The current war against terrorism has many dimensions. In the last article of this series, we studied what form military action might take. The more important and difficult element of this struggle, however, will be building and maintaining support throughout the region.
While the risks are tremendous, we must also remember that crises present opportunities as well. Measured use of force and skillful diplomacy could build ties and heal wounds between the United States and old adversaries, but this necessitates an understanding of the interests and concerns of each player in this complex diplomatic picture. As we examine each country in the region, consider the roles they may play in supporting the military campaign currently underway, promoting stability in the region afterwards and continuing the campaign against terrorism in the years ahead.
Success in the struggle against terrorists will require attention to key problems throughout Southwest Asia and the rest of the Muslim world. In the near-term, however, particular attention must be focused on two groups of actors: major regional powers and vital neighbors of Afghanistan.
The major powers in the region are Russia and the former Soviet Republics, China and India. While the former Soviet Republics are not homogeneous, the degree of Russia’s influence and control over them renders individual distinctions among them comparatively unimportant for this discussion. Russia’s position in the region and influence in Eastern Europe and the UN enable it to significantly limit Alliance military alternatives in Afghanistan. Some Russian leaders might secretly enjoy watching America bruised in the country from which they were ousted with American help, but Russia stands far more to gain by supporting Alliance actions in Afghanistan.
First, Russia has problems with Islamic insurgents in Chechnya and has chafed at Western criticism of its harsh war against them. Not only would a weakening of the Taliban and Islamic terrorists by extension weaken Islamic forces the Russians are fighting, but also would subdue criticism from the West, giving them a freer hand to act as they please. Second, Russia yearns to reassert control over the former Soviet Republics. Islamic insurgencies in these countries – Uzbekistan in particular – and the Alliance’s need for support in Afghanistan, provide the ideal pretext for an expanded Russian military and political presence in these countries. Last, Russia has a long list of things it wants from the U.S., including a scaling back of the proposed national missile defense system and reduced Western influence in former Soviet Republics, including the NATO candidacy of the Ukraine and the Baltic States. For their assistance in Afghanistan, the Russians are collecting valuable chips they will soon cash in, so don’t be surprised to see NATO expansion plans quietly scaled back in the near future.
China’s interests in the region are less significant than those of Russia or India, but its power in East Asia and problems with Islamic militants in Xinjiang make it an important part of the equation. China’s chief concern here is limiting any expansion of American influence in Asia. The massive reduction in American military strength over the past decade has limited the U.S. in its ability to simultaneously wage a regional campaign in South Asia and maintain a strong conventional presence in the Western Pacific. A renewed threat by Chinese hard-liners to forcefully re-integrate Taiwan could stretch American resources to the point where operations in Afghanistan would have to be curtailed.
While China could thus complicate the situation for the Alliance, moderates within China know that support for the endeavor presents a great opportunity to mend relationships with the U.S. strained in the past year. They can succeed only if the U.S. can convince China through words and deeds that the American presence will be brief and of limited scale. Alliance actions in Afghanistan must prove that its goal is not the bolstering of Western influence in the region, but instead the elimination of terrorists, which benefits China as well.
India is a far more complicated situation. This crisis erupted just as relations were improving between the U.S. and India. Now India finds U.S. attentions focused on Pakistan – its regional rival with which it has an ongoing border dispute and simmering military conflict in Kashmir. India’s opportunities for gain are dwarfed by its risks, but worth noting. Many of the more extreme Islamic paramilitaries India is fighting in Kashmir are from Afghanistan, supported by the Taliban and supporters within Pakistan. Defeat of the Taliban would reduce the support such paramilitaries receive. Also, increased Western economic and political support of Pakistan could bolster democratic forces within that country, increasing the chances of a peaceful resolution of the Kashmiri conflict and other sources of tension between the countries.
The downside risks, however, are massive. The worst-case scenario is that Pakistani government support for the Alliance could detonate Pakistan’s volatile domestic situation, resulting in civil war or outright control by elements similar to the Taliban. This would doubtless bolster the forces opposing India in Kashmir, but of far greater concern would be control of Pakistan’s limited nuclear arsenal. With more extreme elements in possession of Pakistan’s atomic weapons, India would justifiably feel more threatened than ever and the tensions between these countries would be pushed to dangerous new heights. Alliance members must therefore encourage India’s patience and restraint while respecting its legitimate fears and the possibility that extremists could exploit them in order to destabilize the region.
Afghanistan’s vital neighbors – Pakistan and Iran – will play critical roles in this conflict. Pakistan is arguably the most important country in this first phase of the war against terrorism for obvious reasons. Since its military intelligence agency helped bring the Taliban to power, Pakistan has been their only friend. The Sunni Taliban have oppressed their Shiite minority, leading two million of them to flee into neighboring Shiite Iran and have fostered militant insurgencies in every other country on Afghanistan’s border. Pakistan’s generals gradually lost control of their former pawns and have since appeased and supported the Taliban largely in order to direct their energies elsewhere. As Pakistan ceases this support, the Taliban will have no friends to look to. Pakistan’s historic ties to the Taliban make it an indispensable intelligence resource, as well.
Pakistan’s geography makes it essential to the armed efforts against the Taliban and their terrorist “guests.” Barring Russian support for American fighter squadrons in their former republics – an unlikely prospect – all of the heavy tactical air support for troops on the ground must come from carrier-based navy fighters. This requires overflight of either Iran or Pakistan, the latter being the only realistic option.
As the conflict progresses, Pakistan’s support will be crucial in maintaining support for the operation throughout the Muslim world. Perhaps the greatest challenge, however, will be maintaining the very stability of Pakistan itself. While ruled by a moderate military dictatorship, Pakistan is home to many sympathetic to the Taliban who would like to see Pakistan under a similar government. Now that the Taliban have come under attack by Western forces, these elements are going to be increasingly incited to action against those who support the Alliance. This includes the Pakistani government.
Only through skillful political maneuvering and carefully executed internal security measures can the Pakistani government avoid a revolution or civil war, but this also requires one element beyond its control. The domestic tranquility of Pakistan depends largely on how quickly the Alliance’s military action is brought to a conclusion and how
justly the war is seen to have been fought. While some will deem support for any American involvement unacceptable, most Pakistanis would likely support their government if the Alliance’s military action harms as few civilians as possible and departs quickly, proving that it was indeed fighting terrorism and not Islam.
Iran, as mentioned above, is no friend to the Taliban. Provided the American presence is limited and brief, there is little likelihood that relations between the U.S. and Iran would be worsened by this endeavor. Rather, moderates in Iran led by President Khatami could be bolstered in their drive for better relations with the West if the war is fought with restraint and Shiite Afghan refugees are able to return home. While failure in this could further entrench Iran’s conservatives in their animosity towards the U.S., improved relations with Iran could be one of the brightest outcomes of a successfully fought action in Afghanistan.
Successful operations in Afghanistan depend on the actions of and conditions in the countries discussed above. Satisfaction of their concerns will likely maintain the support for the time being of key actors throughout the Muslim world. However, this support cannot be taken for granted. There are many underlying tensions throughout these culturally and politically diverse countries that must be addressed if the U.S. is to be seen as it likes to see itself – as an advocate of freedom and democracy and fair broker undeserving of hatred. We will discuss this war for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world in the next article.