The War in Afghanistan: The legacy of Zbigniew Brzezinski and the Volatile Situation in Pakistan by CAN ERİMTAN*

The War in Afghanistan: The legacy of Zbigniew Brzezinski and the Volatile Situation in Pakistan  by CAN ERİMTAN*

October 07, 2010, Thursday/ 15:27:00
In a previous piece on the war in the Hindu Kush, I indicated how the involvement of the Reagan administration shaped the Afghan opposition to the Soviet presence in the country.
But scrutinizing the information available, it turns out that American involvement in the Afghan jihad against the Soviets in fact predated the ascendancy of the conservatives in the White House. During the presidency of Jimmy Carter (1977-81), the role of the national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, cannot be underestimated in this context. Brzezinski, as an American of Polish descent was then a rabid anti-Communist, and upon his appointment he immediately set up the Nationalities Working Group (NWG) dedicated to the idea of weakening the Soviet Union by inflaming ethnic tensions among subject Soviet peoples, primarily targeting the Islamic populations living under communism. He seems to have been particularly involved in the situation in Afghanistan, which wasn’t even part of the USSR. In an interview conducted by the well-known French journalist Vincent Jauvert, published in Le Nouvel Observateur (Jan. 15-21, 1998), Brzezinski made some astounding claims: “According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the mujahedeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, Dec. 24, 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise. Indeed, it was July 3, 1979, that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul and that very day I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.” He then qualifies his hyperbole somewhat: “We [the US] didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.”

The Carter administration thus willingly seems to have supported the mujahedeen and their foreign allies -- the “Afghan Arabs” -- in a bid to precipitate the Soviets’ intervention and their ultimate demise. The notorious Charlie Wilson famously exclaimed at the time, “We had 58,000 dead in Vietnam, and we owe the Russians one.” Upon Jauvert’s query regarding the Islamic blowback and its effects on contemporary society, Jimmy Carter’s one-time national security adviser simply retorted: “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?” In his fervor to defeat the Soviets, President Carter’s national security adviser did not shy away from fanning the flames of Islamic fundamentalism.

Mixed relations with the conservative Reagan administration

Following his stint in the Carter administration, Brzezinski had mixed relations with the conservative Reagan administration. As a result, he has since pursued a more academic line. Currently, Brzezinski is a professor of foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. As an academic, he has been quite prolific, and in the context of the war in Afghanistan and the much-vaunted TAPI project, his 1997 opus “The Grand Chessboard” is most revealing. The book reads like a blueprint for the execution of what we could call an “American Empire Project,” an expression used as the title of a book series published by Metropolitan Books. In his opus, Brzezinski put forward his contention that American world dominance is only feasible if Eurasia, “the center of world power,” is firmly in the grip of the US. He literally states that this area is “central to America’s capacity to exercise global primacy.” In the Eurasian landmass, Brzezinski insightfully foresaw that the “Central Asian region and the Caspian Sea basin” were to be of major importance in the 21st century, given their “reserves of natural gas and oil that dwarf those of Kuwait, the Gulf of Mexico or the North Sea.” Towards the end of the 20th century, Brzezinski suggested that the “oddly shaped Eurasian chessboard … provides the setting” for what he called “the game.” This game, so Brzezinski posited, is vital to “American hegemony” which manifests itself through “the exercise of decisive influence,” arguably leading to commercial benefits and monetary gains. Quite coincidentally, the great man was in İstanbul just a few days ago to attend the second Black Sea Energy and Economic Forum (Sept. 29-Oct. 1), an event organized by the Atlantic Council, and this time also supported by the Turkish Ministry of Finance and the Prime Ministry. Former US Ambassador to Turkey Ross Wilson hosted the event, and according to Today’s Zaman’s report, he explained that “the forum’s primary aim is to develop best policy solutions to help the region become a center for economic cooperation, investment and trade.” This is a position that seems to be a corollary to Brzezinski’s plan for American preponderance in the Eurasian theater.

In 2008, President Carter’s former national security adviser publicly endorsed the candidacy of Barack Obama. And he subsequently became an adviser to the Obama campaign. In December 2008, Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the Obama presidential campaign, declared that “Brzezinski is not a day-to-day adviser for the campaign, he is someone whose guidance Sen. Obama seeks on” Iraq and foreign affairs. Already the previous year, then-candidate Obama’s reliance on Brzezinski’s thinking seemed apparent when he urged “to get off the wrong battlefield in Iraq and take the fight to the terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Brzezinski continued to play an advising role into President Obama’s first year in office.

‘New Great Game’

Brzezinski’s “game” can easily be equated with Ahmed Rashid’s “New Great Game.” And at the moment, the US is clearly pursuing this competition in Afghanistan by means of their sponsorship of the TAPI pipeline project. America’s rival here could be understood as China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes Russia. A successful pipeline connecting Turkmenistan to India would deprive the Chinese and other SCO members of important gas imports. But the Middle Kingdom always plans for the long-term and had already secured the construction of the Turkmen-Kazakh-China pipeline in 2007 -- 7,000 kilometers of steel pipe at a staggering cost of $26 billion. In a way, one could say that the Chinese seem to have preempted America’s move by three years.

In spite of these strategic concerns hovering in the background, President Obama does not talk about any kind of “game” or about an economic motive in the pursuit of “American hegemony.” Instead he stresses the need to establish a stable Afghanistan in order to keep the US safe from terrorist plots, while simultaneously speaking of the virtues of a “just war.” During the speech he gave on the occasion of his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2009, President Obama stated the following: “And over time, as codes of law sought to control violence within groups, so did philosophers and clerics and statesmen seek to regulate the destructive power of war. The concept of a ‘just war’ emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when certain conditions were met: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense, if the force used is proportional and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.” In view of the recent spike in drone attacks in the north of Pakistan, his words sound shrill to say the least. Since Sept. 25 the US has kept up a daily barrage of rockets fired by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that have supposedly killed numerous militants but also undoubtedly taken their toll on the civilian population. On Thursday, Sept. 30, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) even conducted a cross-border helicopter attack into Mandato Kandaou in the Ali Mangola area of Upper Kurram Agency of Pakistan, allegedly killing three Pakistani soldiers and injuring three others. In Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, Hussain Afzal and Iftikhar A. Khan wrote that the Frontier Corps “retaliated with rifle fire to indicate that the helicopters were crossing into Pakistan’s territory. Instead of heeding the warning, the helicopters fired two missiles, destroying the post.” The government of Pakistan’s patience has now finally run out and authorities have closed down a key supply route for US-led forces in Afghanistan -- the Torkham route that furnished 80 percent of American needs, including all the fuel used in Afghanistan. On Iran’s English-language broadcaster Press TV, the eminent specialist Dilip Hiro remarked that the “only other place [the Americans] are getting something comes through from Uzbekistan and goes to [the southern Uzbek border city of] Termez. The supply comes through a rail road and goes to Bagram on the road. That is the only other inlet and this particular inlet cannot replace the 80 percent supply that comes from Pakistan.” In the past days the Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan [TTP]) has carried out four attacks on NATO convoys in the country. Azam Tariq, a TTP spokesman, told a foreign wire service on Monday, Oct. 4, that the TTP “accept responsibility for the attacks on the NATO supply trucks and tankers.”

It seems that in aggressively pursuing the legacy of Brzezinski’s Afghanistan policy, President Obama’s reliance on drone attacks has now unleashed a volatile situation in Pakistan, a situation that could seriously backfire and badly hurt America’s interests in the region and further afield in the weeks and months to come.


*Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent scholar residing in İstanbul. He has a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the

Balkans and the wider Middle East. His publications include the book

“Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles.