Afutilestan (VII): The Great Game Revisited

President Obama demonstrating the logic of his Afghanistan policy

Geography is destiny, Napoleon is reported to have said.

I began to appreciate that political truism early on, thanks to marathon games of  Risk I  played as a kid.  According to Wikipedia, Risk was originally released in France in 1957, as La Conquête du Monde—The Conquest of the World. It was likely modeled on the period of history that historians call The Great Game, a designation for the 19th century struggle between the Russian and British empires for supremacy over Afghanistan and all of Central Asia.

A second iteration of the Great Game occurred in the early 20th century after the Bolshevik Revolution. Britain and Russia reconciled in the face of German expansionism, an arrangement that continued  up until the Second World War.

We have now entered the third phase, The Age of Petroleum Politics, where the goal is not the control of large swaths of land, but of lucrative pipeline routes running from the vast oil and gas reserves of  the Caspian Sea region to rapidly industrializing countries like India.

It is against this backdrop that President Obama‘s decision to massively escalate the war in Afghanistan needs to be evaluated, and not against a recycled version of the immoral preventive war policy propagated by the Bush-Cheney Administration.

As described here and elsewhere, Obama’s rationale is a study in pretzel logic, to wit: increasing the amount of foreign occupiers is supposed to produce less insurgents, not more;  that the utterly corrupt Karzai government will suddenly transform itself into a benign force for good, a key requirement of General McChrystal’s COIN strategy (last summer, Hamid Karzai successfully resisted intensive US pressure to oust his drug dealing brother and other criminals from his government); that after eight years of failed attempts to create a viable Afghan security force, one can be stood up in a mere 18 months; that the country’s 40,000 tribal villages are even amenable to interacting with a central government, let alone such a corrupt one, etc., etc.

As for the details of the escalation itself, a parade of Administration officials were called to The Hill yesterday to explain them. Poor SecDef  Bob Gates ended up speaking out both sides of his mouth, explaining to Carl Levin that the drawdown date of July 2011 was firm while telling John McCain and his BFF Senator Huckleberry it wasn’t.

The logistics are a nightmare, given that the only overland route into Afghanistan is from Pakistan through the Khyber Pass, which is now subject to frequent attacks by the Taliban (one reason why gasoline in Afghanistan costs $400 per gallon). That means that the US is going to have to airlift those 30,000 troops and all their equipment at great cost to the American taxpayer (spun by the Obama Administration as a decisive acceleration that would speed up their eventual exit rather than a matter of battlefield necessity).

Let’s take a closer look at the overarching rationale of the entire Afghanistan occupation— that it will somehow make us safer against almighty Al Qaeda, and subject it to some basic cost-benefit  analysis. In last month’s issue of  Foreign Policy, terrorism expert Peter Bergen (the last Westerner to interview Usama Bin Laden) estimated that any future attack by Al Qaeda on American soil would likely result in a death toll measured in the dozens, not thousands:

Indeed, it is my assessment that the al Qaeda organization today no longer poses a direct national security threat to the United States itself, but rather poses a second-order threat in which the worst case scenario would be an al Qaeda-trained or inspired terrorist managing to pull off an attack on the scale of something in between the 1993 Trade Center attack, which killed six, and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, which killed 168. While this, of course, would be tragic, it would not constitute a mass-casualty attack sufficiently large in scale to reorient U.S. national security policy completely as the 9/11 attacks did.

Now, one can quibble whether Obama’s decision to double down in Afghanistan constitutes a reorientation of US national security policy. But can we really separate the notions of national and economic security? Is not one dependent on the other?

What of the opportunity costs of committing yet more hundreds of billions of dollars to securing and rebuilding Afghanistan when we’re already enduring a Great Recession here at home? What of our economically vital national infrastructure’s advancing state of decay? (Here in L.A. we’ve had numerous water main breaks, and California’s road system is the worst in the nation, save for one other.)  How can we be competitive with world powers like China, whose government is dealing with the collapse of the western world’s financial structure by investing some of its savings in modernizing its economic infrastructure?

What of the price in economic and human terms of enduring additional thousands of additional American casualties? Is it worth creating even more terrorists by pissing off an entire new generation of Muslims? Is it worth watching another 45,000 Americans die next year from a lack of affordable health care; or enduring another million people losing their homes; or standing by helpless as our public school system slides off the educational cliff? What of the 20% of American that are either underemployed or without work altogether? Or the sixty million Americans who don’t have access to basic banking services, most of whom rely on pawn shops and check cashing storefronts to put cash in their pockets?

Is doubling down in Afghanistan worth watching the slow motion death of America’s middle class? Of condemning our children’s children’s children to a lifetime of debilitating national debt? Ask the average American— jobless, without health care, on the verge of losing his or her home— whether he or she isn’t willing to accept the risk of being killed by a terrorist in exchange for even minimal economic security and the personal dignity that comes with it.

Our country’s founders didn’t set out on their improbable journey of independence and freedom cowering in a corner, willing to give up anything and everything if only the government would guarantee their personal safety from the imperial British Army, Hessian mercenaries,  tribes of wild injuns or whatever.  To quote Team America— Fuck No!  Americans, by nature and history, are not wimps.

So that brings us back to the main reason we’re still in Afghanistan, which is the same reason we invaded Iraq and overthrew  the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953— the transnational oil and gas companies expect our military insure their investments. (Iran’s Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadeq,  nationalized British Petroleum‘s Abbadan refinery, which at the time was the largest in the world.)  Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan doesn’t have much, if any, of its own hydrocarbon reserves.  But it does have what every real estate investor values most— location, location, location.

Which brings us to the proposed TAPI pipeline, a $7.6 billion project that will run 1,040 miles through Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and terminate in India. (TAPI is derived from the first letters of each country.)  In the planning stage since the mid 1990’s— UNOCAL spent some $10 million surveying the route but later withdrew from the project— it is slated to begin construction next year, beginning with the Turkestan leg.

And by golly gee, wouldn’t you know that the Afghanistan portion will run through the very same area where General McChrystal plans to locate those 30,000 additional US troops— southern Afghanistan.

The history of the TAPI Pipeline is a fascinating one. It explains better than anything the pretzel logic underlying Obama’s decision to double down in Afghanistan now, at a time we can least afford it.  It’s a history I will explore in greater detail in a future post.

But to tease it just a bit, it stars Conoco Oil’s local representative at the time, Hamid Karzai, and notes the role he played in convincing the Taliban government to sign onto the original deal. And how, by subsequently demanding a larger share of the huge revenues the pipeline is expected to generate, the Taliban made themselves ripe for regime change, as had Saddam Hussein after he refused to take US dollars for his oil. Probably just a coincidence that both were overthrown by an oil guy from Texas and a pipeline guy from Wyoming during the time they occupied the White House together.  (Cue the 9/11 conspiracy soundtrack.)

Until then, folks, take Deep Throat‘s advice and just follow the money. It’s better than choking on a pretzel.  Just ask George W. Bush.




One comment

  1. Prop, really excellent read and analysis; as usual, you’ve connected some dots that most Americans simply refuse to. You can’t have a war or two that doesn’t also brutalize society’s values, and the longer it takes us to realize playing world oil sheriff is not America’s role the more damage it will continue to do to us as a people.

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