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Afghanistan and the contest for power

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The US-NATO war in Afghanistan has dragged on for nearly eight long years. It has failed to bring sustainability or security from violence, and Afghans continue to suffer from an economy that has fallen on its knees after three decades of continuous warfare.

The national government cannot far project its authority past the capital city, Kabul. Beyond this area, the seal of state power must be delivered at gun point, not by the Afghan National Army or Police, but by foreign forces. A 2008 US government report concluded that, out of a total force of 80,000, not a single national police unit is "fully capable of performing its mission and over three-fourths of units… are assessed at the lowest capability rating." The Afghan National Army is not much better.

So you have an Afghan security force that is embedded with handlers, and trainers from NATO countries, dependent on the military power and the logistical capacity of Western troops. Not exactly the perfect picture of self-sufficiency.

The local government is also permeated by foreign observers and advisers, through foreign government experts, and the UN. These informal power blocs dole out money to an otherwise financially unsustainable Afghan state. The total cost of the national army and police, an estimated US$3.5 billion annually, is many times greater than the entire revenue of the government, even before the planned expansion of an already bloated local security forces.

The continued spiral of violence and chaos has justified the long presence of foreign troops in an already war ravaged country that sits between three of the US’s geopolitical rivals: Russia, China, and Iran.

The irony of the failure to bring peace to the region by waging a US-led war in the pursuit of justice against Al Qaeda and in the name of a feckless militarized humanitarian mission has given the US and NATO justification to seek out military bases and maintain a military presence in Central Asia. The war can justify the appropriation of large sums of government budgets to reshape not just Afghanistan, but the region, through military action as well as by vigorous diplomatic maneuvering.

"It is imperative that no Eurasian challenger emerges, capable of dominating Eurasia and thus of also challenging America," writes Zbigniew Brzezinski in his book, the 'Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives.' Brzezinski was the national security adviser to former US president Jimmy Carter.

Brzezinski adds that, "in that context, how America 'manages' Eurasia is critical... A power that dominates Eurasia would control two of the world's three most advanced and economically productive regions. A mere glance at the map also suggests that control over Eurasia would almost automatically entail Africa's subordination, rendering the Western Hemisphere and Oceania geopolitically peripheral to the world's central continent. About 75 percent of the world's people live in Eurasia, and most of the world's physical wealth is there as well, both in its enterprises and underneath its soil. Eurasia accounts for about three-fourths of the world’s known energy resources."

This continent-spanning contest, termed the Great Game, pivots around Central Asia, a region that happens to be instrumental to the emergence of the New Silk Road: an energy superhighway of oil and gas pipelines that is growing increasingly important.

Meanwhile, the UN estimates that the number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan has risen sharply, 40% higher in 2008 than in the previous year. The number of civilian dead rose to 2,118 last year. The report claims that 39% of these deaths were caused by coalition and Afghan forces, in great part as a result of air strikes.

The commitment of more US troops, trainers, and resources as well as the policy to expand the war into north western Pakistan implies that we should not expect a turn away from war in the short term. The emphasis has shifted within Eurasia, from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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