A long-term U.S. strategy for Central Asia.
by Frederick W. Kagan
The Weekly Standard / October 22, 2001 - Volume 7, Number 6
IN CENTRAL ASIA and Afghanistan, the vital interests of four nuclear powers--Russia, China, Pakistan, and India--collide. That critical fact should suffice to dispel any thought that the United States has the option of vanquishing bin Laden, overthrowing the Taliban, and abandoning the region to its own devices. The dangers are obvious and unacceptable. The implications--for the military campaign that has begun in Afghanistan and for our long-term involvement in the region--need to be thought through.
The airstrikes launched last week against military targets in Afghanistan were the first step in a campaign whose complexity should not be underestimated. Ultimately, we will most likely have to deploy ground forces in significant numbers to take and hold ground, and we will probably have to keep them there over a lengthy period.
As the administration seems to recognize, we cannot hope to form a stable government in Afghanistan on the basis of the Northern Alliance alone. The forces in the alliance took power briefly in the early 1990s, but were unable to establish their legitimacy. Their failure led to a half-decade civil war, which the Taliban won. It is far from clear that, bereft of its most effective military commander (assassinated by bin Laden's agents on September 9), the Northern Alliance would do better today.
Regardless of who commands it, moreover, its ethnic make-up militates against a Northern Alliance government. The alliance represents a Tajik-Uzbek coalition that is far from stable; Tajik-Uzbek conflict kept civil war simmering across the border in Tajikistan throughout the 1990s, and continues to threaten stability there and in neighboring Uzbekistan. But even if the alliance holds together, Tajiks and Uzbeks are ethnic minorities in Pashtun-dominated Afghanistan. It is difficult to imagine any stable government in Kabul without the participation of a considerable Pashtun bloc.
The real challenge we face in Afghanistan, therefore, is to bring into being a Pashtun leadership group that can participate in a coalition government with the Northern Alliance. Somehow, we must persuade or compel the Northern Alliance to accept such a compromise, and this we can do only if we are not dependent on the Northern Alliance for ground power.
To put a stable government in power in Afghanistan, then, we will have to make a significant deployment (in the tens of thousands) of American ground forces to the country. Only such a deployment will give us the respect and leverage we will need to force compromise upon disparate and hostile ethnic groups. There is considerable reason to believe that we can succeed in this. The two decades of nearly continuous war Afghanistan has endured have clearly begun to generate the desire for a settlement, even a compromise settlement. This is vital if stability is to be restored. It is unlikely, however, that the Afghans will come to such a compromise if theirs are the only forces on the ground.
There are indications that the administration has come to realize the importance of introducing ground forces soon. In any event, the president must begin to warn the American people of the likelihood of an extended and extensive deployment of American ground forces in Central Asia. At least as urgently, he must ask Congress for a substantial increase in the defense budget, for our armed forces will not be able to maintain the necessary deployment in Central Asia over the long term without seriously eroding our ability to meet challenges elsewhere in the world.
Military operations, however, require consideration of the delicate international situation in South Asia. All of our plans and actions must take into account that going after bin Laden and deposing the Taliban regime is not enough. For there will be no lack of people willing to pick up the banner of the anti-Western jihad, and an unstable Central Asia will continue to offer them a perfect base from which to operate. The proximity of four nuclear powers raises the stakes.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have been struggling for supremacy in Central Asia. The Uzbeks have the largest and best organized military in the region, the Kazakhs real and potential economic strength and strong ties to Russia. The Kazakh-Russian tie is a natural one, not only because they share a long border, but also because a very considerable portion of the Kazakh population is ethnically Russian and Ukrainian. The Uzbeks, for their part, have been eager to bring the United States into the region as a counterbalance to Russian influence and support for Kazakhstan. The deployment of American ground forces into Uzbekistan is likely to make it seem that we have chosen sides--which could polarize the area and alienate the other Central Asian states, as well as the Russians.
An even greater danger exists, however, along the Uzbek-Tajik border. The Uzbeks have for some time identified Tajik rebels as among their most serious security threats, and they have repeatedly launched military raids across the border into Tajikistan. The Tajiks have suffered through a lengthy civil war since the collapse of Soviet power, and maintain their precarious stability in part thanks to the continuing presence of Russian troops in their country. Should the Uzbeks undertake further military action against perceived rebel forces or threats in Tajikistan while American forces are present in Uzbekistan, the potential for a serious crisis not only in Central Asia, but in U.S.-Russian relations, will be very high.
If civil war rages in Afghanistan, the ethnic make-up of the region makes it possible that hostilities will spill over into Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It is essential, therefore, that we commit in advance not only to establishing stability in Afghanistan, but also to helping maintain stability in Central Asia. Also essential will be the development of a solid working relationship with Moscow.
Russia still sees Central Asia as part of its sphere of influence, and will take very ill the prospect of being supplanted in that region by the United States. The delicate Russian economy, furthermore, relies heavily on Kazakh resources. Thus, Russian security demands both stability and a pro-Russian orientation in Central Asia. If our involvement in the region is confined to Uzbekistan in pursuit of the short-term goal of supporting military operations against the Taliban, we are likely to alienate the Russians and their Central Asian clients.
Instead, we can work with the Russians to develop a strategic alliance in Central Asia that leaves Moscow predominant but supports the actions we must take to achieve our own goals. It is in Russia's interest as much as our own to subdue the Taliban and restore stability in South Asia. If we are willing to accept complexity and make the compromises necessary to secure Russian support--and, above all, if we are willing to put boots on the ground to prove our seriousness--then there is every reason to hope for a successful outcome.
The crisis in South Asia, in other words, should force us to undertake a radical reevaluation of our overall strategic goals and aims. The fear of "nation-building" that prompted our humiliating withdrawal from Somalia must be abandoned; we should even embrace that idea in the name of establishing stability in a vital and volatile region. The temptation to rely on airpower and avoid the deployment of ground forces must be cast aside in a situation that clearly minimizes the value of our technological prowess and places a premium on our willingness to put our soldiers where our interests are.
Above all, the illusion that we are in a "strategic pause" that allows us to reduce both the size and the readiness of our armed forces should by now have been dispelled. We are at a turning point in history, and the future rests on our willingness, even if it is costly, to do what needs to be done.
* Frederick W. Kagan is a military historian and the co-author of "While America Sleeps."
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