Yon on Afghanistan: The Great Game

Michael Yon continues his coverage of Afghanistan by noting that the Great Game, in which Russia contended with the West (mainly Britain, now the US) for influence in Asia, continues apace.  Yon asks how much Afghanistan is worth to the West, and whether we can have the same success there as in Iraq.  He believes we can, but the odds are longer and we will require more tenacity to overcome them:

While we prepare to shunt perhaps 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan (which still will not be enough), Russia continues to play the Asian chessboard.  The Russians are picking off pawn after pawn, and steadily eroding our foreign policy influence with them and other Central Asian countries.  The Russians know that we need a land route through their country to Afghanistan, especially as we begin the slow process of increasing our combat presence.  The Pakistan land route is one Achilles’ heel to our Afghanistan effort, and Russia is working hard to make sure that Russia is the other Achilles’ heel, which will strengthen the Russian position on matters such as missile defense.  Russia, at the present rate, will eventually exercise considerable control over the spigot to Afghanistan.  The Russians are successfully wrestling us into a policy arm-lock.  While Russia takes American money and gains influence over our Afghan efforts, we will continue to spend lives and tens of billions of dollars per year on Afghanistan in an attempt to civilize what amounts to Jurassic Park.

We must start asking Russia, and others, who the true losers will be if we abandon Afghanistan and leave a resurgent Taliban to lap at their doorsteps.  I am not advocating that we abandon Afghanistan, but our own population and allies might grow weary during the long journey unfolding before us.  The direct threat to us derives far more from al Qaeda than the Taliban, and we can keep punching down al Qaeda for a lot less than it’s costing to prosecute the Afghan war while abdicating significant influence to Russia.  Russia has much to worry about if NATO countries begin to abandon Afghanistan. …

As we enter a new fighting season in Afghanistan this year, we need to know that the President has our backs.  Not just that he is behind us, but that he is covering our six and ready to politically and economically pounce on those who hamper our efforts.  We need to know that the President is fully engaged in this fight, that he is there to win and for the long haul, that he listens and takes close counsel from our senior military, and that he has faith that we can make this process work.  But eight years from now, this thing will not be over.

We must also understand that Afghanistan is what it is. The military is acutely aware that Afghanistan is not Iraq.  The success we are seeing in Iraq is unlikely to suddenly occur in Afghanistan.  If we are to deal with moderate elements of the AOGs (armed opposition groups) we must do so from a position of strength, and this means killing a lot of them this year, to encourage the surviving “reconcilables” to be more reconcilable.

Thus far, the President doesn’t appear to have anyone’s backs, least of all his own.  The Russian deal with Kyrgyzstan to kick us out of Manas AFB, our main line of communication into Afghanistan, came as a shock within days of Obama taking office.  We have yet to see a response to this parry, even though Kyrgyzstan apparently wants to give us an opening:

Kyrgyzstan’s parliament will delay a vote on expelling U.S. troops from an important base there until it receives $450 million in aid and loans promised by Russia, a lawmaker said Monday.

The base is a key staging platform for U.S. and coalition operations in Afghanistan.

“We have decided to wait until the Russians send the money,” Communist Party deputy Absamat Masaliyev, a member of the parliament’s coordinating body, told The Associated Press.

A delay in the vote to shut the Manas air base could give Washington extra time to negotiate a settlement and avoid closure of the facility.

Gee, you think?  We should have foreseen the Russian attempt to bribe Kyrgyzstan and had a team negotiating more aid with Bishkek to counter it.  We still could do that now.  The Russians have a worse economic situation than ours, as the collapse in oil prices eliminates the main source of their export revenue. There is no reason to lose Bishkek except by laziness.

We have to anticipate these efforts by Russia to control influence in the region.  Even before the Bolsheviks seized power 92 years ago, Russia fought a war of influence and intelligence with the West in this region.  In some cases, the Crimea being one example, the fight flared into open warfare, but for the most part the conflict unfolded in diplomatic circles for two centuries.  Putin is only the latest tsar to play the Great Game.  He had a worthy adversary in George Bush, despite Bush’s initial misreading of Putin.

Will Obama prove his mettle in this arena?  Or will he become a Jimmy Carter, fumbling the regional alliances and failing to look three steps ahead?  So far, the indicators are not promising, and that could spell doom for our efforts to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban anywhere near Afghanistan.  Without Kyrgyzstan, we will have to rely on Pakistan for our lines of communication, which will likely mean an end to any effective tactics across the border into the Pakistani FATA where the terrorists are based.