Saturday, 30 July 2016

US and NATO in Afghanistan 2016 : Still a War of Energy Geopolitics in the New Great Game .

The Afghanistan War drags on and while the West has managed to extricate itself from a war in which it would pay a publicly unacceptable blood price-and shifted that on to Western trained Afghan troops-there seems to be no explanation as to what it is that the US and NATO are actually trying to achieve in 2016.

One rationale for the US and NATO to remain in Afghanistan in 2016 after official "drawdown" is to defend a central war ambition that was once derided as a "conspiracy theory" -the construction of the TAPI pipeline. The war was never quite only about the stated purposes, from 'keeping Western streets safe' to women's rights.

The gas pipeline plans were mentioned by antiwar critics from the outset back in 2001-2002. However,the way many saw the Al Qaida terrorist attacks as 'allowed' by the Bush administration so as to provide an excuse for sinister 'neocons' such as Dick Cheney to justify invading Afghanistan to build a pipeline led to ridicule.

It was absurd to suggest the US entered Afghanistan just so Cheney's Halliburton company-or other big corporations-could possibly benefit from the construction of what was then known as the UNOCAL pipeline. These theories thus were said to represent 'emotive' arguments that the West was being 'imperialist' against Islamic lands.

Yet even the very idea the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan could ever about long-term economic and political goals was dismissed by the BBC's Malcolm Haslett in October 2001 as not adding up because as regards 'export pipelines' it ' it simply is not true that Afghanistan is the main alternative to Russia'. 

Haslett opined 'very few western politicians or oil companies have taken Afghanistan seriously as a major export route - for the simple reason that few believe Afghanistan will ever achieve the stability needed to ensure a regular and uninterrupted flow of oil and gas'. Yet, if anything was a mere theory, it was Haslett's rationalisation.

Haslett , of course, seems to have taken what politicians said at face value and ignored the very obvious flaw in his argument. If politicians did not believe Afghanistan 'will ever' stabilise Afghanistan ,then that would have come as news to them given the emphasis they were putting on 'nation-building' even back then.

Haslett represented a BBC that was failing in its job to scrutinise the claims of the powerful, something that was later revealed in its failure to challenge the absurd propaganda and spin that accompanied Tony Blair's drive for justifying war in Iraq in late 2002 to March 2003. Oil too was written off as not important.

The idea the occupation of Afghanistan did not have as an aim the construction of a pipeline-because a southern pipeline through the Caucasus was the main ambition at the time-ignores the extent to which the Afghan pipeline was seen as much as a geopolitical interest and development project as a potential source of gas for the West.

All this would have come as a surprise to the Afghan energy minister at that time who freely admitted to Lutz Klevemann, when interviewed, that much of the interest the Western powers were showing in Afghanistan was connected to the clear geopolitical benefits that a trans-Afghan pipeline would bring.

It is recorded in Klevemann's The New Great Game Blood and Oil in Central Asia ( 2003). The collapse of the USSR in 1991 and the creation of new oil rich post-Soviet republics in Central Asia led the US to plan asserting its influence in Eurasia and so to replace Britain's old imperial role in the region in the late nineteenth century.

With Russia trying to reassert its influence once more too, as the Russia Commonwealth of Independent States, Afghanistan occupied a vital piece of strategic real estate as a 'land bridge' connecting Central Asia with the Indian Subcontinent. As such a pipeline between Turkmenistan and India would have great benefits.

For a start a trans-Afghan pipeline would help provide essential energy supplies to Pakistan,a nation with a burgeoning population and so help both it align towards the West rather than with either Iran to the west or else China; this would be part of a broader geostrategy of 'containing' China as well as drawing India away from Russia.

So even before the TAPI project became formalised, this time without the Taliban as in was in the late 1990s, in the period between 2005-2006 ( and it has been set back many times by the hazardous security environment ), it was known that it was a strategic interest that would require a US military presence in Central Asia.

A gas pipeline from Turkmenistan through Pakistan and then India, with outlets to the sea and for LNG exports would provide much needed revenue to rebuild the failed Afghan state. However, for TAPI to be secure it needs US and NATO to train forces capable of protecting the pipeline against  insurgents such as the ousted Taliban.

The TAPI pipeline finally started construction in 2016, just over a year since the media recycled official claims of a US-NATO 'drawdown' in Afghanistan. But the clue is in the wording of 'public diplomacy'. 'Drawdown' means in fact reduction and not withdrawal which very much mean to 'draw out' as a final removal of troops.

That has not happened and was never going to and not just because of a 'resurgent Taliban' that has, once more in 2016, mean that the withdrawal ( touted before the end of 2014 as 'drawdown ) has been slowed down. Reduction in troops numbers, in any case, would not mean closing the colossal Bagram Air Base.

The reason is that Central Asia is so strategically important in the New Great Game and because of its great fossil fuel wealth. As such it is set to play a role as one region that could ensure the energy security of NATO states and for it to influence major regional players by offering an alternative locus of power to Russia, Iran and China in Central Asia,

So the war is set to go on indefinitely precisely because the stakes are so high. As with largely oil free Syria, and the need to rollback ISIS, Afghanistan is an important land because of the resources in states adjacent to it and because pipelines through it would connect to huge energy markets. Control over them is a strategic goal.

As Euronews reported in December 2015 ( TAPI: A Pipeline for Peace and Stability )
'TAPI’s progress may be blighted by deadly regional conflicts. The pipeline will pass a dangerous route through Afghanistan’s Kandahar province and the neighboring Quetta region of Pakistan – the heartland of the Taliban militancy.
India’s Vice President, Mohammad Hamid Ansari, told euronews the partners are aware of the challenges that lie ahead: “We must recognise that the forces of violence and disruption can no longer be allowed to threaten the quest for economic development and security of our people.”
Daud Shah Sabah, Afghanistan’s Mines and Petroleum minister said: “We have successfully implemented the security structure of the biggest mining project in Afghanistan. It’s successfully done. We have that model and we will implement it in TAPI as well.”
“We hope that the terrorist groups that are coming from outside into Afghanistan will be expelled by the communities once the community has an asset there for them, which is the TAPI pipeline,” he added.
In order to diversify its natural gas markets, Ashgabad has already reached tentative agreements with Turkey, Japan, and South Korea. The European Union, which is looking to decrease its dependency on Russia, also expects to start receiving natural gas supplies from Turkmenistan by 2019.'
It ought to be remembered too that Helmland ,a key opium growing region controlled by the Taliban and the region through which the TAPI pipeline is set to run. The energy security dimension of this war and the geopolitics is seldom mentioned in the media, though US State Department press conferences state plainly it as an aim.

It has long been recognised that the Taliban is not one force and that there divisions within it that could be exploited so as to bring about a negotiated ceasefire between more 'moderate' Taliban factions and Kabul. This would be the only way in which provinces such as Helmland could be 'pacified'.

So long as the Taliban are excluded from having a role in Afghanistan's political process they have every interest in thwarting Kabul and its economic development projects, not least as the futile 'War on Drugs' crusade in the 2000s alienated poor farmers and pushed them towards the Taliban without reducing the demand for drugs in the West.

It's profits from the lucrative drugs trade, from heroin trafficked through corrupted states from Central Asia through into Europe via the Balkans, that enables the Taliban to keep up its armed insurgency and control the pipeline route regions. That, in turn, raises what's at stake for the US-NATO and Kabul in continuing the war without end.

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