When the presidents of two Central Asian countries meet to discuss matters of mutual concern, the outcome of their talks may seem irrelevant to American politicians. Indeed, why should talks that took place last month in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, have any effect on Washington? But they do. Why? Because what is in play may be the future of just how much assistance ends up going to Afghanistan from Central Asian countries (and others) to help the American war effort. That is something the U.S. badly needs.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to former President Jimmy Carter, told me from his office at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington recently that with “Kazakhstan assuming the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), it will be in a position to influence the politics in the region. Moreover, “Kazakhstan has itself a stake in the region and in the filament in Afghanistan and Pakistan not spreading.”
The war in Afghanistan is not about to be won through sheer military force. The United States and its NATO allies can throw all the military might they can muster at Afghanistan, and more likely than not, it will hardly dent the resolve of the Taliban. More than eight years of war have demonstrated clearly that the Taliban are getting stronger and not weaker.
Part of the West’s problem is that it cannot sustain this war indefinitely. The costs eventually will weigh down on the economies of the Allied countries, and at some point, some politician running for office will make a promise that should not be made. In sheer dollars and “sense,” think about how much it costs to maintain a single U.S. soldier in Afghanistan. Forget the meager pay of the average infantryman, an E3 or Army private (about $19,746 per year). But for every infantryman, there can be six to 10 support personnel providing essential supplies, support and intelligence to keep that one soldier operating. For example, every drop of potable water used by the 70,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan is trucked in from surrounding countries - one of them being Uzbekistan.
Meanwhile, as former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf told this correspondent last year, “All the Taliban fighter needs is an onion, a loaf of bread and an AK-47 to keep him going, while the United States is overequipped.” The Taliban also have no time constraints and no elections to worry them.
Short of using tactical nuclear weapons to wipe out suspected Taliban strongholds along with vast segments of the local population (obviously not a good idea) a purely military victory is not in the cards. That does not mean the war cannot be won; it can, but it will take more than military power, and it will take the participation of the international community.
This is where the visit by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev to neighboring Uzbekistan last month - described by the local media as “one of high importance” - becomes a matter of international concern. “Uzbekistan is the most important strategic country in Central Asia,” a high-ranking Kazakh Foreign Ministry official told The Washington Times. At the same time, Uzbekistan is of great tactical importance to the U.S. war effort. Combat troops and all that much-needed war materiel - water, food and munitions - transit through that country before joining the war next door.
Kazakhstan takes somewhat of a back seat when it comes to the Afghan conflict, yet - as Mr. Brzezinski emphasized - Kazakhstan, as the largest country in the region and the country with the most stable economy, plays a moderating role in the region.
While maintaining military pressure on the Islamist rebels in Afghanistan is all-important, it is just as important to realize that victory and peace will be achieved only by rebuilding the country’s infrastructure. This is where the help comes in - helping the central government construct a stable institution capable of providing basic services to its people.
Kazakhstan’s effort to convene a summit of members of the OSCE hopes to achieve two things. First, it hopes to put Afghanistan on the agenda, which - if the summit takes place - would get the 56 member states involved. That would be a good thing because many of those countries will want to offer nonmilitary assistance, such as helping the country establish a good education program, a working health care system and so on. And second, an OSCE summit will help boost the prestige of the Kazakh president.
It also is important to remember that there are no free gifts in politics. Most members of the European Union will give their support to Kazakhstan on condition that …
Those conditions are very likely to be that Kazakhstan’s government ease up on human rights and press restrictions. And that is also a good thing.
Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times and a contributing editor to United Press International.