Exit Strategies

War for the New Silk Road

We hear regularly from officialdom that US forces are engaged in pacifying Afghanistan and spreading the gospel of the open society to prevent another terrorist strike along the lines of 9/11. This explanation can't even pass the laugh test, given that the September 11th attacks were planned and coordinated by jihadists in perfect models of open society such as Hamburg, Germany.

While the ideological sincerity of US policymakers and think-tankers is not in doubt (they really do want to bomb the Hindu Kush into the Brave New World), there are other factors that loom just as large. Afghanistan has provided the US a continuous presence in Central Asia over the past decade, and Washington has no plans for departure. The country’s proximity to the oil and natural gas of the Caspian basin is just too alluring, as is the possibility of undermining both Russia and China. At stake is control of Eurasia and the East-West energy corridors that compose the New Silk Road.

Richard Holbrooke, State’s Special Representative for “AfPak”, recently wrapped up a tour that spanned Central Asia and the Caucasus. Long a key architect of US interventions in Eurasia, Holbrooke was making his way across the region’s capitals looking for support in Afghanistan. The Central Asians were quite cautious in their dealings with Holbrooke, given that the Kremlin controls the main northern route for US/NATO supplies into Afghanistan. Georgia, though, was another story.

The war in the Hindu Kush provided the official reason for Hillary’s point-man drop into Tbilisi on February 21st. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has always been quick to grasp at any additional US support for his government as a means of provoking the Russians. On this occasion, he offered Washington use of the ports Batumi and Poti for a logistical corridor across the Caspian to Afghanistan. Rising to the bait of yet another futile endeavor, Saakashvili is also sending an army battalion to the embattled Helmand Province under the supervision of the Marines*.

What kind of US assistance will Georgia get in return for all this? Holbrooke asserted that, "There was no quid pro quo. This is being done because as President Saakashvili said, the threat in Afghanistan is a common threat”. It should be noted that similar phrases were uttered over the Georgian deployment in Iraq. Sure, Tbilisi is genuinely concerned with scattered Al-Qaeda remnants in the caves of Afghanistan and only wants to help bring the light of democracy to the Helmand Pashtuns. There won’t be any talk of geopolitical machinations with Richard Holbrooke on the job!

It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that Holbrooke’s visit was in addition part of a strategy to needle Moscow, his denials notwithstanding. The US Navy has just conducted joint exercises with the Georgians, within two weeks of Holbrooke’s departure. Yesterday Vice President Biden also had a telephone conversation with his friend Misha in Tbilisi just to drive home the point. So while the immediate goal of the trip was discussing and securing assistance on Afghanistan, Washington’s strategic aims range across the Eurasian steppe. The veteran Indian diplomat M. K. Bhadrakumar posited as much:

"Strictly speaking, Central Asia is not within the purview of Holbrooke's AfPak brief. As far as the logistics of the Afghan war are concerned, US Central Command chief General David Petraeus regularly visits Central Asian capitals. Conceivably, Washington would like to measure how the regional powers - especially Russia, Iran and China- react to Holbrooke's appearance in Central Asia at a time when the Afghan war appears set to spill over into the region".

Holbrooke would be a natural candidate to exploit any regional instability generated by the war against the Taliban. After all, he has been perhaps the central player in US Balkan policy over two decades, a policy aimed at keeping the Orthodox Serbs down, promoting Islamic power, and expanding an entire array of Euro-Atlantic institutions into the former Yugoslavia.

All these measures were part of the larger US drive to bring Eastern Europe into its orbit. From the Bosnia portfolio in the 1990s to the 2007 Kosovo declaration of sovereignty, Holbrooke has also consistently sought to diminish or eliminate Russian influence in southeastern Europe. Indeed, the Russians saw US interventions in the Balkans as a testing ground for future action in the former Soviet Union. Washington was able to expand its influence in Tito’s old domain through the introduction of NATO/EU “peacekeeping forces” and arbitration between ethnic and religious groups. Now US policymakers are looking for similar opportunities in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

US control of the New Silk Road would create a corridor that would bring NATO forces up to the borders of Chinese Xinjiang and energy, migrants and narcotics into Europe. But it's quite clear that American power is already overextended. Although Holbrooke is experienced in implementing the Balkan template, he’s not likely to achieve the same successes he managed in the 1990s. The Russians are resurgent and outmaneuvering the US in the former Soviet space, and Beijing is already highly distrustful of Washington for a recent $6 billion-scale arms sale to Taipei. The pointless, wasteful and bloody AfPak adventure is another likely herald of imperial collapse.

* Helmand Province, where the Georgian battalion is headed, is a rough neighborhood. However, the region is also responsible for the great majority of opium output in Afghanistan. The Georgian government and associated criminal groups could stand to benefit by obtaining a more significant cut of the heroin traffic that flows into the West.