Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Analysis of Peter Tomsen, "Rethinking American Policy In Afghanistan"

I recently had the privilege of hearing a lecture at the World Affairs Council of Northern California from Peter Tomsen, a former U.S. diplomat and expert on Afghanistan.  His lecture covered a wide swath of Afghan history and linked the U.S. counterinsurgency effort to the historical experiences of other empires that entered Afghanistan.  He did of course plug his book The Wars Of Afghanistan, but his lecture was far more than a summary of the book's chapters.

Mr. Tomsen argued that the U.S.'s entry into Afghanistan, like that of empires before, ignored the history of Afghanistan as a primarily tribal nation with a weak central government astride the "high ground" of Central Asia.  High ground is usually more valuable in a tactical sense than a strategic one, but the rationale for a foreign presence in Afghanistan is more nuanced.  The country was a waystation on the Silk Road trade routes between China and the West, and the Khyber Pass has long been the gateway for imperial invasions (first Indian, then British) into Central Asia. 

Afghanistan's only real period of regional hegemony, the Durrani Empire, existed in the interregnum between the decline of India's Mogul empire and the rise of Britain and Russia.  I found it interesting that Mr. Tomsen didn't mention that Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's President since the American invasion, is from a tribe that traces its lineage to the Durrani ruling family.  That is doubtless one of the sources for his legitimacy.   

At any rate, Mr. Tomsen dropped some interesting tidbits:
- U.S. outsourcing its Afghan policy to Pakistan after the Soviet withdrawal was a big mistake. 
- All three major Taliban fronts in Afghanistan - the Quetta Shura, the Haqqani network, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's faction - are run by the Pakistani ISI
- Over 80% of the suicide bombers in Afghanistan are Pakistani!
- Iran meddles in Afghanistan; it seeks a broader regional role to counter potential encirclement by Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan.
- China likes using Pakistan as a hedge against India and would not necessarily endorse any U.S. containment of Pakistani Islamic militancy, even if that risked stirring up Islamic separatists in its own "East Turkestan."

His take on Pakistan's perception of Afghanistan as a source of strategic depth in a potential fight against India is an invaluable insight for Americans trying to understand the "Af-Pak" equation.  Pakistan viewed India's diplomatic opening to Afghanistan with suspicion; this in turn stoked further Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan to thwart encirclement by India.  I have a pet thesis that compares Pakistan to Prussia in light of a major strategic similarity:  Both countries' militarized elites exported instability into their respective "greater abroads" to compensate for their lack of internal unity. 

My interpretation of Mr. Tomsen's arguments includes the following:
- The American emphasis on building strong national Afghan institutions like a central government and modern army has upset the historical equilibrium between Kabul and the countryside.
- Leaning hard on Pakistan to clean up its act and pursue terrorists is impossible as long as the primary line of communication (LOC) for NATO/ISAF's force runs through Karachi.  The so-called "northern corridor" through the 'stans is insufficient for handling military logistics due to the different rail gauges in use.  NATO and the U.S. thus have little alternative but to rely upon ground logistics delivered from the port of Karachi through Pakistan by road, with all the pilferage and bribery that entails. 
- Iran's dispatch of warships through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean was more than a strategic breakout directed against Israel.  It could also have sent a message to Central Asian rivals. 
- Pakistan will keep playing the U.S. for a fool as long as it has China as a back-up hegemon.  The only thing that would radically change this equation in the U.S.'s favor would be a clear strategic tilt toward India.  A shift on that scale would really spook Beijing but would only be viable after a large U.S. drawdown eliminates the need for a LOC through Pakistan. 

Mr. Tomsen eventually argued for taking a long-term view in American foreign policy toward the region.  I'll offer my own proposed policy approach.  A stable Afghanistan would be open for business in both continental trade and local resource exploration.  It remains to be seen whether the U.S. estimates of trillion-dollar metal deposits are recoverable, as the aerial electromagnetic surveys used to derive those estimates are not nearly as accurate as multiple drill core samples from likely veins.  Stepping back from involvement in Kabul-centric nation-building will help restore Afghanistan's traditional equilibrium and give us more flexibility in dealing with the country's regional power-brokers (read "warlords" if you will, but that's how business gets done with the leading tribes).  If the U.S. wants to forestall Chinese dominance of Afghan mineral resources, we must make deals now with tribal and regional leaders who will be around regardless of who governs in Kabul.