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US looks beyond immediate Afghan Goals

by Aziz-ud-Din Ahmad


The Nation (Pakistan) 24 January 2002

Centre for Research on Globalisation (CRG),  globalresearch.ca,   25  January 2002

In the wake of the government's denial that it was being pushed to lease 20,000 acres for military bases for US troops in Balochistan, comes another report, that the US has been allowed to use Karachi airport as its operations hub for Afghanistan. Irrespective of the veracity of the report, the US has already been provided facilities in at least three air bases in Balochistan for an unspecified period. Also, facilities at Jacobabad base for foreign troops are being constructed.

Indications that US forces are in for the long haul in the region have come from within Afghanistan also. Encampments in the form of tent cities have been set up at Kandahar and Bagram airports. These are reminiscent of similar campsites in Kosovo, supposed to be temporary, but which have turned into permanent cantonments. Marines sent on short duty to Kandahar have been replaced by elements of the 101st Airborne Division, which is intended for rapid deployment and to hold territory for months or years. In another sign that Americans are settling in, each branch of the armed services has adopted troop rotation policies in the region, typically 90 days to six months.

Similar developments have been reported from two other countries in the region. At Khanabad air base in Uzbekistan 2500 troops are stationed with planes and helicopters. Engineers are busy improving runways lighting, communication, storage and housing. In Bishkek base in Kyrgyzstan, described by Centcom chief Gen Tommy Franks as a transportation hub, preparations are afoot to house up to 3000 troops. A tent city over 37 acres is being built to house 2,000- 3,000 troops by next month beside accommodating warplanes and support aircraft.

All this raises uneasy questions. The anti-Taliban offensive was completed in the main with the ouster of Mullah Omar from his last stronghold of Kandahar within two months of the initiation of the operation. The main force of the Al-Qaeda in Tora Bora mountains was then exterminated. What remains now is no more than a mopping-up operation which can be done with the help of the interim government in Kabul. What explains the desire to expand and strengthen the US military presence in the region then?

The reason given is that the interim government does not seem intent on rooting out Taliban and Al-Qaeda remnants and this necessitates the presence of US troops over a long time. But if this was the sole reason, the facilities at Kandahar and Bagram should have been enough. A perception is fast growing that the US wants a foothold in Central Asia and before our eyes is unfolding a new version of the Great Game of the colonial era. Central Asia has strategic importance. The region has been traditionally under Russian influence and still has close economic and security links with Moscow. The US which has already extended its influence in Eastern Europe at the expense of Russia would like to outflank it in Central Asia also, depriving Russia of a vital zone of influence before an economic recovery lets it re-emerge as a major power.

The Caspian Sea is also important as the world's last great untapped oil reserve. Assessments of reserves range from 30 billion barrels to as high as 200 billion. What is beyond doubt is that the region will have a major share in the global oil supply over the next three to four decades. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization aims at mutual cooperation of member countries with joint exploitation of natural resources high on the list of priorities. China has already proposed a pipeline from Kazakhstan all the way to the South China Sea. Western multinationals hope to undercut the influence of both Russia and China through the extension of US influence in the region.

A US-sponsored government in Afghanistan could be of great help in the operation. After getting Hamid Karzai appointed chief executive of the interim government, Washington is now trying to win over political elements known for their links with Russia and Iran. Iran has in fact been warned not to interfere in Afghan factional politics. With US troops stationed in and around Afghanistan, and the US and allies providing the largest chunk of the $4.5 billion development package, Kabul's loyalties have been ensured. Afghanistan which served as a buffer during the Great Game, could lose its independent status.

Washington's bid for hegemony will not go unchallenged. Both Russia and China will do all they can to resist it and will receive support from countries unhappy with US policies.

Pakistan needs to decide how far it is in its national interest to go with the Americans. After the right decision to side with the alliance against terrorism Pakistan has in the main come out of the diplomatic isolation where it had been pushed. The foreign assistance it has received can pull it out of its economic troubles provided economic policies are sound. The revival of democracy would also help the country gain respect in the international community.

Pakistan has a great future as an independent and self-respecting country if its rulers do not push it into the Great Game. If Islamabad was seen as a tool in the hands of Washington, it would lose friends. The military government must not be carried away by its current treatment by the West. Washington has a long history of discarding Third World leaders when they lose their utility. Pakistan's long term interests demand a balanced foreign policy. Its relations with the US must not be at the expense of time-tested friends like China and others. It is going to be an exercise in tight-rope-walking and one wonders if a non-political government has the skill to perform it.

Copyright 2002.  The Nation (Pakistan). Reprinted for fair use only. 

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