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General Stanley McChrystal’s still-secret, but by now widely circulated report about the best way forward in Afghanistan – including his request for additional troops – is dividing Obama’s advisors into three factions.  The argument swirls around how best to shape American manpower, money and machines for a “win” in Afghanistan – after eight years of fighting.  The discussion is now encompassing the question of how to come to grips with Afghanistan as part of a broader South Asian strategy.

One faction – supported by many in Obama’s team, including Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defence Gates — follows the instinct to move American and NATO forces back to major cities, towns and defensive strongpoints, attempt to train the Afghan forces more effectively, and then allow these local forces to tackle Taliban’s insurgents. The second approach – the military’s favourite — is to increase American forces by between 20,000 to 60,000 men and women so that they can then take on the Taliban in wide-ranging strikes — something of the military’s standard response to ward off potential battlefield defeats and score a knock-out.

Then there is a third option, favoured by Vice President Biden. This option argues that since local al Qaeda forces have, to a large degree, substantially vacated Afghanistan for the rugged mountains of Pakistan’s northwest frontier, the real place to beat al Qaeda is where they are – rather than where they aren’t.  This third option assumes that the current Afghan government will then figure out a way to find a kind of modus vivendi with the Taliban inside Afghanistan.  Americans could then declare victory, furl the flags, vacate the premises and go home. A key part of this Pakistan option is the proposed $1.5 billion a year aid package to strengthen both the military and civilian spheres.

Increasingly, this strategic policy discussion has begun to see Afghanistan as part of a larger South Asian environment, rather than as an isolated circumstance. An early indication of this was the appointment of Richard Holbrooke as US special envoy to Afghanistan/Pakistan (or Pakistan/Afghanistan depending on which country was seen as more important). Afghanistan and Pakistan are neighbours, they share ethnic groups, people move back and forth across that border, insurgents move across that same border.  Moreover, what happens in Pakistan and to Pakistan matters to India as well.  What happens in the region has implications for Iran, for the Central Asian republics and Russia – and for China with its increasingly unhappy, primarily Muslim, western region of Xinjiang.    

In all of this, if one listens carefully, one can hear the faint echo of “The Great Game” – the struggle between Russia and Britain in the latter part of the 19th century in central Asia. 

However, the differences between the past and today are crucial for understanding today’s challenges.  In today’s version of the power balance in Central and South Asia, while the Russians continue to have an interest, they have been minor participants since their defeat and withdrawal from Afghanistan.  The Chinese role remains but is more specifically in terms of their rivalry with that other billion-plus Asian society – India – or in their concern over any growth in Islamic fervour in Xinjiang in the far western part of China. 

Thus, the real key to the region’s future is Pakistan.

(Read the Pakistan installment in our Powder Keg Chronicles next.)

By Brooks Spector


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