Regardless of whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai is re-elected in August, of whether the Taliban can adapt to the new counterinsurgency strategy of Central Command leader Gen. David H. Petraeus, and of the cost to modernize and democratize Afghanistan, the United States will be there for a very long time. Afghanistan is just too critical geographically and strategically important.
Few Americans could locate Afghanistan on a map before Sept. 11, 2001, and even fewer have been there. But in the intervening 7 1/2 years, many have come to know at least that Afghanistan represents a historic crossroads. Alexander the Great’s army called it Bactria; Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes passed through on their way to Europe; Marco Polo chronicled exotic tales of the Silk Road, visiting Samarkand, where some say chess originated, and Herat, home of Central Asia’s oldest university.
Crossroads require two intersecting paths. The east-west Silk Road route is little used today except by smugglers. The critical route during the 21st century runs north and south, and starts at the Pakistani port of Karachi on the Indian Ocean. Even in today’s economy, hundreds of ships stop there each month laden with manufactured goods and foodstuffs destined for the approximately 100 million people living in the countries making up Central Asia.
The ships’ contents proceed north by truck through Afghanistan via one of two routes: the short, hard route through the Hindu Kush range, traversing the Russian-built Salang Tunnel, or the long, easy route around the mountains via Herat in the west of Afghanistan and then north crossing the Peace Bridge at Termez on the Afghan-Uzbek border. From there, transport to the former Soviet republics fans out onto good road and rail systems built to meet the Soviet military’s requirements for mobility on its southern flank.
Many of the nations to the north of Afghanistan have changed little politically since Soviet times. Some are even ruled by the same men who were in power when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
But all these nations are experiencing rampant consumerism. Ornately decorated trucks roll out of Karachi day and night to meet the demand. By coincidence, many of these truckers actually filled Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s coffers in the early 1990s when they agreed to pay a Taliban “toll” at the border in return for an escort to fend off would-be “toll collectors” throughout Afghanistan. The truck traffic was so heavy that the Taliban were soon awash in money.
Consumerism is fueled by many sources: war dollars, drug-trafficking and other smuggling. But the largest creator of wealth in Central Asia is energy: natural gas in Turkmenistan, petroleum in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and hydropower in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Current statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show proven reserves for the region at 276 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 38 billion barrels of crude oil. These numbers will increase substantially with further exploration. Indeed, Vladimir Socor of the Jamestown Foundation states that “Central Asia is Europe’s natural gas and oil province by virtue of geographic proximity, magnitude of resources and cost-effectiveness of extraction and transportation. A direct energy connection between Europe and Central Asia would make it impossible for Russia to achieve political pre-emption in Europe or Central Asia.”
Central Asia is the next Middle East and is one reason the United States will remain in Afghanistan. Like the Middle East, Central Asia contains a volatile mix of ethnic diversity, vast energy wealth and transitional political structures. As the gateway to Central Asia, Afghanistan is a “choke point” in the parlance of military strategists and will be critical to the national security interests of the United States and its NATO allies through 2050.
Recognizing this fact, Unocal Oil Co. negotiated with the Taliban throughout its rule to build a pipeline through Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean, where super-tankers and carriers of liquefied natural gas could hook up, load up and service the world. Many visualized the beginning of a process that could result in the U.S. finally freeing itself from dependence on Middle Eastern oil and concomitant political turmoil.
Of immediate concern are Afghanistan’s neighbors to the east and west.
An increasingly unstable Pakistan has been a nuclear power for more than 20 years and is the home to the egregious proliferator, Abdul Qadeer Khan. Iran, notwithstanding recent election turmoil, is still firmly in the hands of the mullahs and hard-line Revolutionary Guards. Both are committed to the nuclear bomb and have astutely accumulated all the requisite elements necessary to assemble one in relatively short order.
Simply put, the United States is fortunate to be camped on each country’s doorstep to respond to any contingency. Look a little farther to the east or west and you have an Iraq in transition and a militarized border between two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan.
The United States came to Afghanistan not by choice, but to facilitate the martyrdom of an organization - al Qaeda - that had visited an unspeakable indignity on our country. An unforeseen and serendipitous consequence of this has been the acquisition of a base of operations from which the U.S. can ensure a decisive role in any regional contingency while continuing to make friends and ensure peace and stability in a critical region.
• Retired Maj. Gen. Tim Haake is a Washington lawyer who served on active and reserve duty in Special Operations for 36 years.