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Afghanistan: The Bear Trap

The map places Afghanistan in Central Asia, not in the Middle East. I include it here because it figures prominently in the standoff between Russia and the West.

In April 1978, a military coup d'état brought the People's Democratic Party (PDPA) to power in Afghanistan, the so-called Saur Revolution. The new regime's agenda was socialist and secular; a first step was to rename the country the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. It then signed a "Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Good Neighborliness" with the USSR, and the PDPA so cozied up to the Soviets that the American ambassador in Kabul cabled home that "the Russian bear has moved south of the Hindu Kush."

This extension of Russian influence was what the British had resisted since the beginning of the Great Game, and the United States was concerned as well. It considered the Saur Revolution an extension of the Soviet empire. To many in Washington, it was something to be undone.

The first year of socialist rule went predictably poorly for a country as chronically fractious as Afghanistan. PDPA factions fought among themselves and against a menagerie of insurgents. The Afghan army shed battalions of deserters, many of whom left to join their chosen rebel groups. There were many to choose from.

Kabul invoked the Treaty and appealed to Moscow for help in holding power. The Soviets sent so-called advisors, much as the United States had in Vietnam. Then in December, the first soldiers of the Red Army crossed the border, and eventually 100,000 more followed. It was a big commitment, but not nearly enough to conquer one of the unruliest places on the planet.

The Soviets hoped to strengthen the Afghan army, sustain a competent, friendly government, and in time induct the populace into the ranks of socialism. But their alliance with the Afghan military was a disaster. Soviet practice was to use Afghan soldiers as cannon fodder while keeping Soviet soldiers safe inside armored vehicles. That destroyed the morale of the men the Russians supposedly had come to support. More Afghan soldiers deserted to the rebels, who reequipped them with a sense of purpose.

It was a costly, nine-year war of attrition, with a number of countries—most notably the United States and Saudi Arabia—supplying the anti-Soviet guerrillas, or mujahideen, with money and weapons. Even though all the mujahideen groups had a common enemy, their actions were uncoordinated. Most were affiliated with the seven expatriate organizations that directed their fighters from Pakistan. And virtually every regional warlord also maintained his own army, waging its own little war.

Aldous Huxley observed: "That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach." In the case of Afghanistan, there was plenty for Russians to learn from the American misadventure in Southeast Asia. But they entered Afghanistan seeming to know none of it.

Slowly, the Soviets were ground down. They couldn't win; they couldn't even fight effectively against guerrilla tactics. Their relations with China and Saudi Arabia suffered. And the whole unhappy experience was becoming a drain on their treasury. At home, opposition to the war grew. The introduction of American Stinger missiles in 1986 cost Russia its dominance of the skies, and after that it was just a matter of time. In 1989, the USSR pulled out. It was an ignominious defeat that cost the country not only in lives and money but also in domestic morale. The debacle contributed to the breakup of the Soviet Union, which led to the chaos in Russia that fostered Vladimir Putin's career.

Putin had watched the whole mess unfold from his perch in St. Petersburg, and its lessons were not lost on him. He took to heart that it's best to avoid wars, but that if fight you must, then do it in full force, as he would do in October 1999 with his scorched-earth suppression of the Chechens.

The outcome in Afghanistan pointed to his own, evolving grand strategy: Take control of energy. If you do, you will win the all-important economic war and will have little need to fight a possibly disastrous one with bullets.

The U.S. government had also made a mistake. It might reasonably have expected that supporting the mujahideen would gain some goodwill for the United States in the Muslim world. It didn't happen. Not only did the United States not make any new friends, but it also armed Osama bin Laden's rebel group, the foundation of al-Qaeda.

It doesn't seem to have occurred to Washington that once the Russians were gone, the mujahideen might refocus their xenophobia on the West.

Arming the mujahideen with modern weapons was as close as the United States ever got to directly attacking Soviet forces. Why did it bear the cost and the risk of intervening in a landlocked country, ruled largely by medieval warlords, ferocious in opposing outsiders, empty of oil and natural gas, and known for millennia as the "graveyard of empires"?

First, Washington policy makers provided money and weapons to the mujahideen in the hope of delivering a calamity to their Cold War opponent.

Second, though short on energy resources, Afghanistan is rich in minerals. It has iron, copper, zinc, cobalt, gold, and critical industrial metals like lithium and rare earths, and it has them in amounts large enough to make the country one of the most important mining centers in the world: the "Saudi Arabia of lithium," as one Pentagon analyst put it.

(In 2010, the United States Geological Survey claimed that American geologists had "newly discovered" vast amounts of untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan worth nearly $3 trillion. It was an odd announcement. As far back as 1985, the Afghan Geological Survey Department had delineated the massive amounts of mineral wealth and had proposed extraction plans in cooperation with the USSR.)

Third, the country lies in the path of proposed Silk Road pipelines that would carry oil and gas from the Caspian Sea and Central Asian regions to the Arabian Sea without passing through Russian territory. The same general route could of course also be used to move Afghan mineral production by rail to Pakistan's deepwater port of Gwadar, on the Arabian Sea.

In March 1995, the governments of Turkmenistan and Pakistan joined a memorandum of understanding for a Trans-Afghanistan pipeline. Seven months later, Turkmenistan's president signed an agreement giving CentGas, a consortium led by Unocal and the Saudi Arabian Delta Oil Company, exclusive rights to develop his country's segment of the Trans-Afghanistan pipeline.

In 1997, a Taliban delegation spent several days in Texas, where Unocal officials promised that CentGas would teach Afghan locals the technical skills for pipeline construction. That resulted, in January 1998, in the Taliban selecting CentGas over Argentinian competitor Bridas Corporation and signing an agreement for the proposed project. But, in Afghanistan, things are never as simple as they seem.

The USSR's evacuation had left control of the Afghan government up for grabs, and the Taliban had come out on top and were in firm control of Kabul. But the Taliban still faced an insurgency from a ragtag, marginally effective bunch known as the Northern Alliance. For its part, the United States viewed the Taliban, who were fundamentalist Sunnis, as a nice counterbalance to their Iranian Shi'ite neighbors. Plus the Taliban were apparently on board with the important Trans-Afghanistan pipeline.

It looked as though things were going well. President Clinton took the Taliban to be at least mildly pro-Western, so he supported their claim to authority. Soon the State Department and Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, were funneling weapons and money to the Taliban to help them defeat the Northern Alliance.

Then, in August 1998, everything suddenly changed. The American embassies in Nairobi (Kenya) and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) were bombed at the direction of Osama bin Laden. When the Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, announced that bin Laden had the Taliban's full support, all pipeline negotiations halted.

It should have come as no great surprise. The Taliban were known to have close ties to al-Qaeda, which had already been implicated in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City.

In any event, American relations with the Taliban went dead cold. As the prospects for a U.S.-controlled pipeline receded, there was always the chance that the project might be revived, but with another country, possibly Russia, at the helm (Gazprom had been an original member of the CentGas consortium but had withdrawn). So the United States had a reason to keep the military option available.

Then along came the events of September 11, 2001, which delivered a publicly acceptable purpose for acting in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda, and specifically Osama bin Laden, was blamed for the attack, and the Taliban were tagged as accomplices. The United States invaded Afghanistan, ostensibly to destroy the former and punish the latter.

However, military operations in Afghanistan, including invasion, may have been in an advanced planning stage before 9/11. Niaz Naik, former Pakistani foreign secretary, told the BBC he was informed by senior American officials in mid-July 2001 that military action against Afghanistan was expected to go ahead by the middle of October at the latest (before the snows came).

Naik said the first objective was to kill or capture both bin Laden and the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar. But the larger purpose, according to Naik, was to replace the Taliban regime with a transitional government of moderate Afghans, possibly under the leadership of the former Afghan king Zahir Shah.

Then there's NSPD-9, a National Security Presidential Directive that reached President George W. Bush's desk, awaiting his signature, on September 4. NSPD-9 called on the Secretary of Defense to plan for military options "against Taliban targets in Afghanistan, including leadership, command-control, air and air defense, ground forces, and logistics," and "against al-Qaeda and associated terrorist facilities in Afghanistan, including leadership, command-control-communications, training, and logistics facilities."

Bush waited until October 25 to sign it, with minor changes and a preamble that reflected the events of 9/11.

And then the United States went to war: not just to drive some terrorists out of their caves and bomb them into extinction, and not just to punish the Taliban for harboring and supporting the terrorists, but to join with the Northern Alliance in an all-out assault on Kabul; to topple the Taliban and install a friendly government, no matter how corrupt; to destroy al-Qaeda's safe haven; to occupy the country while the new "democracy" sorted itself out; and to wage a guerrilla war against opposition forces that would drag on and on. And were there energy-related reasons as well?

Or to put it another way, whatever happened to that pipeline?

In December 2002, the leaders of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India signed yet another agreement to build a 900-mile-long Silk Road pipeline. In 2005, the Asian Development Bank submitted a feasibility study prepared by British company Penspen to the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. The then-U.S. ambassador to Turkmenistan, Ann Jacobsen, commented, "We are seriously looking at the project, and it is quite possible that American companies will join it." A further intergovernmental agreement to buy natural gas from Turkmenistan was signed in December 2010 by a group of nations that now includes India, which would host the terminus of the pipeline (known as TAPI).

Construction, however, has stalled. TAPI's overall feasibility remains questionable, since the southern part of the Afghan section runs through Taliban-controlled territory. That's been a major deterrent for commercial partners needed to build, finance, and operate the pipe. Few want in on a project that costs $8 billion yet is at the mercy of insurgents with a flair for sabotage.

And so the pipeline has languished for over a decade, but it is not dead. Turkmenistan's president wants to open new markets for his country, which holds the world's fourth-largest gas reserves. He has predicted that the agreements still needed for the project will be completed by the end of 2014. After that, construction will begin in 2015, he says confidently.

Time will tell.

 
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