NEW YORK -- Partisans of President George Bush's jihad against Islamic opponents have been crowing that the quick military victory in Afghanistan showed that America's power is irresistible. War can indeed be waged with almost no US casualties. The old Afghan hands who cautioned against plunging into Afghanistan were dead wrong, gleefully chorus right-wing hawks.
Hardly any of them have ever been to Afghanistan or neighboring regions. All past invaders, beginning with Alexander's Macedonians, found it extremely easy to get into Afghanistan - and exceptionally painful to get out. That is the point this column has been making since early October.
It took the Soviet Army exactly two days in late 1979 to occupy Afghanistan, and 10 years to extricate itself. It has taken the United States - admittedly much further away - five weeks to scatter a force of medieval tribesmen and occupy southern Afghanistan. This time around, Russia occupied the north through its proxy forces in two weeks.
Though most North Americans believe the Afghan war is over, in fact we are only seeing the beginning of what augurs to be a long, confused, murky struggle in this strategic but chaotic nation. The growing American military presence in Afghanistan means its garrison troops are likely to become embroiled in lethal Afghan tribal politics and face a low but persistent number of casualties from skirmish and accidents - just what happened to the Soviet garrison in the 1980s.
Right now, the US has bought temporary loyalty from tribal chiefs, but this situation could quickly change as Afghans chafe under the growing American presence and resent being ordered about by foreigners. Canadian troops in Afghanistan will face the same threats.
One thing is clear: the United States is inexorably getting drawn deeper and deeper into South and Central Asia. Empires expand through war or trade. The American Empire - which this column has long called the American Raj - has in recent weeks made a decisive move to the east. Just as the US used the 1991 Gulf War to force its Arab clients to permit stationing of permanent US garrisons in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, so the US is now using the so-called war on terrorism and the hunt for Osama bin Laden to expand its military influence into South/Central Asia.
The reason is both simple and complex: oil. Washington is determined to dominate the world's richest new source of oil, Central Asia's Caspian Basin, over which sit the former Soviet states of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgystan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. Well before Sept. 11, the US already had special forces operating in Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan. Last spring, Osama bin Laden advised the unworldly Taliban regime to turn down a low bid from the US oil firm Unocal to build a pipeline to export Central Asian oil - awarding it instead to a rival Argentine firm. The US cut off discreet financial aid to Taliban and began updating contingency plans to invade Afghanistan and install a compliant regime. Events of Sept. 11 facilitated this decision.
The US is now establishing permanent military bases near Kandahar, where units of its elite 101st Airborne Div. will replace Marines as a semi-permanent garrison. Three other permanent US bases are being prepared. Three more are operational in Pakistan. All these new bases will be linked to and supplied by much larger US military bases in Arabia and the Gulf. Washington will use the same formula as in its Mideast oil Raj: keep friendly dictatorial regimes in power and crush their internal opponents in exchange for military bases, large arms purchases and cheap oil.
The Bush administration, egged on by the big oil lobby, is determined to dominate the Caspian Basin gold rush. However, US military forces are already stretched extremely thin; involvement in Central Asia will strain them severely and require a higher defense budget. The US already spends over $30 billion annually to base troops in Arabia and the Gulf - from which the US gets only 7% of its oil.
Russia is already maneuvering against the US in Central Asia and Afghanistan. China is watching the arrival of US troops on its highly sensitive western borders and the new US/Indian strategic alliance with mounting concern. These are dangerous waters, in a part of the world the US little knows.
The US charge into remote Central Asia, led by a president who calls Pakistanis "Pakis," looks increasingly like a case of imperial overreach - a bridge too far even for the world's sole superpower.
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