While Washington D.C. frets over military stalemate and troop levels, American policy in Afghanistan and South Asia is about to be overtaken by events, which potentially could render the U.S. strategically irrelevant for a generation or more.
Even the dimmest foreign policy analyst should recognize by now that the U.S. and NATO cannot succeed in Afghanistan without a significant change in the strategic environment because Pakistan controls the operational tempo of the war and the supply of our troops.
Furthermore, the South Asian strategic deck chairs are being rearranged by regional powers in such a way that the U.S. will be left standing when the music stops.
The future of South Asia is now being determined by two contending economic alliances, China-Pakistan and India-Iran-Russia, neither of which envisions the U.S. as a participant.
In other words, given the trajectory of strategic developments in South Asia, the U.S. will have little or nothing to show for its enormous expenditure of blood and treasure in Afghanistan.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and, more broadly, the Belt and Road Initiative are China’s attempt to extend its strategic reach to the Indian Ocean, East Africa and the Middle East. That approach is similar to what China is doing in Southeast Asia, building artificial islands in the South China Sea as military and logistical bases. Similar Chinese bases are being built in Djibouti and Gwadar, Balochistan, Pakistan’s southwest province, which will allow China to extend its military reach to the entrances of the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf, respectively.
In competition to CPEC, Iran and India, both allies of Russia, are implementing a similar project in the Iranian port of Chabahar, which is about 45 miles west of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea. Road and rail links will connect Chabahar to other parts of Iran and then on to Central Asia, Russia and Afghanistan, where the estimated $3 trillion in untapped Afghan mineral resources can be exploited.
The U.S. has only one card to play – Balochistan.
Balochistan, rich in natural resources, is an ethnically mixed transnational region spanning southwestern Pakistan, eastern Iran and southern Afghanistan, where the Baloch people, who have their own language and culture and have a reputation for secularism and tolerance, constitute the majority of the population.
A large section of ethnic Balochistan, independent at the time, was forcible incorporated into Pakistan by an invasion of the Pakistani Army after the partition of India in 1947. Since then, Balochistan has been the home of a festering insurgency waged by Baloch nationalists against the governments of Pakistan and Iran.
The ports of Chabahar, Iran and Gwadar, Pakistan are Balochi.
Balochistan’s natural resources have been plundered by Pakistan and Iran. Pakistani nuclear tests were conducted there without the permission of the Baloch people and the region has been subjected to military oppression for decades to extinguish ethnic aspirations and to maintain Balochistan as a de facto colony of Pakistan and Iran.
Pakistan has used Balochistan as an incubator and operational base for the Taliban and other terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, a fully owned and operated subsidiary of Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI. Having adopted radical Islam as an element of its national policy, Pakistan has become a willing or unwilling host to The Islamic State, which is now conducting terrorist operations in Balochistan.
The Baloch people are natural allies of the U.S. and an independent Balochistan could dampen regional terrorism, offer a more reliable sea-land link to Afghanistan, oppose Iranian regional hegemony and counter Chinese military expansionism.
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired US Army Reserve colonel, an IT command and control subject matter expert, trained in Arabic and Kurdish, and a veteran of Afghanistan, northern Iraq and a humanitarian mission to West Africa. He receives email at [email protected]