Coalition Building

Prior to its counterattack on Afghanistan to root out al Qaeda’s headquarters and to oust the Mullah Mohammed Omar regime for hosting Osama bin Laden, the Bush administration undertook a burst of international diplomacy. Washington lined up NATO partners, pursued Russia, and looked to friendly nations beyond Europe. Keen to make its case of turning over every stone before attacking Afghanistan, it appealed to the Taliban rulers to hand over the terrorist mastermind. The Taliban rejected American requests and even Saudi Arabian pleas, despite the desert kingdom being the chief backer of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The two Muslim states shared their adherence to purist Salafist Islam. For his part, Mullah Omar took refuge in the Pashtunwali code that once hospitality is granted to a guest then the host must protect his visitor. The American and Taliban governments underestimated the costs of honoring this ancient custom.6

Thereupon, Washington strengthened its resolve to oust the Taliban from power. It strove to assemble a broad coalition to fight Islamic terrorism and to mount an Afghan invasion. Forging coalitions forms a part of the American way of war. Allies and international approval provides legitimacy and justification for interventions. The Bush administration laid the groundwork for an array of distinct coalitions ringing Afghanistan. At the outer edge, it moved to reduce tensions with such major players as China and Russia. The Bush White House dropped lingering resentments over the Hainan Incident with Beijing. It discarded its “strategic competitor” label used to define Sino-American relations. It nearly recognized China as a cobelligerent for Beijing’s anti-terrorism policies in the Muslim-populated Xinjiang province in the westernmost reaches of the country despite State Department opposition. The Bush foreign policy team pursued warmer relations with Russia for a more direct quid pro quo from Moscow than just goodwill.

The Pentagon needed the Russian Federation’s acquiescence for flyover rights and to establish airbases for its Afghan attack in the nearby countries that Moscow regarded as its “near abroad.” Gaining entry into Russia’s sphere of influence proved easier than anticipated given the recent downturn in Russo-American relations. The Kremlin had bitterly resented the American-led NATO bombings in 1999 of Serbia over Kosovo’s rebellion against Serbian rule. Moscow saw in Muslim-dominated Kosovo a reflection of its battles against Muslim separatists in Chechnya. Washington’s muscling into the Balkans, first with the Bosnian crisis and then Kosovo, infuriated the Russian leadership, who perceived the NATO advances as trespassing on their doorstep.

Washington encountered a changed Russian leadership. When the affable, often intoxicated, and politically out-of-step, Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned his presidency, he cleared the way for his handpicked successor Vladimir Putin to move from prime minister to president in 2000. A steely personality, Putin drove Russo-American relations into the political freezer much as they had been during the Cold War. But before that downturn, the new Russian president mostly stood aside while the Bush team searched for rentable bases in Central Asia. After all, the Kremlin chief shared America’s goal to defeat political Islam, lest its Afghan variant further inflame Islamist violence in the Russian-dominated Caucasus.

Three Central Asian nations directly shared borders with Afghanistan— Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Of these, Uzbekistan attracted the most Washington attention for a mix of reasons. Geographically, Uzbekistan was the most propitiously placed, for it shared the closest border with the Northern Alliance, the Taliban’s foe. The Bush administration secured expanded use of the Uzbek’s Karshi-Khanabad airport (known as K-2 by US airmen). In return, Uzbek president Islam Karimov raked in millions of US dollars and took delivery of military aid to combat the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which endangered his government.

Similarly, the United States reached out to Turkmenistan, although it lacked the close proximity of Uzbekistan to the Northern Alliance. Only Tajikistan, which shared a frontier with Afghanistan, initially resisted Washington’s courtship. Poorest and most fractured of the 15 former Soviet republics, Tajikistan was the most dependent on Moscow’s goodwill. It took Putin’s intercession to convince the government in Dushanbe to accede to American requests to fly over, refuel, and undertake other operations from its territory. Additionally, the Bush administrations pursued landing rights with other Central Asian nations that did not share a border with Afghanistan. It nailed down agreements with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

President Bush’s foreign policy team also went beyond the Soviet successor republics in their quest for allies to facilitate the Afghan attack. Among the most pivotal was Pakistan, with which the United States shared a tortuous history since their close Cold War cooperation. In the course of the East-West standoff, Washington looked upon Islamabad as a key ally against the Soviet Union. The two worked together in repelling the Red Army’s invasion of Afghanistan by backing the mujahedeen resistance. After the Berlin Wall crumbled, the Clinton administration shunted Pakistan aside for closer ties with its archrival India. Pakistani leaders interpreted warmer Indo-American relations as a betrayal. The Pakistanis also pursued their own interests in Afghanistan, which included keeping the rugged country out of India’s orbit. Pakistan’s secretive ISI Directorate regarded the Taliban jihadis from their beginnings as ready allies against Hindu-ruled India. The ISI, therefore, helped the Taliban to seize power to exclude Indian influence in Kabul. Pakistani objectives conflicted with American interests.

The Bush White House tasked Secretary of State Colin Powell with the job of returning Pakistan to the American column. The former four-star Army general was able to speak soldier to soldier to Pervez Musharraf, a former general who came to the Pakistani presidency through a military coup. Powell persuaded Musharraf to sever ties with the Afghan Taliban regime, grant US landing rights on Pakistani airbases, share intelligence, and open the country’s airspace to American warplanes. George Bush contended that the former career Army officer “single-handedly got Musharraf on board.”7 Powell’s diplomatic coup notwithstanding, neither he nor his successors ever ended the underground support by elements within the ISI for the Taliban movement, even though it fomented violence in Pakistan’s tribal belts.8

Money also played a major role in returning Pakistan to the American camp. Over the years, the United States poured in billions of dollars, making Pakistan the fourth largest beneficiary of its foreign aid after Afghanistan, Israel, and Iraq.9 The Bush administration also looked past Musharraf’s redrafting of the Pakistani constitution so as to extend his presidency for another term. Such pragmatism differed from President Bush’s zealous democracy promotion in a host of countries after the Iraq invasion.

The Pentagon did gain access to two Pakistani bases—Pasni and Jacobabad—for its Afghan invasion. What’s more, the Pakistanis allowed supply ships to dock at the port city of Karachi. Off-loaded materiel found its way onto trucks driven by local men, who drove convoys across the country into the elevated terrain of Afghanistan in what became a vital logistical link to the Western war against the Taliban. Overall, the Pak-American partnership functioned reasonably well, although it was subject to fraught moments as when the US breached its sovereignty with CIA drone strikes or military ground raids. Washington and Islamabad shared the same jihadi enemies, whose presence within Pakistan threatened citizens’ lives and societal order. But overt collaboration with the hated Americans was not in the best interest of the South Asian country’s rulers. So, its military and civilian officials winked and nodded their complicity in the drone killings. These CIA aerial strikes enhanced the survival of Pakistan’s leadership but it was loath to acknowledge the fact.10

Washington’s sudden intervention into Central Asia also necessitated a working relationship with America’s bete noire in the region—the Islamic Republic of Iran. Washington and Tehran had been at sword’s point since the overthrow of the pro-American shah and the ascendancy of a theocratic regime in 1979. Bitterness over the Iranian “student” seizure of the US Embassy and abduction of its staff began America’s post-shah animosity. Other crises followed which had the effect of pouring kerosene on the blazing antagonism each time it seemed to subside. Iranian clerics often called America the Great Satan and whipped up chants of “death to America” from street demonstrators. Therefore, the US-led military intervention promised to trigger another set-to between the two powers.

Unexpectedly, their interaction went much better than the Bush administration anticipated. Part of the explanation for the Iran’s mild reaction to the US military presence lay in the fact that Tehran looked upon the Taliban regime as a mortal enemy. Not only did the Taliban rulers practice the strict Salafi doctrine of Islam which considered the Iranian Shia branch of Islam as heretics, but also they persecuted, tortured, and murdered the Shiite population within Afghanistan. Another Iranian grievance against the Taliban regime stemmed from its negligent suppression of narcotics exports from Afghanistan’s luxuriant poppy growing fields. Afghan drugs were the bane of Iranian youth, whose widespread addiction caused massive problems for the country. So, the clerical regime momentarily suspended its fierce hatred of the United States.

Elsewhere the Bush foreign policy team jumped into action to fight what it termed as the Global War on Terror, or GWOT. It perceived threats in the Middle East, Africa, and the Pacific. Failed states, such as Somalia, and fragile ones, such as the Philippines, possessed “ungoverned spaces” which afforded havens for terrorists’ attacks on the West. As a consequence, Pentagon officials searched for bases from which to counter the spread of political Islam. On the northeastern corner of Africa, the United States set up an anti-terrorist headquarters in Djibouti’s Camp Lemonier, a former French Foreign Legion outpost that opened on the Gulf of Aden. Eventually, some 4000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and other personnel arrived and instituted a counterinsurgency strategy for the entire Horn of Africa region. They sought to prevent, or at least limit, terrorist factions from establishing sanctuaries to recruit, train, and export terrorists to other fronts. The Special Forces trained local troops, tried to ameliorate ruinous conditions that bred terrorism, and gathered intelligence. In short, they aimed for a “pre-emptive strike on the hearts and minds of those living in the Horn.”11

Halfway around the globe, 600 US military personnel extended similar assistance to the Philippines as part of the GWOT. In the southern islands of the archipelago, SOF descended on the Zamboanga Peninsula of Mindanao, which was home to an aggrieved Muslim population who fought the larger Catholic population. A tiny bandit-terrorist group, Abu Sayyaf, sprang from the decades-long local resistance to the Manila government. With very tenuous links to al Qaeda, Abu Sayyaf undertook a range of criminal activities, including abduction, rape, murder, and extortion in the name of Islam. The Manila government limited the US special-forces soldiers to training and mentoring roles for the Filipino armed forces, who did the actual fighting against the Abu Sayyaf terrorists. This indirect approach, with US troops in support functions, evolved into a standard operating procedure in other parts of the world.12

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