the use of the term 'drawdown'.

The US is not withdrawing from Afghanistan until its geopolitical ambitions to create a state stable enough to ensure the construction of the TAPI pipeline is ensured. As outlined in visits to Central Asia and India in 2011 by Hillary Clinton, the New Silk Road strategy is considered a vital US interest.

The construction of the TAPI pipeline is essential if Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India are to be integrated into an economic community of interest and aligned to the US more than towards global competitors such as China and regional powers that threaten US interests such as Iran.

The value of the TAPI pipeline is that it would supply gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India as a substitute for Iran's rival IP pipeline. The war aims of the US in Afghanistan dovetail with the policy of isolating and imposing sanctions upon Iran so as to curtail its influence in both Asia and the Middle East.

Though 'nation building' was dropped in around 2011, the emphasis has shifted towards trying to forge a deal between the Taliban and Kabul so as to facilitate the removal of US ground troops and push forward the New Silk Road strategy (the TAPI could not be built if the Taliban threatened it ).

The prisoner swap reflects the new calculation that if the Taliban continues to offer a threat to US interests in Afghanistan, then drones can be used against them and US troops are going to be removed from Afghanistan anyway and replaced with US trained Afghan troops.

One reason the Obama administration has focused on getting Bergdahl and US soldiers home is that it does not want to be seen as doing deals with the Taliban, a group often conflated with Al Qaida so as to provide a justification for 'staying the course' in Afghanistan as part of the global 'war on terror'.

The war in Afghanistan was never only about counter-terrorism and for the best part of the last decade it was about realising other war aims that have never been clearly outlined in public. But only the credulous believe that the US fought the war for the official reasons given or that it won't retain a military presence.

In fact, as part of the new Pivot to Asia strategy, the US is bound to preserve a substantial military presence in Afghanistan so as to counter China's rival new Silk route strategies. With China now rejecting the IP pipeline and backing TAPI, there is the danger that it could increase its influence in the 'AfPak' zone.

China's 'march west' indicates a strategy of being the dominant power on the Eurasian 'World Island' so as to gain access to energy and as a counter to the US Pivot To Asia which is mostly concerned about controlling the sea lanes and oil tanker routes from the Middle East to China.

With the US finding problems finding a base in Central Asia ( Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan have not wanted US bases in recent years), Afghanistan, with its "supersized" Bagram Air Base, will continue to be vital to check China's plans to expand its influence west.

Enclosed within Bagram, US and NATO service personnel should be relatively safe and the drones would be doing the work in attacking targets and monitoring the region from the Bagram, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Salerno bases, ones that the US has no intention of closing.

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