The hidden agenda of the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 lay enveloped by the fog of the war for most of the past ten-year period. The angst in Afghanistan as well as in the regional capitals – especially New Delhi – used to be that the stalemate of the war would prompt the US and its allies to “cut and run” in the near future so as to avoid an ignominious defeat in a war that was also becoming prohibitively expensive. Indeed, the US fuelled this misperception to prevail even while quietly investing hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade certain select bases in Afghanistan where the American troops would be quartered on a long-term basis. It has only been in the past year or so that the US began acknowledging publicly that it wasn’t really contemplating an exit from the Hindu Kush. And when it did acknowledge, the rhetoric took a curious turn as if the US is making a solemn commitment to the Afghan people rather than its plans to occupy Afghanistan for years or decades to come as part of a long-term geo-strategy.
Even now, when the topic of discussion is the withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan by end-2014, it is being overlooked in much of the world opinion that something like 50000 troops will stay back for an indefinite period in the region, including combat troops and air power. But then, the argument goes that 50000 US troops cannot be expected to turn the tide of the war when three times that number (during the ‘surge’ in 2010) couldn’t succeed, after all. So, where is the need of a hidden agenda?
In bits and pieces, however, the hidden agenda is finally beginning to surface. After relentless arm-twisting by the US, the Kabul government has signed a strategic pact with Washington, which gives the legal and political underpinning for an open-ended US military presence in Afghanistan. Once the November election in the US is out of the way, the two countries can be expected to address the downstream agreements necessary for the US military bases in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported recently that the Pentagon is secretly negotiating with various Central Asian countries the US’ withdrawal plans from Afghanistan. This involves negotiating a “reverse” transit route via the Northern Distribution Network, which has so far been used to ferry materials to Afghanistan. The tariff needs to be reasonable, especially with the continued non-availability of the far cheaper Pakistani routes. Interestingly, Pentagon is engaging each of the three key Central Asian countries – Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – independently and without Russia’s knowledge although these Central Asian agreements are expected to supplement a separate agreement with Russia with regard to “reverse transit” route. A far more efficient and logical method for the US would have been to negotiate a package with the Collective Security Organization [CSTO], which after all is recognized by the United Nations – and the war in Afghanistan is conducted under a UN mandate. But then, that would imply the recognition of the CSTO as a partner in regional security by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] – something that Russia has been seeking for the past 3 years or so and the US stubbornly rejecting. At the root of it all lies the US’ refusal to recognize Russia’s special interests in the Central Asian region or to concede recognition to the CSTO as the prime mover and shaker of regional security in the Central Asian region. The overarching US objective has always been to inflict a thousand cuts on the Moscow-led integration processes in the region and effectively undermine them.
The US is emboldened today estimate that its capacity to strike deals directly with the authoritarian Central Asian leaderships has already reached an appreciable level. As recently as in March this year when the US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta toured the region (followed by the regional tour of the newly-appointed CENTCOM commander James Mattis in April), there were strong hints that something big was cooking in the US’ dealings with the Central Asian leaderships. The US officials were taciturn in their public remarks but there was a bit of kite-flying for the first time that the US might be leaving some war equipment behind in Central Asia after it pulls out from Afghanistan. A stray report by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty even quoted the head of the Kyrgyz national security council Busurmankul Tabaldiyev as having sounded out Mattis on Bishkek getting the drone aircraft from the US (which are in use in Afghanistan) as part of a bigger deal; and, Mattis “reportedly replied that Washington is ready to consider the request.” Furthermore, RFE reported that Bishkek would be open to a deal whereby the US would retain the Manas air base on lease beyond 2014 and the US drones could be left for Kyrgyzstan during the withdrawal of the NATO troops from Afghanistan.
The recent report in Kommersant newspaper more or less corroborates what so far remained in the realm of conjecture. It seems the US would get access to the transit routes at reasonable tariff or a nominal fee and as quid pro quo, Pentagon would make a gift of war materials free of charge to the Central Asian partners. On the face of it, this would be an eminently reasonable deal for the Pentagon, since it is a big operation to take back all the way to the NATO bases in western Europe at considerable cost all those war equipment (except the high-tech weapons) involving big expenditure and logistics. In fairness, the Afghans should have been the recipients of whatever war materials the US didn’t want to cart back to Europe but then, the Pentagon gets nothing in return in that case.
The intriguing part of the Russian report, quoting Central Asian sources, is that the US also proposes to store some war equipment in the Central Asian region in special depots, which will be readily available if requirement arises for their use – in other words, if a conflict erupts in or around the region or if the military operations in Afghanistan in the post-2014 period requires replenishment of equipment. Needless to say, some degree of US military presence would be required at these depots as well. It could even be detachments of the US’ Special Forces. In sum, Central Asia is becoming a support base for the US military operations in the region on a long-term basis.
This arrangement bears striking resemblance to the former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s famous notion of “lily pads”. The Rumsfeld doctrine expounded that instead of the cold-war idea of basing large numbers of troops to face the Soviet adversary in a predictable theatre such as, say, Germany, a series of small bases could be strung out across the world like lilies across a pond from where flexible forces armed with high-tech weapons could intervene with maximum speed in crisis spots.
That is to say, in times of crisis and combat in the Central Asian region in a conceivable backdrop of developments such as a “regime change” in one of the countries or the sort of conflict situation that arose in Libya or Yemen in the wake of the Arab Spring, the US’s main operating bases in the region (eg., Bagram, Shindand, Kandahar, etc.), could gain outreach by the sort of bilateral agreements Pentagon seems to be negotiating aimed at giving the US forces temporary access to a network of partnerships in other countries (such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan) – “lily pads”, Rumsfeld called them. Rumsfeld pioneered this idea first in Central Asia during his regional tour immediately after the 9/11 attacks. He was a passionate believer in his doctrine that these newly established partnerships such as in Central Asia are much more useful and relevant in today’s circumstances than traditional bases that are expensive to maintain and not always in precisely the right spot. Besides, these relationships, Rumsfeld felt, provided the leitmotif for the US to render much-needed aid to the potential allies who might come under the influence of other big powers inimical to the US interests.
Indeed, in political terms, the establishment of the “lily pads” in Central Asia would pose a challenge to the CSTO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The US is virtually encouraging the Central Asian states to dilute their allegiance to the two regional security organizations. The heart of the matter is that the NATO is going to figure in this matrix at some stage once the Pentagon’s discussions with the three Central Asian countries, as reported by Kommersant, are successfully concluded.
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